Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

“Caught With Their Hand In The Cookie Jar,” Or Why The World Is Pretending To Be Surprised About Iran’s Nuclear Program

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

From the article  “Obama’s Iran Trap” in Foreign Policy:

The conventional wisdom on last week’s astonishing revelations about Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment site, tucked in a mountainside near the holy city of Qom, holds that Barack Obama has just pulled off a diplomatic coup, raising the pressure on Tehran going into a critical Oct. 1 big-powers meeting and finally getting the Russians to agree to U.N. sanctions with real bite.

First off, you should treat any paragraph that begins with “the conventional wisdom” with deep skepticism, because what it really means is “what the chattering class thinks” and that’s never a good barometer of reality.  Secondly, how in the world is the fact that Iran has multiple sites for its nuclear program an astonishing revelation? Even cable news has been talking about this for four years, how airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear installations would involve hundreds of sorties on dozens of targets. Is the fact that President Ahmadinejad disclosed the existence of just one of the numerous sites that even the public knows exists, let alone the CIA or Mossad, really all that jaw-dropping?

Don’t be so sure. Obama may not have had much choice given that Iran had just notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its new nuke plant, but the U.S. president is the one with a problem now. By revealing this information, he has painted himself into a corner and made an Israeli strike more likely.

Obama has not painted himself into any sort of corner with this declaration. Here’s why. This “astonishing” announcement is just yet another in a series of posturing United Nations pressers that have been going on since former president Bush threw down the gauntlet concerning the Iranian nuclear program years ago, and almost all of it has been for naught.

And the chance of an Israeli strike on Iran  against the wishes of  Washington is virtually nil. A little known story is that at the end of the Bush Administration, then-Prime Minister Olmert had decided that Israel would take out the nuclear facilites at Natanz and other sites with, of all things, nuclear bunker-busters, to reach the facilities deep underground. Apparently oblivious to the irony, the Israelis approached the Bush White House with a request for the latest in air-dropped tactical nukes, and Olmert was told in no uncertain terms by Bob Gates and Condi Rice that the United States would not support it. The strikes, which were far enough along that pilots were already flying practice sorties, were quietly  scrapped.

Besides that, an Israeli attack into Iran would require traversing Iraqi airspace. Under the new Status of Forces agreement, Iraqi airspace actually belongs to the Iraqis again, and their Shi’ite-dominated government is very buddy-buddy with the mullahs.

For one thing, it’s not clear that “the Russians” have really agreed to sanctions. Yes, President Dmitry Medvedev emerged from his meeting with Obama last week to suggest he was on board. And we know that U.S. national security advisor James L. Jones pulled aside Sergei Prikhodko, his Russian counterpart, to tell him the news about the second Iranian plant. (Officially Medvedev’s advisor, Prikhodko is really Putin’s top foreign-policy boss, and chances are he accompanied Medvedev to New York to be the prime minister’s ears and eyes on the ground.)

What we don’t know is what Putin thinks. But as demonstrated last year when the prime minister abruptly left the Olympics to supervise the war with Georgia, he’s still very much in charge. (Right on schedule, a Russian foreign ministry source reportedly said today that everyone should “calm down” over Iran’s latest missile test and “not give way to emotions.”) And then there’s China, which came out with a typically milquetoast statement after Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy made their dramatic announcement Thursday morning at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Everyone knows that serious sanctions mean fuel, as Iran, for all its oil, still has to import a great deal of refined petroleum (just how much is disputed) to make its economy run. But the Chinese get 15 percent of their oil from Iran. Needless to say, getting meaningful sanctions through the U.N. Security Council is far from assured.

It really doesn’t matter whether or not sanctions are actually pushed through the Security Council, Iran has been under sanctions for well over a decade and doesn’t seem too distraught about it. The only sanctions that would truly hurt them would be oil sanctions, but there is no way in hell China or especially Britain would ever go for that. The faux-dramatic press conference is just the usual dog-and-pony show while the real action takes place in the smoky back room.

The real dope is that whether or not the Russians will support tougher economic sanctions against Iran, they are in a position to make Iran’s life difficult in much more meaningful ways. They are their main arms supplier and have been supplying them with nuclear tech and know-how. The deal that was struck to scrap the anti-ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe seems to have been a straight-up horse trade with Medvedev (well, Putin really, as the article points out): Russia gets breathing room in the Near Abroad, and America gets transit rights involving Afghanistan and a stronger public stance from Moscow on an Iranian nuclear breakout. How much pressure Medvedev is willing to apply outside the auspices of the UN is the real question.

. . . .[T]he Iran issue is going to become a major headache for Obama. It’s going to strengthen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument that Iran’s nuclear program, not West Bank settlements or the plight of the Palestinians, is the real crisis in the Middle East. It’s going to put wind in the sails of neoconservatives and Republicans in Washington, who are all too eager to paint the U.S. president as weak and ineffectual when Tehran doesn’t buckle. What is Barack going to do then? Bomb Iran himself and wreck his Middle East hopes? Let Iran go nuclear and turn the nonproliferation regime into a sick joke? Give sanctions “time to work” — and consign a generation of Iranians to radicalism, growing ethnic strife, and crushing poverty?

I’m not sure how much of a headache it’s really going to be, considering that no one in any position to affect American foreign policy should give a tinker’s damn what the American neoconservatives or the Likudniks (the Israeli neocons), especially Netanyahu, after seven years of watching that failed ideology drive our country’s national security and international clout off a cliff. Of course, there is a valid point to the observation, because our Very Serious journalists in the op-ed pages and cable news will hang on the prognostications of Bill Kristol et al. as if they have any credibility left after being spectacularly wrong about everything since 2002.

The one thing I wholeheartedly agree with is that Obama does not really have any good options concerning Iran, at least not if people expect the endgame to be Iran giving up their nuclear program. Like chess, where there are scores of possible opening moves but only a few that won’t result in your quick defeat, the president doesn’t have many diplomatic options to choose from. The absolute best-case scenario is that Iran only wants to attain a status like Germany and Japan, with no actual atomic built but the capability to put one together in a couple weeks if necessary. The more likely scenario, given that an Iranian nuclear breakout is virtually assured unless someone goes to war over it, is that America will have to switch its priorities from nonproliferation to counterproliferation, keeping Iran from selling its knowledge to even nuttier and more unstable Third World countries.

Talkin’ Geopolitics With Joe Biden: Waiting For The Inevitable Gaffe.

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

One of the things that will be most amusing about the Obama administration in the coming years will be watching Joe Biden stick his foot in his mouth, and then make it worse trying to get it out. This is pretty much a guarantee. But at the Munich Security Conference ten days ago, the Vice President was all business, delivering the first major foreign policy speech since the inauguration.

Reuters compiled a last of significant quotes from the speech, and I taking a look at them one by one would be interesting:

“I come to Europe on behalf of a new administration, an administration that is determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America’s relations around the world. That new tone is rooted in a strong bipartisanship to meet these common challenges. And we recognise that meeting these challenges is not a luxury but an absolute necessity.”

So he’s taking a more conciliatory, if measured, tone towards foreign policy, but it’s not like this is hard to do after eight years of the fuck-you-if-you-don’t-like-it Bush Doctrine.

ASKING MORE FROM PARTNERS

“As we seek a lasting framework for our common struggle against extremism, we will have to work cooperatively with nations around the world – and we will need your help. For example, we will be asking others to take responsibility for some of those now at Guantanamo as we determine to close it. Our security is shared. So, too, I respectfully suggest, is our responsibility to defend it.”

“America will do more. That’s the good news. The bad news is that America will ask for more from our partners as well.”

A nice little one-two punch at our European allies, making good on the promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison but also a put-up-or-shut-up call for help.

AMERICA WILL LISTEN

“We believe that international alliances and organizations do not diminish America’s power. We believe they help us advance our collective security, economic interests and our values. So we’ll engage. We’ll listen. We’ll consult.”

An unsurprising paean to the gurus of the loosely organized Western international order, but again, after Bush, a welcome one. Republicans, of course, will use this as a bludgeon to beat Obama about the head and neck with.

USING FORCE

“Our administration has set ambitious goals … to advance democracy not through its imposition by force from the outside, but by working with moderates in government and civil society to build the institutions that will protect freedom.”

“As America renews our emphasis on diplomacy, development, democracy and preserving our planet, we will ask our allies to rethink some of their own approaches – including their willingness to use force when all else fails.”

This is a pretty fascinating development, because it’s not exactly abandoning the “democracy is great for everyone” aspect of the Bush Doctrine, which was surprising to Your Humble Author;  they should be running away screaming from any of Bush’s policies. Also, the second quote seems to imply that the preemptive war doctrine aspect is also still in effect,  its’ just implied. These are not the improvements I was hoping for: America always has preemptive war in its pocket (though it will be much more difficult now), there’s no reason to state it or even subtly imply that we intend to keep it. Best left unsaid.

IRAN

“The Iranian people are a great people. The Persian civilization is a great civilization. But Iran has acted in ways that are not conducive to peace in the region or to the prosperity of its people; its illicit nuclear program is but one of those manifestations. Our administration is reviewing policy toward Iran, but this much is clear: We will be willing to talk.”

“We will be willing to talk to Iran, and to offer a very clear choice: continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear program and your support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives.”

Hopefully this is the first shot fired across the bow of Iran in efforts to start a dialogue, beginning with the State Department and hopefully ending at the White House. A carrot-and-stick approach is probably the only way to contain Iran’s ambitions nuclear-wise; there’s no way to stop them from developing nuclear weapons, but you can delay it. The focus on Iran’s atomic ambitions is baffling to me, when the already currently nuke-capable Pakistan is the far greater danger.

ISRAEL

“It is long time past for us to secure a just Two State solution. We will work to achieve it, and to defeat the extremists who would perpetuate the conflict. And, building on the positive elements of the Arab Peace initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia, we will work toward a broader regional peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.”

More of the usual. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

AFGHANISTAN

“The result must be a comprehensive strategy for which we all take responsibility that brings together our civilian and military resources that prevents a terrorist safe haven, that helps the Afghan people develop the capacity to secure their own future. But no strategy for Afghanistan, in my humble opinion, can succeed without Pakistan.”

If Joe were being honest, this quote would end with, “And Pakistan is not going to help us.” Pakistan’s civilian government is now back in the hands of the folks who created and funded the Taliban to begin with, and the military is run by Pervez Musharraf’s right-hand man; naturally, the deeply Islamist armed forces, secret police and fundamentalist political parties that support them are all covertly aiding the Taliban, if not Al Qaeda.

This statement is also more nation-building nonsense about Afghanistan, where a surge along the borderlands has less of a chance of succeeding than it’s already-improbably cousin in Iraq. Afghans as a whole aren’t too keen about the whole idea of a central government in general, to say nothing about military occupation by infidels.  Admittedly, I do agree that there does need to be a nation-building apparatus in the State Department that coordinates with the military. After all, we’re going to go to war again at some point, and the general consensus these days is that after you blow it up you have to fix it too.

MUSLIM WORLD

“America will extend a hand, as the President has said, to those who unclench their fists.”

“In the Muslim world, a small and I believe very small, number of terrorists are beyond the call of reason. We will and we must defeat them. But hundreds of millions of hearts and minds in the Muslim world share the values we hold dear. We must reach them.”

The VP is of course being polite with the facts, but the truth is that probably ten percent of Muslims (a not-insignificant hundred sixty million people) are at least passive supporters of what we in the West call “Islamism.” The Sunni Ikhwan, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, is organized politically in at least a dozen Middle Eastern countries and often held down through repressive policies by their host government; Al Qaeda has morphed into a worldwide ideology in the last seven years despite the actual group’s limited resources, based almost solely on Osama bin Laden’s marketing as a latter-day Saladin; The Taliban, their Pakistani franchise and the Kashmir jihadists all enjoy massive popular support; the Shi’ite Hizb’allah in Lebanon is widely admired by Arabs even of other religious persuasions for forcing Israel to end a twenty-year occupation of the Galilee.

These are the exact words the Bush Administration was mouthing for two full terms, so I’ll believe it when it’s backed up with an actually effective hearts and minds campaign.

NATO

“Our Alliance must be better equipped to help stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons, to tackle terrorism and cyber-security, to expand the writ of energy security and to act in and out of area more effectively.”

The only worrying part of this is the “expand the writ of energy security” part, because it’s an obvious shot at Russia’s current stinginess with shipping natural gas to Europe and the Near Abroad. One wonders what “acting in and out of area more effectively” really means.

MISSILE DEFENCE

“We will continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven and it is cost effective. We will do so in consultation with you our NATO allies and with Russia.”

This is just plain stupid, sticking our finger in the Russian’s eye for no good reason. Everyone knows the real reason for so-called missile defense in Eastern Europe is to intimidate the Bear into backing off from the Near Abroad countries. Someone get back to me when we actually have a missile interceptor that can stop an ICBM or IRBM that uses countermeasures.

RUSSIA

“The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our Alliance. It’s time, to paraphrase President Obama, to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should work together.”

This doesn’t really mean anything besides, “We are unwilling or unable to discuss our strategy for Russia.”

So out of the starting gate, Obama’s foreign policy is looking like a mixed bag. As a president who’s almost guaranteed to have a doctrine named after him, this needs to be at least as much of a focal point of the administration as the economy. Things cannot be allowed to drift, a la the first Clinton term, because the consequences could be catastrophic. America’s standing in the world means more and more in an increasingly close-knit world, and repairing it better be at least Job Two on Obama’s to-do list. Ending “enhanced interrogation techniques” and closing Gitmo is a good start though, and hopefully picking foreing policy guru Biden as Vice President (where he inherits a national security staff larger than the National Security Council’s thanks to Dick Cheney) means they plan on taking this seriously.

Russia Resurgent

Monday, September 1st, 2008

From today’s Washington Post on Russia’s new diplomacy:

President Dmitry Medvedev signaled Tuesday that Russian foreign policy, ostensibly now under his control, will not stray from the often contentious course set by his predecessor. Former president Vladimir Putin clashed with the West on a host of issues, including the proposed installation of a U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe and the eastward expansion of the NATO alliance.

Medvedev said that Russia, buoyed by oil revenue and increasing self-confidence, will continue to pursue the assertive global role that Putin made a centerpiece of his foreign policy. “Russia has become stronger and is capable of assuming greater responsibility for solving problems on both a regional and global scale,” Medvedev said, speaking to a gathering of Russia’s senior diplomats at the Foreign Ministry here.

So Russia is back. Well, sort of. Despite all the hysterical cries of a new Cold War and an incipient dictatorship in Moscow, Russia is simply coming back around to exerting the influence it has traditionally enjoyed in the Near Abroad (Georgia, Ukraine, etc.) and Central Europe for hundreds of years. They consider it part of their sphere of influence, much as the US claims Central and South America, and aren’t very happy with the Western powers meddling in what they see as their affairs.

What people in the West fail to understand is that the Russian people loved Vladimir Putin, and will gladly follow his successor and protege, Medvedev, to the gates of Hell. Post-Soviet, pre-Putin Russia was a nightmare, beset by starvation, disease, hyperinflation and other Third World maladies. The sudden shift to free-market American-style capitalism, almost literally overnight, created a new class of oligarch, a fusion of the organizatsiya (the Russian mafiyas) and former Communist Party apparachiks that in short order ran the Russian economy into the ground for their personal gain.

So, yes, Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian strongman who certainly had people who opposed him murdered and jailed. And, yes, Medvedev is his puppet. But he restored order to a country that ten years ago was a failed state, and curtailed the influence of the oligarchs and the mafiyas, and the people couldn’t be happier about it. There’s a long-winded academic explanation of how Russia never had an Enlightenment and so forth, but I think it’s much simpler: The people were terrorized and hungry and broke, and Putin became a symbol of the strength of the Motherland. Picture the post-9/11 cult of personality that sprung up around George W. Bush, and multiply that by a hundred, and that still may not do it justice.

Missile defense is likely to be the biggest sticking point between Moscow and Washington in the near future. Really, the term “missile defense” isn’t the right one, because the Russians view it as protection against retaliation from an American first strike in the Near Abroad or Middle East, and given the Bush Doctrine of preventative war, who can blame them?

Because the fact is that George Bush the Elder struck a deal with the Russians, as the Soviet Union came tumbling down around their ears, not to expand NATO into the former Warsaw Pact countries, a deal which Bill Clinton promptly reneged on. So for a decade-plus NATO has been creeping closer and closer to the actual Russian border, and is making noises about incorporating the Near Abroad countries. To Moscow, which views the area between their country and Eastern Europe as a buffer against invasion (and with good reason), this situation is going to become less and less acceptable to them.

And the real problem is going to be that Russia, with massive natural resources and the price of oil and natural gas shooting through the roof, now has the muscle to put the arm on Europe and America in a big way. Before this, Russia had to play ball with the West because, well, there was nothing they could do to stop us. Now, they are in a position to dictate terms to us; witness the panic when they cut off the natural gas pipelines heading westward just to prove a point.

So when President Medvedev talks about assuming responsibility for solving regional and global problems, the real message is: “We’re going to be re-exterting our influence west of the Urals, and east into the Stan countries, and don’t try to mess with us.” The balance of power has changed hugely in the last two or three years, and I can only hope America is wise enough to adapt to the new situation.

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by Tommy Brown

“The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.”

-Niccolo Machiavelli