Tag: Iran

Newt Gingrich and the EMP Threat

The front page of yesterday’s New York Times features a story on Newt Gingrich’s “doomsday vision:” an attack over the United States’ airspace known as an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. Gingrich and a cadre of concerned national security analysts worry that terrorists or rogue states—Iran and North Korea—could detonate a nuclear device over the United States that theoretically could disrupt electrical circuits, from cars to power grids.

The Times does a commendable job of questioning Gingrich’s arguments and whether this is a legitimate national security concern. Despite the fact that a “National EMP Recognition Day” exists, the threat is in fact very, very low. But it may be unfortunate that such extravagant doomsday scenarios get placed on the front page of the Times.

I addressed the EMP threat in my 2010 book Atomic Obsession and I included a discussion of the views of Stephen Younger, the former head of nuclear weapons research at Los Alamos National Lab, as forcefully put forward in his 2007 book, Endangered Species:

Younger is appalled at the way “one fast‑talking scientist” managed in 2004 to convince some members of Congress that North Korea might be able to launch a nuclear device capable of emitting a high‑altitude electromagnetic pulse that could burn out computers and other equipment over a wide area. When he queried a man he considers to be “perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the world about such designs” (and who “was never asked to testify”), the response was: “I don’t think the United States could do that sort of thing today. To say that the North Koreans could do it, and without doing any testing, is simply ridiculous.” Nevertheless, concludes Younger acidly, “rumors are passed from one person to another, growing at every repetition, backed by flimsy or nonexistent intelligence and the reputations of those who are better at talking than doing.” [Emphasis in original.]

The 2012 presidential election should certainly contain a legitimate discussion of national security issues. But I don’t think it really needs to include a lot of breast-beating about the EMP “threat.”

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Ignore the Hawks on Iran, Too

This week, experts at the (neo)conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a report on how to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran.

The authors argue that because of the “rising consensus” that a preemptive attack is unappealing, and that sanctions likely will fail, they recommend “a coherent Iran containment policy.” That approach entails, among other things, that America “work toward a political transformation, if not a physical transformation, of the Tehran regime.” Leaving aside the fact that Washington has already once “physically transformed the Tehran regime” – when alongside the British it overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953 and restored the Shah – there is a broader problem that comes with listening to proponents of the calamitous decision to invade Iraq.

Take, for instance, report co-author Danielle Pletka, who years ago decreed “Saddam’s entire Ba’athist government must be replaced.” Little surprise that someone who promoted a war based on a web of misleading information is now peddling the notion that Iran is less than a year from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

More credible voices suggest otherwise. The nonprofit Arms Control Association (ACA) observed that the most-recent IAEA report suggests “[I]t remains apparent that a nuclear-armed Iran is still not imminent nor is it inevitable.” Iran was engaged in nuclear weapons development activities until it stopped in 2003, and as Cato’s Justin Logan observes, the IAEA’s own report shows there is no definitive evidence of Iran’s diversion of fissile material.

When Pletka was called out for her “less than a year” prediction, she turned up her nose and snapped:

Quibblers will suggest that there are important “ifs” in both these assessments. And yes, the key “if” is “if” Iran decides to build a bomb. So, I suppose when I said “less than a year away from having a nuclear weapon,” I should have added, “if they want one.” But… isn’t that the point? Do we want to leave this decision up to Khamenei?

Confronted with ambiguous information, and forced to infer intentions, hawks evince the very same arrogance and overconfidence that helped open the door for Iranian influence in the region in the first place by toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime (Pletka advocated repeatedly for this leading up to the 2003 invasion). Pletka and others who years ago had the gall to argue that Iraq “will end when it ends” are today worthy of being ignored on Iran.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Don’t Jump the Gun on IAEA’s Iran Report

It is unfortunate that an analytic frenzy has begun over a report that has not yet been published. It is impossible to analyze the contents of the IAEA report on Iran until we can read it.

Even absent the document itself, however, two points bear repeating. First, even if the cultivated panic surrounding the report’s release is well founded, the suggestion that a military strike against suspected nuclear weapons sites in Iran would solve the problem lacks strong support. The net effect of such an action is difficult to judge beforehand. However, military action seems certain to convince the Iranian leadership that the United States and Israel are implacable aggressors. We should also wonder whether purchasing a delay in Iran’s nuclear program would be worth the cost of making its government—and possibly its people—absolutely certain that the only way to stop aggression against it is the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

Second, while the consequences of military action are uncertain, so too would be the consequences of a nuclear Iran. These consequences would be different for the United States than for Israel. While one hesitates to advise the Israelis on their national security policies, the nature of the relationship between the United States and Israel means that Israeli action would likely implicate the United States. And it is far from clear that the Israeli leadership believes the Obama administration holds any cards that it could play to constrain Israeli behavior. For this reason, Washington may not hold its regional destiny in its own hands.

Conservative Hawks Are Incoherent Regarding Iraq Troop Withdrawal

Prominent conservatives continue to sputter about President Obama’s announcement that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by year’s end. GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry charges that the president was “irresponsible” for making that announcement, thereby “letting the enemy know” the date when U.S. forces would leave Iraq. Council on Foreign Relations writer Max Boot makes a similar argument, as do several other neoconservative pundits.

But as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Obama did not set the December 31, 2011 deadline. George W. Bush did in an agreement with the Iraqi government that he signed in late 2008. One then has to ask whether Perry and other critics of Obama believe that Bush was being “irresponsible.” And if so, it is curious that virtually none of them have made that argument—or even hinted at such a conclusion.

That apparent double standard begs some other questions. The principal reason why Obama’s effort to modify the Bush agreement so that a residual U.S. force could remain after 2011 failed was that the administration refused to accept the Iraqi government’s demand that American troops be subject to Iraqi law. Are conservatives arguing that he should have made that concession? If so, their position is totally inconsistent with the position they have taken with respect to other countries that host U.S. troops. Indeed, fears that American military personnel might be subject to prosecution under foreign laws and in foreign jurisdictions have been a major reason for the intense opposition to U.S. involvement in the International Criminal Court.

Conversely, if Obama’s critics believe that U.S. troops should not be exposed to possible prosecution in a judicial system that has few of the due process protections that are considered the norm in the United States, how do they suggest that the administration get the Iraqi government to change its stance? Most of their criticisms on that front consist of little more than inane generalities that Obama should have shown greater leadership or engaged in more effective diplomatic bargaining. But how, precisely, should he have done that? Washington was not exactly in a position to order Baghdad to accept U.S. demands on the jurisdictional issue. And Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki knew that he would be risking political suicide if he capitulated to U.S. pressure and accepted a policy that is wildly unpopular with the Iraqi people.

Are conservatives implying that the Obama administration should have overridden Iraqi objectives and just imposed our will? Ethical issues aside, that would certainly require far more than the limited number of troops the U.S. has in Iraq at the moment, and it would likely re-ignite a widespread insurgency directed against a continuing U.S. military occupation.

The utterly inconsistent and incoherent position that most conservatives have taken on the troop withdrawal issue underscores the bankruptcy of the overall Iraq policy that they’ve pushed since early 2003. They’re frustrated that the Iraq mission has not gone as planned, and they fear—quite correctly—that once U.S. forces have departed, the waste and futility of that mission will become glaringly obvious to all except a shrinking contingent of true believers. What we’re seeing now is a mixture of partisan politics and a temper tantrum in response to that disagreeable reality.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

A Step Forward in Afghanistan, If We Are Willing to Take It

The Washington Post reports the Obama administration has revised its Afghan war strategy to include “more energetic efforts to persuade” Afghanistan’s neighbors—including India, China, and the Central Asian republics—to “support a political resolution.” Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that the administration was also relying on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency “to help organize and kick-start reconciliation talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan.”

This is good news, but also déjà vu. The administration called for “pursuing greater regional diplomacy” back in 2009. It also said it would ask “all countries who have a stake in the future of this critical region to do their part.” Countries in the region do have a stake in Afghanistan’s future; America, however, has few effective instruments for submerging the differences among competing powers.

Take our relationship with Iran. It has made significant inroads with Afghanistan’s Hazara and Tajik communities and is well-positioned to be a key player in the region. But Tehran and Washington seem neither close to engaging in direct talks nor willing to make reciprocal concessions for the cause of furthering peace. The irony is that after 9/11, American and Iranian interests initially converged in Afghanistan: Tehran cooperated with Washington to overthrow the Taliban regime, and during the Bonn negotiations helped broker a compromise between President Karzai and the Northern Alliance.

America’s complicated relationship with Iran is one reason why what U.S. officials perceive to be in America’s best interests may not be synonymous with the pursuit of peace. Isolating Iran, or even Pakistan for that matter, will hurt the substance of negotiations, increase the incentive for these countries to sabotage peace, and hinder Washington’s ability to shape a coherent regional strategy. Even if Washington were to engage Tehran and Islamabad, they may very well decide to protract the bargaining process to convey that time is on their side (it is). One reason why the administration’s 2009 effort may have faltered was that Pakistan—a major player in Afghanistan’s internal affairs (to the consternation of many Afghans)—has come to feel that it can manage the terms of reconciliation. In fact, it is this belief that tempers Pakistan’s eagerness to be more accommodating toward the United States, which is why the case for American humility is key when it comes to the subject of negotiations.

Peace will not be perfect. Problems will rise when competing interests collide on certain core issues. Nevertheless, all parties must be sufficiently dedicated to reaching a consensus on what constitutes a manageable settlement. After all, some countries will seek to stymie their enemy’s provision of assistance to Kabul (i.e. Pakistan vis-à-vis India). Getting these countries to think otherwise will necessitate a shift in said country’s perceptions of others’ intentions.

As I wrote last week, U.S. officials understand the enormity of problems they confront in this vexing region. Proponents of peace are not blind to these difficulties. Unfortunately, much like the current nation-building effort, when it comes to regional engagement, U.S. officials could be making yet another ambitious commitment that is beyond their ability to carry out.

Cross-posted from The Skeptics at the National Interest.

Cillizza on Cain and Know-Nothing Foreign Policy

Asked on Meet the Press this weekend whether the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador was an act of war, Herman Cain gave the following response:

After I looked at all of the information provided by the intelligence community, the military, then I could make that decision.  I can’t make that decision because I’m not privy to all of that information… I’m not going to say it was an act of war based upon news reports, with all due respect.  I would hope that the president and all of his advisers are considering all of the factors in determining just how much, how much the Iranians participated in this.

That struck me as a refreshingly reasonable position. Yet the Washington Post’s election handicapper, Chris Cillizza, decided to make that quote the centerpiece of an article on Cain’s “know-nothing foreign policy.” He then presents a poll showing that Republicans don’t care much about foreign policy this year, only to conclude that foreign-policy ignorance could be a fatal handicap for Cain. His evidence for that conclusion is a quote from Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, who specializes in arguing for wars and imperialism. Boot, as it happens, just wrote a blog post for Commentary titled, “Iran Plot Goes Straight to the Top,” where he attacks those willing to question the evidence against Iran’s leaders and vaguely supports attacking them.

Cillizza’s article makes clear that foreign-policy ignorance is far preferable to the Washington Post’s idea of expertise. The worst part is that Cain, who claims not to know what neoconservatives are, seems likely to become one, call Boot for advice, and win the Post’s respect.

Tehran v. Riyadh

The alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, has served to underscore that Washington and Riyadh view Tehran as a common enemy. This plot has already heightened both parties’ persisting anxieties over Iran, but the U.S.-Saudi partnership has often tended to reinforce, rather than diminish, each side’s most hawkish tendencies.

After the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iran developed far greater influence among its allies and co-religionists in Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and the Gulf States. Demonstrating the fear that Iran’s expanded Shia influence has inspired among Saudi leaders, in February 2007 Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal encouraged the United States to strengthen its naval presence in the Persian Gulf, telling a U.S. diplomat that the Saudis would supply the logic for America’s deployment if Washington supplied the pressure.

Of course it is the Kingdom that is alarmed by the possibility of an Iranian SCUD missile attack on Saudi oil facilities; it is the Kingdom that is petrified by the possibility of Iran’s nuclear program posing a threat to the House of Saud’s regional prestige; and it is the Kingdom that has claimed that Shia-Persian Iran has been stage-managing the massive, popular uprisings sweeping the region in order to undermine Sunni Arab regimes. If the United States moves to increase the scope of its political, economic, and military sticks against Iran, it will only serve to invite further Iranian and Saudi intrigues. It may also encourage Iran and other states like it to seek a nuclear deterrent. Responding swiftly to this alleged plot, as some political pundits have encouraged, will further entangle the United States in an intra-Islamic, Shia-Sunni, Arab-Persian rivalry divorced from America’s vital interests.

As an aside, to shed some new light on the scorn currently being heaped on Iran’s odious regime, let us remember that it is America’s strategic ally—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—that remains one of the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East. And as much as folks are fulminating over Tehran’s support for terrorism, in reality it is donors in Saudi Arabia who constitute the most significant source of funding to terrorist groups worldwide.

Cross-posed from the National Interest.