News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Earlier this week, I commented on a New York Times editorial urging the United States to prepare a military strategy to contain or confront China. In today's edition, in a piece written as Secretary of Defense Gates arrives in Beijing, the Times once again hypes the alleged threat from the Chinese military.
Even the Times, however, is too ashamed not to admit, in its piece today: "By most accounts, China remains a generation or more behind the United States in military technology, and even further behind in deploying battle-tested versions of its most sophisticated naval and air capabilities."
But with the new House Republicans pledging to cut $100 billion from the budget while exempting defense, "homeland security," and veterans benefits, and with Gates pledging to make cuts in weapons systems and other Pentagon spending but still maintain overall military spending on an upward curve, the threat from China is a useful bugaboo to scare Americans into giving the Department of Defense more, more, more.
The Times article cites "new reports," presumably its own, suggesting that China "could launch several [aircraft] carriers by 2020." And it says that "a widely anticipated antiship ballistic missile, called a ‘carrier-killer' for its potential to strike the big carriers at the heart of the American naval presence in the Pacific, appears to be approaching deployment." And it quotes a former aide to Gates to the effect that "China's recent strong-arm reaction to territorial disputes with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbors had given both the Pentagon and China's neighbors cause for concern."
But the same article quotes Vice Admiral David J. Dorsett thus:
"Have you seen them deploy large groups of naval forces? No. Have we seen large, joint, sophisticated exercises? No. Do they have any combat proficiency? No."
The fact is, although China is becoming a dominant economic force worldwide, it has invested only a fraction of what the United States spends to achieve global military dominance. What the Chinese see is a huge American military presence to its west, in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, a vast American Navy surrounding its coasts, a network of American military bases throughout the East Pacific, US military alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and other regional powers, and, of course, a die-hard US commitment to defend the breakaway island "nation" of Taiwan. Above all, it is Taiwan that sticks in China's craw, the President Obama's decision to sell an additional $6 billion in arms to Taiwan last year needlessly inflamed US-China relations.
As China expands its political and economic power, there's no question that it will develop a strong military. If the United States chooses to accommodate China's rise, pulls back from its unnecessary military presence in Asia and elsewhere, and winds down the Afghanistan war, there's no reason why China would shift from a defensive to an aggressive stance militarily. Would you, if you could let your manufacturing industry speak for itself?
Quote of the Day:
"One who supports a blasphemer is also a blasphemer. What Qadri did has made every Muslim proud."
--Statement from a group of 500 Pakistani "religious scholars" (i.e., murderous fanatics), commenting on the assassination of Salman Taseer, a relentlessly secular politician who was shot more than two dozen times by one of his guards, Mumtaz Qadri. The Pakistan Daily Times headlined the act: "A brave man cut down by fanaticism."
Evincing no Christmas spirit whatsoever, in late December Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, and various law enforcement officials proclaimed their intention to prosecute the leaders of the Green Movement, the loosely organized opposition forces that challenged President Ahmadinejad in the June 2009, elections. Presumably, those to be arrested and hauled into court would be Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom ran for president in 2009, and possibly many others, including Ayatollah Rafsanjani, the billionaire mullah who backed the greens.
But not so fast. In nearly every case in which top Iranian officials threatened to arrest and prosecute Mousavi, Karroubi et al., they added strong caveats that they're planning no such thing. Perhaps that's because the economic crisis in Iran, combined with the top-down policy of ending subsidies on a wide range of goods, has great potential to stir up unrest, strikes and demonstrations, and the last thing that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad want is to give the Green Movement a chance to revive itself by taking on issues of economic fairness, unemployment and corruption. Late last year, Mousavi threatened to do exactly that, and now that prices of oil, gasoline and other commodities are spiking upwards, the potential for political instability is growing.
And the hardline Iranians are explicitly warning of exactly that.
The Washington Post, running an AP story, headlined the threats against Mousavi and Karroubi, who've so far escaped the post-2009 dragnet of show trials and downplayed the caveats from Tehran's chief prosecutor, a conservative hardliner, in its lede:
Tehran's chief prosecutor said Friday it was only a matter of time before opposition leaders are put on trial for the unrest following the disputed 2009 presidential election, the latest sign that Iranian authorities may make a potentially explosive escalation of their crackdown.
But the Post carried this quote from Abbas Jafari Dowlatbadi, the prosecutor:
“We've said many times...that leaders of sedition are criminals and charges against them will be investigated. That they will stand trial is definite. They (opposition leaders) undermined public trust in the system...and disrupted security in the country. Heavy punishment awaits them.:
But then it quoted Dowlatbadi thusly: “But since their backing is connected to the dirty hands of the U.S. and the Zionists, we need to handle the case with more care."
And the pro-regime, conservative Tehran Times, reporting on the comments by Dowlatbadi, stressed that the prosecutor emphasized that “officials should take action cautiously so that the seditionists are not able to resume their protests." The Tehran Times also quoted Iran's intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, saying that arresting the leaders of the Greens—i.e., the leaders of the reformist movement led by former President Khatami—would only play into their hands. “They want to be arrested," said Mosleh, “because they seek to become national heroes, so the government should deal with the issue prudently." (Indeed, Karroubi said on Monday, "I completely welcome this trial.")
Indeed, the issue of whether to arrest Mousavi, Karroubi et al. has become a political football in the ongoing contest between various Iranian factions, especially the struggle between Ahmadinejad and his conservative opponents in and out of parliament, led by the Larijani brothers, including Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament. His brother, Sadegh Larijani, Iran's top justice official, was quoted in a Delphic manner in the New York Times:
"They ask me why I do not take positions against the sedition leaders when I said last year that they are culpable and that the charge against them is acting against the Islamic Republic system. There are certain issues which are under consideration in this regime but I am not the one who determines them."
What, exactly, are those “certain issues: that prevent the prosecution of the reformists," Larijani didn't say. But it's clear that whatever their differences, Iran's top leadership isn't ready for an all-out war against the Green Movement and the reformists, just yet. That may very well indicate that the Green Movement isn't quite dead—indeed, that Iran's leaders fear that a spark might revive it.
Someone put angry pills into the New York Times’ editors’ cornflakes on Sunday morning. Or perhaps they were neo-cornflakes. In either case, the Times’ editorial on “China’s Naval Ambitions” sounded unhappily neocon-like.
Though the Times stipulates that “the Pentagon has a long history of hyping the Chinese threat to justify expensive weapons purchases,” it goes on to warn ominously of precisely that Chinese “threat.” The edit begins:
"Beijing’s drive to extend its military and territorial reach is making America’s close allies in the region nervous and raising legitimate questions about American diplomacy and future military procurement."
It then warns that China “seems increasingly intent on challenging United States naval supremacy in the Western Pacific,” and concludes:
“Dealing with a rising China could be Washington’s biggest challenge in the decades ahead. The United States has no interest in heightening tensions. A rapidly developing China has better uses for its new wealth than weapons. But when China pushes, as it is doing now, America needs to push back with a creative mix of diplomatic suppleness and military steadfastness.”
This is mostly baloney. Nowhere does the Times suggest that America’s own military budget, now equal to the rest of the world’s combined and about four or five times China’s entire defense budget, could be applied to those same “better uses” that it recommends for China. In fact, China is a rising world power, not merely a regional one, and its economic, political and yes, military power must be accommodated by a declining United States. Given America’s spiraling economic descent, we can no longer sustain global military dominance, and we’d better get used to the fact that rising powers such as China and India, along with regional powers such as Iran, will increasingly flex their muscle. Containing any of them, by a nation which can’t defeat a third-rate Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan, isn’t in the cards.
Quote of the Day:
“As one special operations warfighter said during the Pentagon’s review—this was one of my favorites… “We have a gay guy in the unit. He’s big, he’s mean, he kills lots of bad guys.”
—President Obama, speaking at the signing ceremony for the law repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Obama cited gay military heroism from the past, though he didn’t mention if there were any gays or lesbian American soldiers at My Lai or the fire-bombing of Dresden. However, if the United States decides to bomb the living daylights out of Iran, it’s entirely possible that gay and lesbian American air force pilots can openly take part in it.
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Quote of the Day
The US air force base at Bagram, Afghanistan, is “the centerpiece for the CENTCOM Master Plan for future access to and operations in Central Asia.”
--Admiral Mike Mullen, testifying last year on Afghanistan, quoted today in the Washington Post by Walter Pincus, who writes of the multi-billion dollar cost of the war, including an estimated $6 billion a year for decades to sustain Afghanistan’s army and police. Once they exist. (Did you know CENTCOM had a “Master Plan?”)
Two good reporters for the New York Times, Mark Maqzzetti and Dexter Filkins, write today that the United States is preparing for send troops across the border into Pakistan in pursuit of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and any other bad guys they can find. If there’s a worse idea, I don't know what it is. But it’s at least consistent with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign statements that he’d carry the war across the border to get Osama bin Laden, remarks that drew horrified opposition from Obama’s election rival, John McCain, the noted dove.
The idea, reported by the Times, isn’t policy yet. Thankfully. Like President Nixon’s decision to expand the war in Vietnam into Cambodia in pursuit of alleged Viet Cong “sanctuaries”—a decision that hugely destabilized Cambodia and led to millions of deaths—a policy of attacking Pakistan would destabilize that country, too, and serve only to push the sanctuaries deeper into Pakistan.
The Times report is already getting pushback and denials all around, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. At the very least, the Times report signifies that the military or the White House is seriously considering the proposal. Following last week’s ersatz review of Afghanistan policy, after which the White House apparently concluded that everything is fine over there except for the fact that the insurgents have bases in Pakistan, it’s not surprising that hawks in the Obama administration are pushing to expand the war.
Reports the Times: “Senior American military commanders in Afghanistan are pushing for an expanded campaign of Special Operations ground raids across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas, a risky strategy reflecting the growing frustration with Pakistan’s efforts to root out militants there … United States commanders have renewed their push for approval to send American commando teams into Pakistan.
The article is careful to note that the proposal hasn’t been approved, that Obama would have to personally OK it, and that there would at least be a “debate” about it.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the NATO command—not quite the same thing as “United States commanders”—has issued a “sharply worded statement” denying that it’s planning to move into Pakistan. “Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the deputy chief of staff for communications for the NATO force, said there was ‘absolutely no truth’ to reports of planned ground operations by US forces inside Pakistan.
Among the downsides of barging into Pakistan is the fact that if Islamabad becomes too grouchy about the US action, it could slow down or cut off the resupply of American and NATO forces, the vast bulk of which is trucked from Pakistani ports across the Afghanistan border.
Is Yemen the next war?
Last month, in The Dreyfuss Report, I wrote about recent news that the United States is considering a major escalation of its military activity in Yemen, specifically giving the CIA permission to work with US Special Forces to set up “elite US hunter-killer teams” and Pakistan-style drone attacks on terrorist targets. As I wrote then: “By bungling into Yemen with a massive US covert operation, the result is guaranteed to be an intensified crisis that will collapse and split the Yemeni government and lead to a Somalia-like state of disorder.”
So it was with interest that, on Friday, December 17, I went over to the Carnegie Endowment to hear John Brennan, President Obama’s chief adviser on terrorism, talk about Yemen. Brennan, you’ll remember, was Obama’s adviser on intelligence during the 2008 campaign, having served for a quarter century in the CIA. He’s a specialist on the Middle East, political Islam, and Saudi Arabia, and between his leaving in 2005 and joining the administration in 2009, I interviewed him several times. His main point then: that the United States shouldn’t be fighting a “war” on terrorism and that the military is not the most efficient instrument to deal with a problem like Al Qaeda and its allies.
At Carnegie, Brennan—who was a CIA analyst on Yemen in the 1980s—didn’t directly discuss US covert plans for Yemen, as you’d expect.
But the tone of his comments indicated that he sees the problem in Yemen, out of which several recent terrorist plots have allegedly arisen, through a political and economic lens rather than counterterrorist and military lens. Since setting up in the White House in 2009, Brennan has visited Yemen four times, each time meeting with Yemen’s wily and mercurial President Saleh, who sits atop a volatile mix of tribal, ethnic, and religious groups in a desperately poor country that is running out of both water and oil. “President Saleh and I have had many animated conversations,” he said. Brennan noted that one-third of Yemenis are starving and that only forty percent have electricity. It is, he said, “an attractive recruiting ground for Al Qaeda.” A number of Al Qaeda types fled a crackdown in Saudi Arabia a couple of years ago, and landed in Yemen, where they “pose a serious threat to Yemen, to Saudi Arabia, and to the United States,” said Brennan.
But, at the very start of his talk, Brennan said that the watchwords for his ideas about Yemen are “cooperation” and “engagement.” The key, he said, is a “comprehensive approach to support Yemen,” bringing in regional partners such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE along with the UK, Germany, and other players who belong to an assistance group called the Friends of Yemen forum.” Brennan emphasized that dealing with Yemen as a terrorist recruiting ground “will take patience,” and that Yemen will have to resolve its twin civil conflicts—with rebellious forces in the former South Yemen and with Houthi rebels in the remote areas—and that Yemen will need vast international help to deal with its crushing economic crisis. “Development,” he stressed, “is the foundation of stability.” That's the right message.
On the other hand, Brennan mixed in tough talk, too, saying that the terrorist threat from Yemen will get an “appropriate response.” He noted that US military and security assistance to Yemen is up sharply—eightfold in two years—besides $130 million in non-security-related aid in 2010. “Going on the offensive against Al Qaeda means exactly that.” But Brennan didn’t comment at all about the reported plan for CIA covert action, nor did he address the recent Wikileaks report that President Saleh would pretend that US air and missile strikes in Yemen were actually carried out by Yemeni forces. When I asked Brennan if drone and missile strikes were counterproductive, if they are creating more terrorists than they kill, Brennan said, “That is really the key question.” But he didn’t answer it. It's one thing to apply military force very, very selectively against terrorist foes, but it's something else entirely to set in motion a vastly stepped up campaign that could destabilize Yemen fatally. Let's hope Brennan argues for caution, not excess, in dealing with this devastated nation.
Recently, I wrote about a report from the Brookings Institution, in which that think tanks organized a task force calling on President Obama to make a take-it-or-leave-it offer to Iraq to extend America’s military deployment there.
And before that, I published an interview with Ryan Crocker, the former US ambassador to Iraq, who suggested that leaving thousands of troops in Iraq for many years is an idea whose time has come.
But the New York Times has thrown cold water on the idea.
In a page one piece on December 19, headlined “Politics in Iraq Raises Questions on US Presence,” reporters Steven Lee Myers, Thom Shanker, and Jack Healy write:
"The protracted political turmoil that saw the resurgence of a fiercely anti-American political bloc here is casting new doubt on establishing any enduring American military role in Iraq after the last of nearly 50,000 troops are scheduled to withdraw in the next 12 months, military and administration officials say."
The number of US forces in Iraq is scheduled to drop to zero by the end of next year, and it appears that Admiral Mullen is getting impatient with Iraq’s pesky business of creating a new government, since it means that the United States has no one to negotiate an extended stay with. The Times quotes Mullen:
“I think everybody understands we can’t wait until the end of the year, and also that whatever agreement we are going to reach, we need to start working on that as soon as possible. There’s a finite amount of time. There is a physics problem with this, a mechanical problem, to physically move people and equipment out.”
At least one highly informed source that I’ve spoken with says that there is a very real chance that Iraq might seek Russian weaponry rather than be dependent on the United States. And the resurgent forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, happily backed by Iran, are now part of the government of Iraq—and they don’t want American troops around past 2011.
The Quote of the Day comes from the overlong feature in the Washington Post by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin on “Monitoring America:"
“Members of our team have been involved in training programs for several years now, many of which have been focused on local law enforcement, intelligence, homeland security, state police, National Guard units and the like. We’re seeing a considerable ramping up of interest in getting this kind of training.”
—Frank Gaffney, neoconservative extremist and Islamophobe, whose Center for Security Policy recently published “Sharia: The Threat to American,” a wildly distorted and alarmist attack on Islam and Muslim Americans. Don’t you feel better that Gaffney and his “team” are helping to train our police and intelligence officials?