Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Obama’s Sales Pitch on the Iran Deal

With a potentially historic agreement on Iran’s nuclear program in place, President Obama immediately focused his attention on the fight at home. When he announced the deal Tuesday morning, the president warned Congress that he would “veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of this deal.” A few hours later, he sat down with the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman to sell it on its merits.

“We are not measuring this deal by whether it is changing the regime inside of Iran,” the president said. “We’re not measuring this deal by whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran, whether we are eliminating all their nefarious activities around the globe.”

The aim of the negotiations was on ensuring that “Iran could not get a nuclear weapon.”

And that is where he wants the ensuing debate over the final terms of the agreement to be focused. “What I’m going to be able to say, and I think we will be able to prove,” he told Friedman, “is that this by a wide margin is the most definitive path by which Iran will not get a nuclear weapon, and we will be able to achieve that with the full cooperation of the world community and without having to engage in another war in the Middle East.”

That is what the president would like people to believe. But it may not be so simple.

Congress has 60 days to review the deal for final approval, but many GOP leaders have declared the agreement dead on arrival. Some Republicans, as I noted, lambasted the administration for appeasing the Iranian regime even before the details were announced. Accordingly, the administration will likely focus most of its time on reassuring skeptical Democrats to block the passage of legislation that would undo the deal, or, failing that, to sustain a veto.

An override seems unlikely, but the coming congressional debate will not be limited to the merits of the deal.

As Justin Logan and John Glaser wrote on CNN.com:

The debate over Iran diplomacy was really two debates, in which each side was arguing over something different. On the one side was a strikingly broad consensus of nearly the entire arms control community, which recognizes what the deal can achieve in terms of nonproliferation and regional stability. On the opposing side is the Iran hawk community, which focused less on the nuclear issue than on finding ways to isolate and ultimately destroy Iran’s clerical regime, by military force if necessary, nuclear program or not.

The agreement is a clear success for nonproliferation advocates. Unfortunately, that’s not what matters to some of those who now control its fate. 

“Think Tank Attacks Kaptur over National ID Card”

I really like Sandusky Register reporter Tom Jackson’s piece responding to my post yesterday about congressional appropriators and our national ID law, the REAL ID Act. Jackson is paying attention to all that is said about Ohio’s congressional delegation. Not just following the herd, he’s looking out for new and different things that might be interesting to the folks back home.

The gist of his argument is that calling Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur 75 percent supportive of REAL ID is unfair because she voted against it when it passed the House as a stand-alone bill in 2005. She did vote against it that once, but she also allowed a voice vote on the rule that attached REAL ID to a later appropriations bill, and she voted for that bill and the conference report, both votes helping to make REAL ID a federal law.

Rep. Kaptur doesn’t stand out as a pro-national-ID legislator—true—but that is precisely how log-rolling in Washington works. Bills that tie controversial matter like a national ID law to broadly supported priorities like military funding and money for tsunami relief allow representatives like Kaptur to vote for a national ID twice without standing out.

I didn’t do a good enough job of explaining the procedure by which REAL ID was passed, and Jackson understood me to be blaming Kaptur for funding REAL ID. In fact, my post focused on votes for passage of REAL ID itself. But Kaptur and other appropriators will be voting soon on the FY 2016 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, which year after year provides funds to push state implementation of REAL ID. The bill has lots of other priorities in it, but Rep. Kaptur and her colleagues on the Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee are responsible for all of the bill’s content. Given that any of them could de-fund REAL ID and the national ID project with a simple amendment, I believe it’s appropriate to hold all of them to account for not doing so.

Iran and the Global Oil Glut

Today’s Iran deal is a victory for U.S. nonproliferation efforts, and while it may not be perfect, it goes a long way towards ensuring that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons, and that the IAEA will regain crucial oversight access to Iran’s nuclear facilities. But though it is fundamentally an arms control agreement, some of the biggest impacts may in fact be felt in global oil and gas markets, as easing sanctions allow Iran’s hydrocarbon sector to reopen to the world.

Much of the text of the deal focuses on the sanctions which will be lifted in exchange for Iranian concessions on nuclear enrichment and processing. These include agreement by both the U.S. and EU to permit the import of oil and gas, as well as lifting asset freezes and bans on the export to Iran of technology and equipment for oil and gas extraction. More importantly, bans on investment, financing and service provision in the industry will be lifted, paving the way for European and American firms to provide technical services and invest in the country.

Oil prices have been volatile since the deal was announced, falling almost two percent before recovering. The initial price drop reflects the expectation that Iran may release some of its approximately thirty million reserve barrels of oil onto the market as soon as it is able. Iran also has the potential to impact oil prices in the long-term, holding the world’s fourth-largest reserves of crude oil, and second-largest gas reserves. Production has been depressed by sanctions, but once they are lifted, it is plausible that Iran could increase production to its pre-sanctions levels (2-3 million barrels a day) within several years.

The Pros and Cons of the Iranian Nuclear Deal

Earlier today in Vienna, international negotiators reached a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. The New York Times reports that the agreement will eventually lift oil and financial sanctions, “in return for limits on Iran’s nuclear production capability and fuel stockpile over the next 15 years.” The international restrictions on Iranian arms exports will remain in place for up to 5 years, and the ban on ballistic missile exports could remain for up to 8 years. 

In a televised statement this morning, President Obama defended his decision to engage in the negotiations “from a position of strength” and assured the American people that, under the deal, “Iran will not be able to achieve a nuclear weapon.” His opponents are sure to challenge both assertions. 

The deal, Obama said, “is not built on trust, it is built on verification.” Those verification provisions appeared to have been one of the final sticking points in the negotiations. According to the Associated Press, the Iranians agreed to allow inspection of Iranian military sites, “something the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had long vowed to oppose,” but such inspections are not the surprise, snap inspections that some had pushed for. 

The focus now turns to the Senate, which has 60 days to review the agreement. Senators could vote to block it, but Obama has already pledged that he would veto any legislation that prohibits the deal’s implementation. He has a reasonably strong hand to play. Even if all Senate Republicans vote to kill the deal, opponents would need at least a dozen Senate Democrats to vote with them in order to override the president. 

Expect the details of the nearly 100-page document to come under close scrutiny, even though many opponents don’t appear to believe that the specifics matter that much. For them, nearly any deal is a bad deal. 

This Is What Defense Consolidation without BRAC Looks Like

For the past few months, nearly thirty communities around the country have been anxiously awaiting an announcement from the Pentagon concerning the military bases that would be affected by the planned drawdown of 40,000 active-duty Army personnel, plus another 17,000 or so civilian employees. Local news outlets have been filling in the details as they become available. Some communities, including Leesville, Louisiana (Fort Polk), and northern New York (Fort Drum) are breathing a “sigh of relief.” Others, in Georgia (Fort Benning) and Alaska (Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson), are crying foul.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) seems especially peeved. “I am demanding answers from the Department of Defense on how they are justifying these troop cuts in Georgia,” Isakson said. And, in the meantime, he plans to block the nomination of a “new congressional liaison for the Department of Defense in light of the Department’s failure to give Congress a heads up before these cuts were made public.”

This is what defense consolidation looks like without the formality and relative transparency of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.

I am in the midst of a major research project studying the effects of military spending cuts on local communities. With the help of my excellent research assistant, Connor Ryan, I am looking at some familiar cases, such as San Francisco’s Presidio and Monterey’s Fort Ord, and some that are more obscure (e.g. Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s Pease AFB). I’m also writing about some bases closed before BRAC (e.g. Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia; the Springfield Arsenal in Massachusetts; and Dow AFB in Bangor, Maine), and some facilities that were privately owned and operated, but that grew primarily by supplying products to the military (including the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia; and DuPont’s Eleutherian Mills in Wilmington, Delaware). The project aims to go beyond studying the economic effects predicted and observed by economists (e.g. here and here), but to also get a feel for the history of each place, what it built, or how it fit into the nation’s defenses, and, ultimately, each facility’s denouement. To oversimplify: “How’s it goin’?”

My preliminary conclusions, after having visited about half of the places that I plan to study (and I will visit all of them), is that communities do adapt and recover, some more quickly than others, and many emerge after the transition period with a robust and more diversified economic base. In other words, the resources once directed toward the military do eventually find their way to more productive uses.

The Security Implications of Grexit

This weekend’s news was dominated by the sorry tale of Greece, where a referendum on whether to accept the terms of a new European Union bailout failed by a landslide. Now Greece’s Eurozone creditors face the uneasy choice between offering a more generous bailout plan, or accepting a Greek departure from the Euro.

Sunday’s referendum was just the latest debacle in the five-year tug-of-war between Greece and other Eurozone members. The ruling Syriza party has been openly hostile to the austerity-focused conditions of EU bailout loans – which run counter to their left-leaning economic agenda – as well as to the EU negotiation process itself. The spur-of-the-moment referendum was itself largely a surreal PR stunt: the deal voters were evaluating had in fact been withdrawn by the EU prior to Sunday’s vote.

Unfortunately, the situation in Greece is untenable. Banks remain shut, and ATM users can withdraw only 60 euros a day. The country defaulted on its IMF loans last week, the first advanced industrialized economy to ever do so. An emergency summit of Eurozone leaders is convening on Tuesday to hear new Greek proposals, but it is unclear whether German leaders in particular can be convinced to accept a more generous bailout deal. Failing that, Greece will begin its Eurozone exit, creating turmoil in international markets.

But as I wrote over at CNN.com, “Grexit” would result in more than just financial problems. Greece’s exit from the Eurozone is likely to draw it closer to Russia, with security implications for other EU and NATO member states.

Ties have been growing between Athens and Moscow in recent months:

“During his visit last month at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, for example, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras spoke of the Greek and Russian relationship, hinting that Greece was “ready to go to new seas to reach new safe ports… the Russian energy minister just recently announced a $2.77 billion pipeline project in Greece, and Moscow followed this with an informal invitation to Greece to join the BRICs’ New Development Bank.”

Given its current economic problems, Russia cannot afford to bail Greece out entirely. But it could certainly provide funding for sizable infrastructure projects.  

In the short-term, Grexit would certainly be a boon to Russian propagandists:

“allowing anchors on Russian state TV to highlight further evidence of the decline of the European Union and of Western civilization more broadly.” 

And in the longer-term, a Russia-friendly Greek government could even act as a spoiler within the EU and within NATO, including a veto over any extension of sanctions on Russia.

Until this point, the White House has largely avoided commenting on the Greek crisis, other than reassurances that U.S. banks are largely insulated. But as Eurozone leaders make the final choice on Greece’s future, U.S. leaders would do well to consider how a Grexit could impact U.S. security aims in Europe.

You can read the whole piece on the security implications of the Greek crisis here.

End America’s Defense Dole for South Korea

South Korean President Park Geun-hye postponed her trip to the U.S. because of a public health emergency at home. Unfortunately, the delay won’t make a future Park trip any more useful.

There is much on which the two nations should cooperate. But the military alliance is outdated. Despite having surged past the North, enjoying a 40-to-1 economic advantage and 2-to-1 population edge, Seoul continues to play the helpless dependent, unable even to command its own forces in a war.

South Korea eventually took off economically and adopted democracy. Yet through it all South Korea’s defense dependency on America persisted.

The South Korean government isn’t even willing to take over operational control, or OPCON, of its own forces in wartime. It isn’t ready, it insists. Yet North Korea commands its forces.

Of course, some South Koreans admit that they most fear shifting command would encourage Washington to withdraw its troops. Thus, their objective is to appear as helpless as possible as long as possible to retain the U.S. troop tripwire.

The present arrangement obviously is bad for America. Protecting South Korea isn’t cheap.