Are We Ready: The Consequences of ‘Bomb Iran’

by Taylor Jo Isenberg | August 26th, 2010 | |Subscribe

Saturday, Iran celebrated their great victory over the “arrogant powers” by opening their first nuclear power plant at Bushehr. The opening coincided with dynamic conversation on Jeff Goldberg’s recent article in The Atlantic painting a picture of military action as a foregone conclusion, and prominent foreign policy leaders such as former UN Ambassador John Bolton fanned the flames by renewing calls for a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Dangerously, the discussion on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program has moved away from the case for bombing Iran to who and when, ignoring the painful lessons learned from depicting military action as a clean and straightforward solution. We are still reeling from the burdensome commitments of Iraq and Afghanistan: a military response by either the United States or Israel will take much more than just bombs and have major potential consequences beyond Iran, realities noticeably absent from much of the conversation.

(more…)

Losing the war of ideas at ground zero

by Brian Vogt | August 25th, 2010 | |Subscribe

There is much bipartisan agreement about the nature of the struggle against terrorism.  Many have said that this is a war of ideas and will not be won just on the battlefield.

In George Bush’s 2002 national security strategy he wrote, “We will also wage a war of ideas to win the battle against international terrorism.”

Barack Obama spoke in 2007 in a similar manner when he said, “Bin Ladin and his allies know they cannot defeat us on the field of battle or in a genuine battle of ideas.”

Finally, in 2005 John McCain McCain wrote, “To prevail in this war we need more than victories on the battlefield. This is a war of ideas, a struggle to advance freedom in the face of terror in places where oppressive rule has bred the malevolence that creates terrorists.”

The battle we are waging is not just about guns and tanks.  It’s not just about overpowering and overwhelming the enemy.  Although those are certainly elements of the struggle, the battle is about something much greater.  It’s about competing visions of how the world should be.  The vision that the United States seeks to promote is a world where differences are settled not through violence but through the rule of law.  It’s a society that celebrates diversity and promotes tolerance.  It’s a society where Muslims and Christians can live together and worship in their own manner.  These are the ideas that so many Americans are fighting and dying for. (more…)

Climate Science and the Communication Gap

by John Prandato | August 24th, 2010 | |Subscribe

Days before the Senate dispersed for its August recess, Harry Reid announced that a vote would not be held on a “bare minimum” energy-only bill, just weeks after the Senate gave up on comprehensive climate and energy legislation. The inability of the Senate to gain any traction on even the most modest of energy bills in the wake of one of the most devastating environmental disasters in history is a clear indicator that there is still a long road ahead toward a strong U.S. climate change policy. There is no better time to reexamine the debate, and the debate begins with the science.

The science of climate change is sound but complex. Climate change will affect different parts of the planet in very different ways, and it is impossible to precisely quantify the physical impacts on Earth’s surface, let alone the social, political, and economic implications of those physical impacts. But ‘uncertainty’ in climate models – the expected variability in data – is too often mistaken for uncertainty about the science itself, and the well-funded lobbyists wishing to cast doubt on the science have made an almost effortless practice of manipulating the statistics and skewing the facts. Still, much of the public’s misunderstanding about climate change persists because of serious flaws in messaging by the science community to counter the misinformation. In many ways, the purpose of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is to bridge this communication gap with the public. But with recent polling suggesting that the U.S. public increasingly perceives climate change as a very low-priority issue, the IPCC – and the science community as a whole – needs to overhaul its communication strategy. (more…)

The Limited Utility of Bullets and Bombs

by John Eden | August 18th, 2010 | |Subscribe

I just made it through Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchen’s memoir.  For those of you unacquainted with Mr. Hitchens, he – and please, never call him “Chris” – is a journalist and political dissident of the first rank who deploys with unequalled deft the English language to challenge tyranny in all its varied guises and disguises.  Mr. Hitchens has engaged in spirited struggle against a wide array of ghouls and scoundrels, from Saddam Hussein (for inflicting terror on his own people) to the Ayatollah Khomeini (for issuing a fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s head) to our own Henry Kissinger (for a range of offenses too long to list).

While reading this brilliant memoir, a thought kept haunting me about the way we think about achieving foreign policy goals with military means and methods.  We tend to think of these goals as ones that can be achieved scientifically.  For example, if you want to dethrone an insipid dictator, you must simply determine what is necessary to remove him.  Regime change, then, is a scientific problem that can be addressed with the tools of an amateur’s logic:  identify the problem, formulate a strategy, and then execute that strategy carefully.  A reasonably clever schoolboy could work it out, we seem to believe.

The problem with this little tradition of ours is not just that the military is not an institution structured to win over the hearts and minds of those who live in a life world far from our own – though this is certainly true.  The real bugbear is that many foreign policy objectives are not well suited to being achieved through bloody military campaigns.  And it’s not that the military needs to change, far from it; we must stop expecting our soldiers to handle problems best addressed through other means. (more…)

Up is Down, Night is Day, and Restructuring is “Cuts”

by David Isenberg | August 17th, 2010 | |Subscribe

To understand how perverse the perennial debate, which in itself is a weak word for what passes as supposed scrutiny and argumentation over U.S. military spending, always deliberately and euphemistically called defense spending, one has only to read the “Statement on Department Efficiencies Initiative”  delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on August 9 when he proposed some modest changes in military command structures, such as the proposed closing of the Joint Forces Commandl along with other organization adjustments which theoretically, in aggregate, could save billions of dollars over five years.

To read the subsequent whining and rhetorical rending of government by corporate CEOs and their Congressional allies one might think Mahatma Gandhi had been brought back from the dead and been made Secretary of Defense.

The fact that the prospect of “Thousands Of Defense Jobs To Be Eliminated,” as the Washington Post headlined it the following day, in a military-industrial corporate sector which employs hundreds of thousands in the most limited definition of the phrase, excited so much whining is the very epitome of farce.

First, considering Gates called for finding more than $100 billion in overhead savings over the next five years, when combined direct military spending is likely to total over $3.5 trillion dollars is what you call having very low expectations. Note this does not include other military related spending which would jack the total even higher. For detail see the newly released Report of the Task Force on A Unified Security Budget for the United States.

Second, in no way whatsoever can what Gates proposed be considered a cut, as happened in most press accounts. As Gates took pains to note, “Let me be clear, the task before us is not to reduce the department’s top line budget.  Rather, it is to significantly reduce its excess overhead costs and apply the savings to force structure and modernization.” (more…)

Where are the helicopters?

by Brian Vogt | August 11th, 2010 | |Subscribe

Yesterday the Washington Post reported that Pakistan has requested more immediate assistance from the United States to help in the flood relief effort there.  Floods have been inundating the northwest region of Pakistan, affecting more than 14 million people according to Pakistani officials.  This is the same region of Pakistan that is home to many of the militants that continue to threaten American troops in Afghanistan and seek to maintain that area as a safe haven for al Qaeda.  Although these floods are a tremendous humanitarian disaster, they also provide an opportunity to both assist those in need and demonstrate to the Pakistani people that the United States is a partner that they can count on.

A recent Pew poll shows that that this will be a steep hill to climb.  Only 17 percent of Pakistanis had a positive view of the U.S. and 59 percent described the U.S. as an enemy.  Recognizing that our efforts in Afghanistan will not succeed unless Pakistani militant safe havens are eliminated, this lack of support by the population is enormously troubling.  There are a number of reasons for their negative views ranging from U.S. support for previous military dictators to the sporadic nature of U.S. engagement with the country.

The question now is, will we respond quickly enough? The Pakistani government has been unable to address this humanitarian disaster on its own.  In this vacuum, militant groups have been rushing to seize this opportunity.  So far the United States has sent six helicopters and pledged $55 million.  Considering the task at hand and short time available to save lives, I question if this is the best effort we could muster.  An important comparison case study is worth examining – the 2004 Asian tsunami.  (more…)

The Things We Left Behind: Fifty Years Later, American Cluster Bombs Continue to Kill in Laos

by Alexis Collatos | August 5th, 2010 | |Subscribe

One of the most striking statistics from the U.S. war in Vietnam doesn’t concern Vietnam at all, but its neighbor, Laos.  Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 2.5 million tons of ordnance on Laos.  This works out to the equivalent of one B-52 load of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. The sheer tonnage of explosives dropped on Laos makes the tiny, land-locked nation the most heavily-bombed country in history, with half a ton of bombs dropped for every inhabitant.

This dubious distinction carries a terrible legacy. According to U.S. estimates, approximately 30% of ordnance dropped over Laos failed to detonate upon impact. This unexploded ordnance, or UXO, remains scattered and buried throughout an area that covers one third of the country. In the past five decades over 50,000 Laotians – a fifth of them children – have been killed or maimed by American UXO. Currently, around 300 Laotians needlessly die every year from accidents involving UXO. Particularly deadly have been cluster bombs, which consist of sub-munitions that scatter over a wide area and are notorious for causing indiscriminate civilian casualties. Experts estimate that of the 260 million cluster bombs, or “bomblets” American forces dropped on Laos, 80 million remain unexploded. (more…)

Kenya and Preventive Diplomacy: Finding a Way Forward

by Taylor Jo Isenberg | August 4th, 2010 | |Subscribe

Kenya captured headlines in December 2007 when the former beacon of stability and growth in East Africa descended into political and social chaos after elections heightened ethnic and tribal divisions. Yet despite over 1,300 deaths, 300,000 displaced, and fears of a second Rwanda, Kenya has pulled back from the brink with the creation of a fragile power-sharing government between the two major rival parties, facilitated by the collaborative efforts of multiple stakeholders locally, nationally, and internationally.

Today, Kenyans return to the polls for the first time since the post-election violence to usher in a new constitution and drastic political and judicial reforms. As Kenya takes a step in a positive direction, its trajectory from violence and complete institutional breakdown to slow but constructive change should be an opportunity for the international community and United States to evaluate the potential and limitations of preventive diplomacy as a concrete foreign policy tool.

International involvement in Kenya did not involve boots on the ground, but focused on rigorous negotiations and external economic and political pressure from international institutions and countries. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, the African Union, and others were all key in the process, threatening punitive measures and pushing both sides towards compromise. (more…)

Forget Victory: Not Losing is Good Enough

by David Isenberg | August 3rd, 2010 | |Subscribe

If nothing else, the Wikileaks release of the Afghanistan War Diaries has had the positive effect of focusing public attention back of Afghanistan. Of course, there has increasing coverage this year, as the surge of troops ordered by President Obama last fall has been implemented. But the war there has not received nearly the coverage it deserves, given the intensified fighting and increased brittleness of American strategy and goals.

Let there be no mistake, the costs are high. The United States, as this Congressional Research Service report details will, most likely, suffer more killed and wounded this year, than in any year since it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. As of July 12 that was 218 killed and 2000 wounded. In 2009, by comparison the numbers were 311 killed and 2,131 wounded. Total U.S. military deaths thus far from Oct. 11, 2001 are 1,154 and wounded is 6,773.

We should note that the deaths of at least 66 soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen have made July the deadliest-ever month for American troops in the nine-year war in Afghanistan. The tally includes six American service members who died in four separate attacks in southern Afghanistan last Thursday and Friday.

One of the salutary effects of the Wikileaks documents is to illustrate the incoherent response of the federal government when it comes to dealing with the reality of its policies. As the Project On Government Oversight noted:

There is no doubt this episode also exposes the ridiculous problems created by the overclassification of government information. The Administration cannot have it both ways—they claimed that there was nothing important in the 92,000 documents, then also claimed that this was a terrible breach of national security. There is no doubt that the release produced a better-informed populace about one of our most important public policy issues, the ongoing war in Afghanistan. But at what cost?

This, by the way, is a realistic appraisal of Wikileaks, as opposed to the predictable hysteria from such rightwingers as Marc Thiessen of the American Enterprise Institute.

Maybe people think that much of this is moot; that come next year the U.S. will redeploy its troops back home from Afghanistan. If so, they should ponder this exchange from the interview that ABC’s This Week with Christine Amanpour did with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on August 1: (more…)

Resolving Kosovo’s International Status and Avoiding a Dangerous Precedent

by Volha Charnysh | August 1st, 2010 | |Subscribe

Nowhere have the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity clashed more persistently and tragically than in the Balkans, which remain unsettled after the genocidal Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Kosovo is one of the major loose ends left to tie up in the region. Eleven years after the 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, Kosovo has yet to win recognition as an independent state. In 2008 Kosovo declared independence and passed a new constitution, issued passports, established 19 embassies, formed a military, and chose a national anthem. However, its international status remains ambiguous to this day. Bloody conflicts still erupt between Albanians, who comprise nearly 95 per cent of the population, and Serbs despite the presence of 9,900-member international peacekeeping force. Ironically, its presence may be all the more needed since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) announced that Kosovo’s declaration of independence “did not violate general international law.” Although publicized as a victory for Kosovo, the ICJ July 22 ruling has only increased ambiguity over Kosovo’s sovereignty.

The international community cannot continue to sit on the fence about the Balkan problem as it had for disturbingly long while Slobodan Milosevic’s forces rampaged from Slovenia and Croatia to Bosnia and Kosovo. It is time the world recognizes Kosovo, which has suffered from Serbian genocide and accepted compromise after compromise while its international status was being debated, and establishes clear rules for negotiating ethno-national conflicts in the future to ensure Kosovo’s recognition does not set a dangerous precedent. Until then, the lack of clarity on evaluating the antithetical principles of self-determination and territorial integrity will continue to be politically exploited in the Balkans and elsewhere. (more…)

All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.