Monday, September 28, 2009

An Iranian Referendum on US Foreign Policy

Recent events surrounding Iran's nuclear program have certainly stirred up a hornets' nest of concerned observers. First, Iran admitted the existence of secret nuclear enrichment plant that led to even Iran's erstwhile allies of Russia and China to issue rebukes. Then today, to wrap up two days of war games, Iran tested upgraded versions of its most advanced medium-range missiles -- the Shahab-3 and the Sajjil, both of which have ranges sufficient to threaten Europe and Israel. Coming on the heels of the UN General Assembly meeting, these developments have seemed to create a new impetus for tightening the screws on Iran in an effort to prevent Iran from developing an extant nuclear weapons capability (while the US believes Iran is close to having the ability to assemble a nuclear bomb on short notice it does not claim that Iran presently has any functional nuclear weapons). Additionally, in the wake of the decision by the Obama administration to scrap plans to deploy a ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia had made noises indicating it may be willing to impose stricter sanctions on Iran for its uncooperative behavior and unwillingness to comport to its international obligations.

All of this makes for an important crossroads for President Obama and his preferred course of foreign policy. Obama has pursued, as he did during his electoral campaign, a strategy of "negotiate first." However to date Obama's offer of negotiations have been rewarded with very little success, largely because Iran has had little reason to respond. Iran most likely sees nuclear weapons as a critical component of its national interest, both to defend itself against the US (and Israel) but also to increase its regional power. Because the US has been offering negotiations from a position of weakness, Iran was able to ignore the calls to talk about its nuclear program.

Now, however, Obama has a real opportunity to increase the pressure on Iran and make it impossible for Iran to continue to avoid negotiating. France and Great Britain are both ramping up the rhetoric and have expressed their willingness to support tougher sanctions, as have Russia and China, although it's still far from certain what Russia will actually do when it comes time to enact (or enforce) increased sanctions. Obama must exploit this window of opportunity to impose tougher conditions on Iran prior to continuing discussions. Obama must move quickly to exploit the international furor at Iran's secret enrichment facility and the current Russian goodwill. If the moment had been exploited, sanctions can be put in place that could force Iran to negotiate seriously; sanctions could even be put in place with an automatic waiver to suspend them in the event Iran chooses to open meaningful negotiations.

If Obama sticks to his "negotiate first" policy and refuses to push the Security Council to impose more serious penalties on Iran for its intransigence, he will not only have missed a golden opportunity. He will also expose his foreign policy as toothless and ill-suited for the turbulent world of international relations. If, however, he realizes that serious negotiations fundamentally depend on serious consequences (or at the least the threat of serious consequences), he may be able to take advantage of the currently open window of opportunity and lay the groundwork for a meaningful international coalition to deal with Iran.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Time For A Decision On Afghanistan

In the wake of the leak of General Stanley McChrystal's report on the situation in Afghanistan, in which McChrystal warns that more troops are needed in Afghanistan and if they are not provided the situation "will likely result in failure," President Obama is faced with perhaps the most difficult and important foreign policy decision of his administration. And it seems as if, so far, Obama has no idea what to do.

Back in February, the new president referred to Afghanistan as, along with Pakistan, "the central front in the war on terror" and that he would try to replicate the US "surge" strategy in Iraq that stabilized that country. In March, Obama warned that if “if the Afghanistan government falls to the Taliban or allows al-Qaida to go unchallenged that country will again be a base for terrorists.” In April, Secretary of State Clinton told Congress that "the core goal of President Barack Obama’s anti-terror strategy is to defeat al-Qaida and prevent its return to Afghanistan." And just last month, Obama declared that that the war in Afghanistan "is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again."

So what are we to make of Obama's comment last week that there will be "no quick decision" on whether to increase the US troop presence in Afghanistan? If the war in Afghanistan is a "war of necessity," if it is "the central front in the war on terror," what is there to think about when the commanding general reports that more troops are needed to stave off defeat?

Unless Obama has changed his mind about the nature and import of the war, the answer is likely that domestic politics has interfered with his strategic calculations. Perhaps the need to hold together the Democratic party on the issue of health care has caused Obama to back away from Afghanistan as more and more Democrats become disillusioned with the worsening situation there.

But this is a very dangerous strategy. Obama's wavering is undoubtedly contributing to growing public uncertainty about the campaign. Late last month, a majority of Americans questioned the necessity of the war, while just over 25% indicated that they would support a decision to increase troop levels. A poll earlier this month revealed that 41% of Americans want troop levels reduced. As work by Peter Feaver, Chris Gelpi, and Jason Reifler (full disclosure: Feaver and Gelpi were on my dissertation committee, while Reifler was in graduate school with me) demonstrates, American support (or lack thereof) for US military operations depends on "the retrospective attitude of whether the war was the right thing in the first place, and the prospective attitude of whether the war will be won." So, when Obama backs away from his certainty that Afghanistan is a war of necessity that must be fought to protect national and international security and when he wavers on whether to send troops, public opinion wavers right along with him.

This is not to argue that Obama MUST send more troops to Afghanistan. There are many good arguments that Afghanistan is, in fact, no longer a war worth fighting. But, his indecision is perhaps the most dangerous of any action (or inaction). The longer a decision on increasing troops is delayed and the less certain Obama and his administration seem about whether the war can be won, the more quickly public opinion will erode. Wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, given their complicated nature and protracted lengths, depend heavily on solid public support. When that erodes, particularly for a president with as grand a domestic agenda as Obama, success becomes less and less likely.

President Obama needs to make his decision and he needs to make it soon. If he does, in fact, believe that Afghanistan is a war of necessity -- a war that American national interest demands be fought -- then he has no choice but to fight it with all the necessary resources. Of course, there are still debates over strategy to be argued. But when the top commander is warning of defeat unless more troops are sent, strategy debates need to settled quickly. If Afghanistan is no longer a war of necessity -- if the US really doesn't care whether the Taliban regains control of the country, so long as al Qaeda is unable to use the country as a base as it once did -- then Obama needs to make that decision clear as quickly as possible. But the current situation of indecision and uncertainty is untenable and dangerous. It's time for a decision on Afghanistan.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Obama and European Missile Defense

President Obama's decision to cease the deployment of a long-range ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic has ruffled lots of feathers. There seem to be two major objections to Obama's move. First, that scrapping the program increases the threat posed by Iran's potential nuclear capability, and second, that scrapping the program is a slap in the face to the Eastern European countries that have proven themselves to be staunch allies. Those who support Obama's decision point to the fact that Obama plans to replace the scrapped system with one designed to intercept short- and medium-range missiles rather than long-range ballistic missiles.

Obama's decision was, I believe, the correct one. But, I'd like to see him go all the way and scrap missile defense entirely. I've been on the record for years in my opposition to the cost of developing a functional missile defense program, and still believe that the money would be better off put towards other things, such buying more F-22s, hardening the US grid against EMP attacks, or developing better cyberspace defenses. I don't see that that calculus has changed. It's true that defending against short- and medium-range missiles aimed against US allies rather than against CONUS itself makes more sense; deterrence is likely to be more difficult to achieve when the stakes are asymmetric (it's one thing to threaten a nuclear response to a strike against an American; it's quite another to do so in response to an attack against an ally). But, given all the threats faced by the US and the limitations on resources, certainly exacerbated by the recession, I'm still doubtful that missile defense is worth the money.

But, while Obama's decision moved in the right direction, it was handled very poorly. First, it is not likely to go over well with the Czech Republic and Poland. Both countries have been solid US allies, expending their own political capital to support US decisions, are are justifiably worried now, especially given the US reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia, that the US may be more interested in easing tensions with Russia than protecting their far-away allies. For Eastern Europe, missile defense wasn't so much a protection against Iran as it was a sign of US commitment to their defense. Moving away from that doesn't help to convince these states that they will be able to count on the US when the chips are down (certainly, the weaknesses of NATO being exposed in Afghanistan are compounding those fears). Certainly, more should have been done to consult with Poland and the Czech Republic as well as to signal America's strong commitment to them.

Even worse, however, is that the US has made a huge concession to Russia without getting anything in return. Russia had long voiced loud opposition to the proposed eastern European deployment. But the program, as envisioned, offered no threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent. This was a system designed to intercept a small number of missiles, not the hundreds or thousands that would be launched in a Russian response (of course, if Russia was planning on launching a small-scale strike against Warsaw, the defense shield would have been problematic). So, Russian opposition to the missile defense program stems from Russian opposition to increasing US entrenchment in what Russia considers to be its backyard. By backing down here, Obama has likely signaled to Russia that the US is unsteady in its commitment to eastern Europe. Furthermore, that concession came with no reciprocal concession from Russia. At the very least, Obama should have extracted a promise from Russia to support increased international sanctions on Iran for continuing to defy international law with its nuclear program (a position I advocated almost two years back). Instead, the US gave Russia a major policy victory, and in return Prime Minister Putin announced just last week that Russia would not support increased sanctions on Iran, a stance further supported by Foreign Minister Lavrov, and that it is convinced that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful. Russian President Medvedev did say earlier this week that while “sanctions are not very effective on the whole...sometimes you have to embark on sanctions and they can be right" which seemed to hint at a possibility Russia would, in fact, back stronger sanctions. But, that comment isn't a clear enough commitment to warrant giving up such a important bargaining chip as the European missile defense system.

It's possible that a deal has been worked out and that when the issue of Iran comes up in the Security Council Russia will indeed support the imposition of tougher sanctions. But I'm not holding my breath. By not extracting stronger public statements that would commit Russia to a course of action, the door has been left open for a Russian change of position. Obama made the right decision, but in all the wrong ways.

Welcome Back!

Howdy, if there's anybody still out there...Security Dilemmas is back. I took the summer off to recharge the batteries. Blogging can be an exhausting and demanding avocation and the pressure of having to keep up with international politics had grown quite tiring. After a few months of rest, however, I'm tanned, rested, and ready to resume blogging. And so, without any further ado....