Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ideological Constraint in Diplomacy

The similarities between the way in which the Arab League chooses to deal with Israel and the way in which the Bush administration chooses to deal with Iran are strikingly similar. This is what I mean. The Arab League’s recent proposal suggests that Israel should accede to demands before normalization of relations. In other words, Israel should revert to pre 67’ borders, halt settlement expansion, and acknowledge a right of return (according to who you read) before the members of the Arab League accede to peaceful diplomatic postures. The Arab league demands these things before conceding the simple act of normalizing relations with Israel. In past posts I have criticized the Bush administration for engaging in the same behavior towards Iran. It chooses to make demands through shows of force rather than through direct diplomacy. Perhaps there is a similar quality within the mindset of both leaderships. The Arabs have a historical reputation for over-estimating their own power against its enemies. This has left them to engage in numerous irrational acts of war which ultimately led to defeat at the hands of their militarily superior Israeli enemy. And now, our administration continues even after the limits of American power are constantly displayed to us day in and out, to make further demands as if we are in a position of advantage against our future enemies. Let us hope that we can all in time see through this posturing, which is bound to be struck down by the unyielding indifference of reality. The Arabs are not in a leveraged position against Iran. Without U.S. and Israeli power Iran is free to do whatever fool thing it chooses. So too are we free and unconstrained to believe, falsely, that we are in a position of advantage against the emergence of future powers. We as Americans in the global international system are in an increasingly more vulnerable position. Our uni-polarity is being effectively diminished by second rate regional powers, and our leadership refuses to acknowledge the limits of power projection into regions marked by civil conflict.

Emerging Lines of Conflict

In recent post I attempted to answer the question, on what lines an anti-Iranian regional coalition would form, if at all. It appears now that such a coalition is forming and the Saudi government has taken the diplomatic lead against not only Iran, but perhaps against the U.S. as well. Lines are being drawn on two dimensions. Subtle balancing coalitions are forming against Iran along ethnic Arab/Persian lines, and against the U.S. along the wider civilizational Islamic/West lines described by Samuel Huntington.

As F. Gregory Gause III notes in a Council on Foreign Relations interview, the Saudi government has been at work building support for its regional interests against the expanding power of Iran. He argues that the Saudis are attempting to “limit Iranian influence in places where the Iranians seem to be getting stronger,” such as Lebanon and Palestine. Containing Iranian ambitions of course has more relevance to its neighbors than it does for the U.S. The U.S. experiences Iranian power once removed while its neighbors feel the direct effects. Gause estimates Saudi intentions in this way:
On the one hand, they want to contain Iranian influence. There's not much they can do in Iraq right now. But certainly at the peripheries of Iranian influence they're trying to roll it back. On the other hand, they don't want an open confrontation with Iran. They remember the 1980s when Ayatollah Khomeini was castigating them and the Iran-Iraq war was going on. That wasn't a comfortable time for them. The Saudis are playing a pretty nuanced balance-of-power game. Bring the Iranians in, talk to them, try to make deals with them where deals can be made, say perhaps in Lebanon, but at the same time, try to—in a sophisticated way—limit Iranian influence in places where the Iranians seem to be getting stronger.
The Saudis however must play to Arab nationalities in its balancing act. As Vali Nasr has noted, the Iraq war stimulated a Shia revival that now is having the larger effect of dissociating the Shia from Islam in general. Iran, as both non-Arab and Shia, is thus twice removed from its Sunni Arab neighbors. Thus as Gause notes: “the Saudis can work in the region to try to constrain and contain Iranian influence, particularly in Arab contexts, in Lebanon and among Palestinians—not so much in Iraq these days.” As such, the members of the Arab League recently considered creating new security alliances to the exclusion of its powerful neighbor. As Al-Jazeera reports, the Arab League seeks a "new and effective pact for Arab national security," against Iran and also presumably the U.S. as well.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has become an increasing liability for its Arab allies in the region, who fear that a U.S. attack on Iran will further upset the balance of power, irrevocably involving them in the widening mess it recently made in Iraq. Thus our former pseudo-allies are now abandoning us. As Robert Baer asserts in Time:
Our Arab allies are jumping ship, apparently as fast as they can. At the opening of the Arab summit on Wednesday, Saudi King Abdallah accused the U.S of illegally occupying Iraq. The day before, the leader of the United Arab Emirates sent his foreign minister to Tehran to tell the Iranians he would not allow the U.S. to use UAE soil to attack Iran. That leaves us with Kuwait and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to face Iran.
This unfortunate turn of events should have been quite predictable considering Huntington’s thesis that conflicts in the post-soviet era would emerge along civilization’s boundaries. However, the internal conflicts of a civilization will be dealt with along more specific cultural differences such as ethnicity and contradictory inter-religious dogmas. This explains the emergence of an intra-regional coalition. At the same time, these conflicts likely will resolve themselves and then focus on external enemies, or will be resolved as a result of its focus on the external western threat. This must not necessarily come to pass. Yet as our Arab friends are finding it increasingly more difficult to maintain their political ties to the erratic and unconstrained behavior of our executive administration, reversion to typical modes of conflict will become more prevalent.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Detente With Iran

In the recent issue of Foreign Affairs Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations has argued that détente should be the appropriate point of departure for US-Iranian relations. He argues against containment policy, which has been the guiding principle of the relationship in the past, and which is unlikely to advance U.S. interests in the future. Other notable thinkers have argued on similar lines that containment serves only to strengthen hard line elements by consolidating their power against a visible foreign threat, while marginalizing moderate elements like the Iranian “new right." This movement is represented by the head of the Supreme National Security Council, Ari Larijani; Iran’s Naval Commander, Abbas Mohtaj; and the head of the Islamic republic of Iran Broadcasting, Ezzatollah Zarghami. These men “stress Iranian nationalism over Islamic identity and pragmatism over ideology. (25)” Even though they continue to speak of the U.S. as the enemy and emphasize the utility of Nuclear weapons for consolidating Iranian power, they also argue Iran’s position would be enhanced by working with the U.S.

The “new right” Iranian movement also appears to be realist in its theoretical orientation. As such, if it were to gain influence in the Iranian government, the U.S. could negotiate with Iran using national interests as a reference point. Takeyh argues against what I have proposed in recent posts, that security assurances would foster cooperation by eliminating Iran's need for nuclear weapons. He argues against extending security assurances to Iran, because the current Iranian leadership thinks that U.S. power is in rapid decline and simply would not find such assurances assuring. Furthermore, it does not feel threatened by allusions to an air strike. And as Takeyh notes, a successful attack against nuclear sites is logistically problematic and would have the effect of increasing Ahmadinejad's power while simultaneously marginalizing the relatively more cooperative attitude of the "new right" movement.

Thus, détente seems to be the best diplomatic avenue through which U.S. interests can be achieved. Normalization of relations with Iran and economic integration into what Thomas P.M. Barnett calls the "globalized core" would have the effect of reducing the influence of irrational disconnected religious dogma in Iranian foreign policy formation by exposing it as an anachronistic constraint with no place in the marketplace of free ideas. Greater integration into international regimes would also reduce overly nationalistic attitudes by breaking down traditional notions of sovereignty, while the security dilemmas faced by all sides would ease. Cooperation on the basis of mutual interests could then be possible, and extending security assurances might become a feasible option.

Let us hope that moderates at home will succeed in discrediting the universalistic religious dogmatists in our own government, such that moderate elements within other states may be met with a sympathetic ear for a harmony of real interests. My own opinion is that this will not happen and the American people will be further robbed by ideological amateurs of its post-cold war primacy as we become bogged down in the widening quagmire which Brzezinski has called The Global Balkans.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Security Assurances, Iran and Deterring Nuclear Proliferation

One subject of importance to the field of International Relations is the concept of negative and positive security assurances. The concept of positive assurance has specific relevance to the historical US- Japanese security alliance, which Fukuyama at the American Interest has noted as failing. Both have current relevance to a range of options in dealing with the Iranian government and its nuclear enrichment program.

Positive security assurance is a neat package offered to a given state protecting it in the face of a potential attack. Thus, Japan after WW2 is shielded under the nuclear umbrella of the US from potential attacks by its regional competitors. The purpose and effect of this pact has been to keep Japan from re-militarization. The US nuclear umbrella deters other would be competitors from challenging Japanese power, which not unsurprisingly has had the effect of minimizing Japan’s security concerns. Thus Japan, a major economic power in a potentially volatile region sought not to acquire nuclear weapons.

As for Iran, we must ask ourselves why Iran seeks nuclear weapons. And, are its desires justified? According to simple balance of power logic, Iran seeks nuclear weapons to balance the nuclear capacity of Israel: an entirely justifiable response to the prospect of future war. According to Liberal theory, Iran is outside the globalized network and therefore conflict is a natural consequence. According to civilization conflict theory, Iran is culturally divergent from both Israel and the West and a as result we see potentially dire conflicts emerging. Yet it cannot be ignored that so called “rogue states” recognize the utility of deterring potential regime change by the West through the acquisition of nuclear weapons. For the US will not, or rather has not, in the history of nuclear weapons attacked another nuclear state.

Iran seeks a nuclear capability in order to deter its regional neighbors from leveraging their power against it. It seeks a nuclear deterrent against the power of Israeli nuclear weapons, and against the historical and imminent threat of regime change at the behest of the US government. In short, balance of power logic dictates that Iran seeks nuclear power in order to balance against external nuclear threats. This threat did not emerge ex nihilo, but as a direct response to US intervention in the region.

At the moment, the US appears to be looking towards a resolution to this “crisis.” Yet appearances are commonly discovered to hide more than they reveal. The US has offered blanket assurances to they world through its nuclear posture review that it will not commence a nuclear attack against nations which do not have nuclear capability. Yet, as there are no binding laws within the international system, and bunker busting nukes have obvious utility for destroying underground nuclear sites, that idea is subject to change at any moment. It seems also that our presidential administration is looking for reasons to avoid accommodation through bi-lateral as well as multi-lateral agreements. Thus as the Asia times reported in August 2006:

The history of the international proposal shows that the Bush administration was determined from the beginning that it would fail, so that it could bring to a halt a multilateral diplomacy on Iran's nuclear program that the hardliners in the administration had always found a hindrance to their policy.


Bush's objective was to free his administration of the constraint of multilateral diplomacy. The administration evidently reckoned that once the Iranians had rejected the formal offer, the US would be free to take whatever actions it might choose, including a military strike against Iran. Thus the June 5 proposal, with its implicit contempt for Iran's security interests, reflected the degree to which the US administration has anchored its policy toward Iran in its option to use force.


As Washington now seeks to the clear the way for the next phase of its confrontation with Iran, Bush is framing the issue as one of Iranian defiance of the Security Council, rather than US refusal to deal seriously with a central issue in the negotiations. "There must consequences if people thumb their noses at the United Nations Security Council," Bush said on Monday.


If the EU-3, Russia and China allow Bush to get away with that highly distorted version of what happened, the world will have taken another step closer to general war in the Middle East.

Perhaps if our administration were to realize the parallels between US- Japanese relations and the relative absence of an arms race in east Asia, and compare and contrast precedent to current events in the mid-east it would be able to see the utility of positive security assurances. Our president should direct his administration to confirm the negative security assurances of the nuclear posture review, and affirm positive security assurances to the Iranian government. It should do so in order to realistically address Iran’s security concerns and to prevent Iran from even needing nuclear weapons in the first place. After all, if we are truly interested in mid-east peace, it should be no compromise for the US government to offer Iran assurance that it will be protected in the face of an unprovoked attack by other governments, including our own.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Regional Balancing and The Clash of Civilizations

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has publicly stated that the Bush administration is not preparing for war with Iran. Yet the administration has also said it will consider all options for stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear deterrent. It has also argued in its 2006 national security strategy that Iranian “tyranny” is a direct threat to the national security of the United States. In keeping with the spirit of this document, the military presence in the Persian Gulf and surrounding regions has been increased. According to defense
“The administration backed up its tough talk by deploying the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group a week earlier than planned in January and, in a surprise move, also “surging” the Ronald Reagan to the west Pacific and dispatching the Stennis to the Middle East. Stennis joined the already-deployed Dwight D. Eisenhower group in the 5th Fleet area Feb. 19, doubling the Navy’s combat power in the region.
Defense news also provides us with a vivid mental image of what might soon come to pass.
"The initial strike could come from stealth Air Force fighters and bombers and cruise missiles launched from B-52Hs, Navy submarines and surface warships. The attacks could center on command-and-control centers, anti-aircraft sites and other targets that pose a threat to follow-on strikes by nonstealth bombers and fighters. The Air Force bombers could fly nonstop from their home bases in the United States, while Air Force fighters would have to be launched from bases within the region. The Air Force already has fighters based in Iraq, Afghanistan and along the western Arabian Gulf. The Air Force and Navy bombs, like the cruise missiles, would all be precision-guided in an effort to minimize unnecessary deaths and collateral damage at dual-use facilities or those located amid civilian populations. F-22As, once they drop their bombs, would focus on shooting down any Iranian fighters that tried to challenge U.S. aircraft. Navy cruisers and destroyers from the Eisenhower and Stennis strike groups would be prepositioned in the Arabian Gulf, their flanks protected by anti-submarine helicopters and attack submarines. The latter would be submerged, simultaneously preparing to fire cruise missiles. The two carriers would not be anywhere near them. With much uncertainty about the locations of Iranian anti-ship missile ships, high-speed boats or mobile shore batteries — and the range U.S. Navy jets can produce with the aid of Air Force fuel tankers operating on the periphery of the battlespace — the carriers probably would be situated outside the Arabian Gulf, likely in the Gulf of Oman."
While it appears the administration may be gearing up to strike Iran by itself, it may instead be preparing to support an Israeli led strike, showing support for an emerging anti-Iran coalition, or simply providing extra support for US ops in Afghanistan. Balance of power logic suggests that containing an aspiring regional hegemon like Iran may be necessary through war, but it doesn’t require that the US should act as the immediate balancer. If history is a guide to what may come, the US typically shouldn’t assume that role until the power of regional balancing is exhausted. The US’s traditional role as offshore balancer in the past meant that intervention was required only when a regional power had conquered its neighbors, enabling it to then project its power into our backyard and directly threaten our immediate security interest. However, this logic was clearly abandoned when the 2002 National Security Strategy announced its neo-liberal (neo-conservative) agenda, so it’s hard to say that the administration actually understands its own role in the world.

Should such a coalition emerge, how would it look? Samuel Huntington suggested that conflicts in the post-soviet era would occur along civilization’s fault lines. And when evaluating our war against Islamic terrorism, his thesis certainly seems vindicated. Yet at the regional level, this particular conflict involves not only an inter-civilization split, but also an intra-civilization split. Huntington describes Islam as a civilization in itself. However, even though Iran is an Islamic nation, its people are ethnically non-Arab. Also, the emerging Sunni and Shia conflict, exacerbated by altered religious dynamics in Iraq, has further removed Iranian identity from the rest of the wider Islamic world. Perhaps this increases the chances of a coalition emerging against it. But, in terms of regional military capabilities certainly the most logical candidate for leading it would be Israel. Unfortunately though the Palestinian issue may exclude it from participation. The dis-utility of Israeli participation was typified when Israel sat out the first gulf war for this reason

What are the implications of civilization divergence for a regional anti-Iran coalition? Perhaps it may be a naive proposition to include Israelis in an Arab coalition. But such an alliance could go a long way in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the wider Israeli- Arab conflict in general. At this point, a unilateral US strike seems like the worst of all possible worlds. Let us hope that Robert Gates injects some foresight and innovative thought into the Bush administration's seemingly eyeless liberal internationalist crusade. We should use our efforts wisely and attempt to foster the creation of a regional coalition that includes Arabs and Israelis, while sitting this one out.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Reducing the Costs of Cooperation

Within in the narrow confines of the dogmatic, realism has been construed to exclude other theories from lending to us their useful advice. China has been a frequent topic of concern at the pentagon, gaining relative importance in the post Soviet era as the new “Big One.” China is often characterized as the new great power, the potential hegemon, and most importantly the new great threat to US interests. As big ideas tend to have real world effects, future conflict with “the Big One” has had its own set of policy implications.

For example, our military has undergone a profound revolution in military affairs, one which was unsurprisingly geared not towards the limited rapid response missions we thought would become the new focus of the post-cold war era, but which was geared toward fighting major power wars. We now have a highly effective military, one that is designed not for peacekeeping or post-war reconstruction but to fight and win wars against other great armies. Thomas Barnett notes in The Pentagons New Map that the pentagon's target army was of course China’s.

Our nuclear forces are also currently undergoing modernization. Our strategic nukes, designed for fighting great power nuclear wars and affecting nuclear deterrence, are being upgraded. They are not being scaled down in accordance with the NPT. The pentagon and congress have authorized modifications for higher yield ratios on our Minutemen III ICBM’s. While the disappearance of great power war and the emergence of rogue state nuclear proliferation suggested high yields nukes where no longer relevant, at least not so many of them, congress instead rejected development of low yield tactical bunker busting nukes designed to destroy underground nuclear sites.

China is not the new Soviet Union. While China has become a new economic power and is in the process of upgrading its military and nuclear forces, it no longer falls within the same category of threat that it and the Soviet Union once did during the cold war era. In the latest issue of Foreign Policy Magazine,
China is no longer a revolutionary power. It does not have fundamental complaints about the international economic and political systems from which it has benefited so much over the past 25 years. Moreover, its economic interdependence with the rest of the world will deter Beijing from military adventures unless such core interests are threatened. (32)
To paraphrase Keohane and Nye in After Hegemony, the existence of international regimes has had the effect of reducing the transactional costs of cooperation between states. While on the upper plane of international interaction power is organized by the principle of anarchy, in the lower planes economic, legal and political rule sets mitigate anarchy, fostering cooperation between seemingly antagonistic powers.

This may seem to contradict balance of power logic, but there is nothing within realist theory that suggests we should simply ignore the explanatory power of other theories. Rather, we should attempt to accommodate each by utilizing theory pragmatically, not dogmatically. In the past US-China relations have been mutually beneficial, in the future China could play a greater role in managing regional and even global instabilities. The uni-polar system is turning out to be highly unstable. We need an effective cooperative counterbalance in the system, and there is no reason to exclude from our thinking China’s potential role. In the end, dogmatism and fear mongering serve none of our national interests.

To demonstrate: Here, Joe Cirincione attempts to explain US’s past role in provoking a possible future US-China arms race. However, the Fox News correspondent prefers to focus only on Chinese aggression, asserting that the Chinese should comply with international laws that do not yet exist, and which the Bush administration previously rejected.