Category Archives: Military

Toward A New Foreign Policy

Dispatches From The Edge


‘The American Century’ Has Plunged the World Into Crisis. What Happens Now?

U.S. foreign policy is dangerous, undemocratic, and deeply out of sync with real global challenges. Is continuous war inevitable, or can we change course?


By Conn Hallinan and Leon Wofsy, June 22, 2015.



There’s something fundamentally wrong with U.S. foreign policy.

Despite glimmers of hope — a tentative nuclear agreement with Iran, for one, and a long-overdue thaw with Cuba — we’re locked into seemingly irresolvable conflicts in most regions of the world. They range from tensions with nuclear-armed powers like Russia and China to actual combat operations in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.


Why? Has a state of perpetual warfare and conflict become inescapable? Or are we in a self-replicating cycle that reflects an inability — or unwillingness — to see the world as it actually is?

The United States is undergoing a historic transition in our relationship to the rest of the world, but this is neither acknowledged nor reflected in U.S. foreign policy. We still act as if our enormous military power, imperial alliances, and self-perceived moral superiority empower us to set the terms of “world order.”


While this illusion goes back to the end of World War II, it was the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union that signaled the beginning of a self-proclaimed “American Century.” The idea that the United States had “won” the Cold War and now — as the world’s lone superpower — had the right or responsibility to order the world’s affairs led to a series of military adventures. It started with President Bill Clinton’s intervention in the Yugoslav civil war, continued on with George W. Bush’s disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and can still be seen in the Obama administration’s own misadventures in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and beyond.


In each case, Washington chose war as the answer to enormously complex issues, ignoring the profound consequences for both foreign and domestic policy. Yet the world is very different from the assumptions that drive this impulsive interventionism.

It’s this disconnect that defines the current crisis.


Acknowledging New Realities


So what is it about the world that requires a change in our outlook? A few observations come to mind.


First, our preoccupation with conflicts in the Middle East — and to a significant extent, our tensions with Russia in Eastern Europe and with China in East Asia — distract us from the most compelling crises that threaten the future of humanity. Climate change and environmental perils have to be dealt with now and demand an unprecedented level of international collective action.

That also holds for the resurgent danger of nuclear war.


Second, superpower military interventionism and far-flung acts of war have only intensified conflict, terror, and human suffering. There’s no short-term solution — especially by force — to the deep-seated problems that cause chaos, violence, and misery through much of the world.


Third, while any hope of curbing violence and mitigating the most urgent problems depends on international cooperation, old and disastrous intrigues over spheres of influence dominate the behavior of the major powers. Our own relentless pursuit of military advantage on every continent, including through alliances and proxies like NATO, divides the world into “friend” and “foe” according to our perceived interests. That inevitably inflames aggressive imperial rivalries and overrides common interests in the 21st century.


Fourth, while the United States remains a great economic power, economic and political influence is shifting and giving rise to national and regional centers no longer controlled by U.S.-dominated global financial structures. Away from Washington, London, and Berlin, alternative centers of economic power are taking hold in Beijing, New Delhi, Cape Town, and Brasilia. Independent formations and alliances are springing up: organizations like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa); the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (representing 2.8 billion people); the Union of South American Nations; the Latin American trade bloc, Mercosur; and others.


Beyond the problems our delusions of grandeur have caused in the wider world, there are enormous domestic consequences of prolonged war and interventionism. We shell out over $1 trillion a year in military-related expenses even as our social safety net frays and our infrastructure crumbles. Democracy itself has become virtually dysfunctional.


Short Memories and Persistent Delusions


But instead of letting these changing circumstances and our repeated military failures give us pause, our government continues to act as if the United States has the power to dominate and dictate to the rest of the world.


The responsibility of those who set us on this course fades into background. Indeed, in light of the ongoing meltdown in the Middle East, leading presidential candidates are tapping neoconservatives like John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz — who still think the answer to any foreign policy quandary is military power — for advice. Our leaders seem to forget that following this lot’s advice was exactly what caused the meltdown in the first place. War still excites them, risks and consequences be damned.


While the Obama administration has sought, with limited success, to end the major wars it inherited, our government makes wide use of killer drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and has put troops back into Iraq to confront the religious fanaticism and brutality of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) — itself a direct consequence of the last U.S. invasion of Iraq. Reluctant to find common ground in the fight against ISIS with designated “foes” like Iran and Syria, Washington clings to allies like Saudi Arabia, whose leaders are fueling the crisis of religious fanaticism and internecine barbarity. Elsewhere, the U.S. also continues to give massive support to the Israeli government, despite its expanding occupation of the West Bank and its horrific recurring assaults on Gaza.


A “war first” policy in places like Iran and Syria is being strongly pushed by neoconservatives like former Vice President Dick Cheney and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain. Though it’s attempted to distance itself from the neocons, the Obama administration adds to tensions with planned military realignments like the “Asia pivot” aimed at building up U.S. military forces in Asia to confront China. It’s also taken a more aggressive position than even other NATO partners in fostering a new cold war with Russia.


We seem to have missed the point: There is no such thing as an “American Century.” International order cannot be enforced by a superpower alone. But never mind centuries — if we don’t learn to take our common interests more seriously than those that divide nations and breed the chronic danger of war, there may well be no tomorrows.




There’s a powerful ideological delusion that any movement seeking to change U.S. foreign policy must confront: that U.S. culture is superior to anything else on the planet. Generally going by the name of “American exceptionalism,” it’s the deeply held belief that American politics (and medicine, technology, education, and so on) are better than those in other countries. Implicit in the belief is an evangelical urge to impose American ways of doing things on the rest of the world.


Americans, for instance, believe they have the best education system in the world, when in fact they’ve dropped from 1st place to 14th place in the number of college graduates. We’ve made students of higher education the most indebted section of our population, while falling to 17th place in international education ratings. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation, the average American pays more than twice as much for his or her education than those in the rest of the world.


Health care is an equally compelling example. In the World Health Organization’s ranking of health care systems in 2000, the United States was ranked 37th. In a more recent Institute of Medicine report in 2013, the U.S. was ranked the lowest among 17 developed nations studied.


The old anti-war slogan, “It will be a good day when schools get all the money they need and the Navy has to hold a bake sale to buy an aircraft carrier” is as appropriate today as it was in the 1960s. We prioritize corporate subsidies, tax cuts for the wealthy, and massive military budgets over education. The result is that Americans are no longer among the most educated in the world.

But challenging the “exceptionalism” myth courts the danger of being labeled “unpatriotic” and “un-American,” two powerful ideological sanctions that can effectively silence critical or questioning voices.


The fact that Americans consider their culture or ideology “superior” is hardly unique. But no other country in the world has the same level of economic and military power to enforce its worldview on others.


The United States did not simply support Kosovo’s independence, for example. It bombed Serbia into de facto acceptance. When the U.S. decided to remove the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi from power, it just did so. No other country is capable of projecting that kind of force in regions thousands of miles from its borders.


The U.S. currently accounts for anywhere from 45 to 50 percent of the world’s military spending. It has hundreds of overseas bases, ranging from huge sprawling affairs like Camp Bond Steel in Kosovo and unsinkable aircraft carriers around the islands of Okinawa, Wake, Diego Garcia, and Guam to tiny bases called “lily pads” of pre-positioned military supplies. The late political scientist Chalmers Johnson estimated that the U.S. has some 800 bases worldwide, about the same as the British Empire had at its height in 1895.


The United States has long relied on a military arrow in its diplomatic quiver, and Americans have been at war almost continuously since the end of World War II. Some of these wars were major undertakings: Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), Libya. Some were quick “smash and grabs” like Panama and Grenada. Others are “shadow wars” waged by Special Forces, armed drones, and local proxies. If one defines the term “war” as the application of organized violence, the U.S. has engaged in close to 80 wars since 1945.


The Home Front


The coin of empire comes dear, as the old expression goes.

According Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, the final butcher bill for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — including the long-term health problems of veterans — will cost U.S. taxpayers around $6 trillion. One can add to that the over $1 trillion the U.S. spends each year on defense-related items. The “official” defense budget of some half a trillion dollars doesn’t include such items as nuclear weapons, veterans’ benefits or retirement, the CIA and Homeland Security, nor the billions a year in interest we’ll be paying on the debt from the Afghan-Iraq wars. By 2013 the U.S. had already paid out $316 billion in interest.

The domestic collateral damage from that set of priorities is numbing.


We spend more on our “official” military budget than we do on Medicare, Medicaid, Health and Human Services, Education, and Housing and Urban Development combined. Since 9/11, we’ve spent $70 million an hour on “security” compared to $62 million an hour on all domestic programs.


As military expenditures dwarf funding for deteriorating social programs, they drive economic inequality. The poor and working millions are left further and further behind. Meanwhile the chronic problems highlighted at Ferguson, and reflected nationwide, are a horrific reminder of how deeply racism — the unequal economic and social divide and systemic abuse of black and Latino youth — continues to plague our homeland.


The state of ceaseless war has deeply damaged our democracy, bringing our surveillance and security state to levels that many dictators would envy. The Senate torture report, most of it still classified, shatters the trust we are asked to place in the secret, unaccountable apparatus that runs the most extensive Big Brother spy system ever devised.


Bombs and Business


President Calvin Coolidge was said to have remarked that “the business of America is business.” Unsurprisingly, U.S. corporate interests play a major role in American foreign policy.

Out of the top 10 international arms producers, eight are American. The arms industry spends millions lobbying Congress and state legislatures, and it defends its turf with an efficiency and vigor that its products don’t always emulate on the battlefield. The F-35 fighter-bomber, for example — the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history — will cost $1.5 trillion and doesn’t work. It’s over budget, dangerous to fly, and riddled with defects. And yet few lawmakers dare challenge the powerful corporations who have shoved this lemon down our throats.


Corporate interests are woven into the fabric of long-term U.S. strategic interests and goals. Both combine to try to control energy supplies, command strategic choke points through which oil and gas supplies transit, and ensure access to markets.


Many of these goals can be achieved with standard diplomacy or economic pressure, but the U.S. always reserves the right to use military force. The 1979 “Carter Doctrine” — a document that mirrors the 1823 Monroe Doctrine about American interests in Latin America — put that strategy in blunt terms vis-à-vis the Middle East: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”


It’s no less true in East Asia. The U.S. will certainly engage in peaceful economic competition with China. But if push comes to shove, the Third, Fifth, and Seventh fleets will back up the interests of Washington and its allies — Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Australia.


Trying to change the course of American foreign policy is not only essential for reducing international tensions. It’s critically important to shift the enormous wealth we expend in war and weapons toward alleviating growing inequality and social crises at home.


As long as competition for markets and accumulation of capital characterize modern society, nations will vie for spheres of influence, and antagonistic interests will be a fundamental feature of international relations. Chauvinist reaction to incursions real or imagined — and the impulse to respond by military means — is characteristic to some degree of every significant nation-state. Yet the more that some governments, including our own, become subordinate to oligarchic control, the greater is the peril.


Finding the Common Interest


These, however, are not the only factors that will shape the future.

There is nothing inevitable that rules out a significant change of direction, even if the demise or transformation of a capitalistic system of greed and exploitation is not at hand. The potential for change, especially in U.S. foreign policy, resides in how social movements here and abroad respond to the undeniable reality of: 1) the chronic failure, massive costs, and danger inherent in “American Century” exceptionalism; and 2) the urgency of international efforts to respond to climate change.


There is, as well, the necessity to respond to health and natural disasters aggravated by poverty, to rising messianic violence, and above all, to prevent a descent into war. This includes not only the danger of a clash between the major nuclear powers, but between regional powers. A nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India, for example, would affect the whole world.


Without underestimating the self-interest of forces that thrive on gambling with the future of humanity, historic experience and current reality elevate a powerful common interest in peace and survival. The need to change course is not something that can be recognized on only one side of an ideological divide. Nor does that recognition depend on national, ethnic, or religious identity. Rather, it demands acknowledging the enormous cost of plunging ahead as everything falls apart around us.


After the latest U.S. midterm elections, the political outlook is certainly bleak. But experience shows that elections, important as they are, are not necessarily indicators of when and how significant change can come about in matters of policy. On issues of civil rights and social equality, advances have occurred because a dedicated and persistent minority movement helped change public opinion in a way the political establishment could not defy.


The Vietnam War, for example, came to an end, despite the stubbornness of Democratic and Republican administrations, when a stalemate on the battlefield and growing international and domestic opposition could no longer be denied. Significant changes can come about even as the basic character of society is retained. Massive resistance and rejection of colonialism caused the British Empire and other colonial powers to adjust to a new reality after World War II. McCarthyism was eventually defeated in the United States. President Nixon was forced to resign. The use of landmines and cluster bombs has been greatly restricted because of the opposition of a small band of activists whose initial efforts were labeled “quixotic.”


There are diverse and growing political currents in our country that see the folly and danger of the course we’re on. Many Republicans, Democrats, independents, and libertarians — and much of the public — are beginning to say “enough” to war and military intervention all over the globe, and the folly of basing foreign policy on dividing countries into “friend or foe.”


This is not to be Pollyannaish about anti-war sentiment, or how quickly people can be stampeded into supporting the use of force. In early 2014, some 57 percent of Americans agreed that “over-reliance on military force creates more hatred leading to increased terrorism.” Only 37 percent believed military force was the way to go. But once the hysteria around the Islamic State began, those numbers shifted to pretty much an even split: 47 percent supported the use of military force, 46 percent opposed it.


It will always be necessary in each new crisis to counter those who mislead and browbeat the public into acceptance of another military intervention. But in spite of the current hysterics about ISIS, disillusionment in war as an answer is probably greater now among Americans and worldwide than it has ever been. That sentiment may prove strong enough to produce a shift away from perpetual war, a shift toward some modesty and common-sense realism in U.S. foreign policy.


Making Space for the Unexpected


Given that there is a need for a new approach, how can American foreign policy be changed?


Foremost, there is the need for a real debate on the thrust of a U.S. foreign policy that chooses negotiation, diplomacy, and international cooperation over the use of force.


However, as we approach another presidential election, there is as yet no strong voice among the candidates to challenge U.S. foreign policy. Fear and questionable political calculation keep even most progressive politicians from daring to dissent as the crisis of foreign policy lurches further into perpetual militarism and war.


That silence of political acquiescence has to be broken.

Nor is it a matter of concern only on the left. There are many Americans — right, left, or neither — who sense the futility of the course we’re on. These voices have to be represented or the election process will be even more of a sham than we’ve recently experienced.


One can’t predict just what initiatives may take hold, but the recent U.S.-China climate agreement suggests that necessity can override significant obstacles. That accord is an important step forward, although a limited bilateral pact cannot substitute for an essential international climate treaty. There is a glimmer of hope also in the U.S.-Russian joint action that removed chemical weapons from Syria, and in negotiations with Iran, which continue despite fierce opposition from U.S. hawks and the Israeli government. More recently, there is Obama’s bold move — long overdue — to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. Despite shifts in political fortunes, the unexpected can happen if there is a need and strong enough pressure to create an opportunity.


We do not claim to have ready-made solutions to the worsening crisis in international relations. We are certain that there is much we’ve missed or underestimated. But if readers agree that U.S. foreign policy has a national and global impact, and that it is not carried out in the interests of the majority of the world’s people, including our own, then we ask you to join this conversation.


If we are to expand the ability of the people to influence foreign policy, we need to defend democracy, and encourage dissent and alternative ideas. The threats to the world and to ourselves are so great that finding common ground trumps any particular interest. We also know that we won’t all agree with each other, and we believe that is as it should be. There are multiple paths to the future. No coalition around changing foreign policy will be successful if it tells people to conform to any one pattern of political action.


So how does the call for changing course translate to something politically viable, and how do we consider the problem of power?


The power to make significant changes in policy ranges from the persistence of peace activists to the potential influence of the general public. In some circumstances, it becomes possible — as well as necessary — to make significant changes in the power structure itself.


Greece comes to mind. Greek left organizations came together to form Syriza, the political party that was successfully elected to power on a platform of ending austerity. Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos Party — now the number-two party in the country — came out of massive demonstrations in 2011 and was organized from the grassroots up. We do not argue one approach over the over, but the experiences in both countries demonstrate that there are multiple paths to generating change.


Certainly progressives and leftists grapple with the problems of power. But progress on issues, particularly in matters like war and peace and climate change, shouldn’t be conceived of as dependent on first achieving general solutions to the problems of society, however desirable.


Some Proposals


We also feel it is essential to focus on a few key questions lest we become “The United Front Against Bad Things.” There are lots of bad things, but some are worse than others. Thrashing those out, of course, is part of the process of engaging in politics.


We know this will not be easy. Yet we are convinced that unless we take up this task, the world will continue to careen toward major disaster. Can we find common programmatic initiatives on which to unite?


Some worthwhile approaches are presented in A Foreign Policy for All, published after a discussion and workshop that took place in Massachusetts in November 2014. We think everyone should take the time to study that document. We want to offer a few ideas of our own.


1) We must stop the flood of corporate money into the electoral process, as well as the systematic disenfranchisement of voters through the manipulation of voting laws.


It may seem odd that we begin with a domestic issue, but we cannot begin to change anything about American foreign policy without confronting political institutions that are increasingly in the thrall of wealthy donors. Growing oligarchic control and economic inequality is not just an American problem, but also a worldwide one. According to Oxfam, by 2016 the world’s richest 1 percent will control over 50 percent of the globe’s total wealth. Poll after poll shows this growing economic disparity does not sit well with people.


2) It’s essential to begin reining in the vast military-industrial-intelligence complex that burns up more than a trillion dollars a year and whose interests are served by heightened international tension and war.


3) President Barack Obama came into office pledging to abolish nuclear weapons. He should.


Instead, the White House has authorized spending $352 billion to modernize our nuclear arsenal, a bill that might eventually go as high as $1 trillion when the cost of the supporting infrastructure is figured in. The possibility of nuclear war is not an abstraction. In Europe, a nuclear-armed NATO has locked horns with a nuclear-armed Russia. Tensions between China and the United States, coupled with current U.S. military strategy in the region — the so-called “AirSea Battle” plan — could touch off a nuclear exchange.


Leaders in Pakistan and India are troublingly casual about the possibility of a nuclear war between the two South Asian countries. And one can never discount the possibility of an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran. In short, nuclear war is a serious possibility in today’s world.


One idea is the campaign for nuclear-free zones, which there are scores of — ranging from initiatives written by individual cities to the Treaty of Tlatelolco covering Latin America, the Treaty of Raratonga for the South Pacific, and the Pelindaba Treaty for Africa. Imagine how a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East would change the politics of the region.


We should also support the Marshall Islands in its campaign demanding the implementation of Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty eliminating nuclear weapons and moving toward general disarmament. If the great powers took serious steps toward full nuclear disarmament, it would make it difficult for nuclear-armed non-treaty members that have nuclear weapons — North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and India — not to follow suit. The key to this, however, is “general disarmament” and a pledge to remove war as an instrument of foreign policy.


4) Any effort to change foreign policy must eventually confront the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which in the words of former U.S. Central Command leader James Mattis, is a “preeminent flame that keeps the pot boiling in the Middle East.” While the U.S. and its NATO allies are quick to apply sanctions on Russia for its annexation of the Crimea, they have done virtually nothing about the continued Israeli occupation and annexation of Palestinian lands.


5) Ending and renouncing military blockades that starve populations as an instrument of foreign policy — Cuba, Gaza, and Iran come to mind — would surely change the international political climate for the better.


6) Let’s dispense our predilection for “humanitarian intervention,” which is too often an excuse for the great powers to overthrow governments with which they disagree.


As Walden Bello, former Philippine Congressman for the Citizens’ Action Party and author of Dilemmas of Domination: The Unmasking of the American Empire, writes: “Humanitarian intervention sets a very dangerous precedent that is used to justify future violation of the principle of national sovereignty. One cannot but conclude from the historical record that NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo conflict helped provide the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan, and the justifications for both interventions in turn were employed to legitimize the invasion of Iraq and the NATO war in Libya.”


7) Climate change is an existential issue, and as much a foreign policy question as war and peace. It can no longer be neglected.

Thus far, the U.S. has taken only baby steps toward controlling greenhouse gas emissions, but polls overwhelmingly show that the majority of Americans want action on this front. It’s also an issue that reveals the predatory nature of corporate capitalism and its supporters in the halls of Congress. As we have noted, control of energy supplies and guaranteeing the profits of oil and gas conglomerates is a centerpiece of American foreign policy.


As Naomi Klein notes in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, the climate movement must “articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals, but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis. A worldview embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”


International and Regional Organizations


Finally, international and regional organizations must be strengthened. For years, mainstream media propaganda has bemoaned the ineffectiveness of the United Nations, while Washington — especially Congress — has systematically weakened the organization and tried to consign it to irrelevance in the public’s estimation.


The current structure of the United Nations is undemocratic. The five “big powers” that emerged from World War II — the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia — dominate the Security Council with their use of the veto. Two of the earth’s continents, Africa and Latin America, have no permanent members on the Council.


A truly democratic organization would use the General Assembly as the decision-making body, with adjustments for size and population. Important decisions, like the use of force, could require a super majority.


At the same time, regional organizations like the African Union, the Union of South American Nations, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Arab League, and others, have to be strengthened as well. Had the UN Security Council listened to the African Union, which was prepared to start negotiations with the Gaddafi regime, the current Libyan debacle might have been avoided. In turn that might have prevented the spread of war to central Africa and the countries of Mali and Niger.


Working for a dramatic shift in U.S. policy, away from the hubris of “American exceptionalism,” is not to downgrade the enormous importance of the United States. Alongside and in contradiction to the tragic consequences of our misuse of military power, the contributions of the American people to the world are vast and many-faceted. None of the great challenges of our time can be met successfully without America acting in collaboration with the majority of the world’s governments and people.


There certainly are common interests that join people of all nations regardless of differences in government, politics, culture, and beliefs. Will those interests become strong enough to override the systemic pressures that fuel greed, conflict, war, and ultimate catastrophe? There is a lot of history, and no dearth of dogma, that would seem to sustain a negative answer. But dire necessity and changing reality may produce more positive outcomes in a better, if far from perfect, world.


It is time for change, time for the very best efforts of all who nurture hopes for a saner world.


Conn Hallinan is a journalist and a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus. His writings appear online at Dispatches From the Edge. Leon Wofsy is a retired biology professor and long-time political activist. His comments on current affairs appear online at Leon’s OpEd.

The authors would like to thank colleagues at Foreign Policy In Focus and numerous others who exchanged views with us and made valuable suggestions. We also appreciate Susan Watrous’ very helpful editorial assistance.



Filed under Afghanistan, Africa, Asia, Central Asia, China, Europe, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Yemen, Etc, Middle East, Military, Oil, Pakistan, Syria

Kenya’s Sorrow: The U.S. Connection

Kenya’s Sorrow: The U.S. Connection

Dispatches From The edge

April 16, 2015



The systematic murder of 147 Kenyan university students by members of the Somalia-based Shabab organization on April 2 is raising an uncomfortable question: was the massacre an unintentional blowback from U.S. anti-terrorism strategy in the region? And were the killers forged by an ill-advised American supported Ethiopian invasion that transformed the radical Islamic organization from a marginal player into a major force?


As Kenyans were mourning their dead, opposition figures were openly opposing Kenya’s occupation of southern Somalia and bringing into question Washington’s blueprint for fighting terrorism: drones, Special Forces, and regional proxies.


Speaking in the port of Mombasa, former prime minister and opposition leader Raila Odinga called for the withdrawal of Kenyan troops, as did the Speaker of the National Assembly, Justin Muturi. Speaking at the funeral for one of the victims, Senator James Orengo said, “We know very well the consequences of a war of occupation. We must withdraw our troops from Somalia to end this.”


Absent from most of the mainstream American media was an examination of exactly what role the U.S. has played in Somalia over the past decade, and how Washington has helped create the current crisis.


A little history.


When military dictator Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, Somalia fell into the chaos of clan warfare, sparking off a U.S. military intervention in 1992. While billed as a “humanitarian intervention,” the Americans aggressively sought to suppress the plague of warlords that had turned the nation’s capital, Mogadishu, into a shattered ruin. But the expedition derailed in 1993 after 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed in the infamous Black Hawk down incident. The U.S. withdrew the following year.


Which doesn’t mean the U.S. went away, or that it didn’t apply a new strategy for Africa, one designed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation. The genesis of that plan came from James Carafano, a West Point graduate and head of Heritage’s foreign policy section, and Nile Gardiner, director of the think tank’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, who drew up a document entitled “U.S. Military Assistance for Africa: A Better Solution.”


The strategy called for the creation of a U.S. military command for Africa, a focus on terrorism, and direct military intervention using air power and naval forces. The authors argue against putting U.S. troops on the ground, instead enlisting those of allies. Those recommendations were adopted by the Bush administration—and later the Obama administration—lock, stock and barrel. African Command (Africom) was created, as along with the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, to train troops in 16 nations that border the vast area embraced by world’s biggest desert.


While targeting “terrorism” is the strategy’s public face, Carafano and Gardiner argue that U.S. “vital interests” are involved on the continent, “With its vast natural and mineral resources,” Africa, say the two scholars, “remains important to the West, as it has been for hundreds of years, and its geostrategic significance is likely to rise in the 21st century.”


A major rationale behind the strategy is to checkmate Chinese influence in Africa and short circuit Beijing’s search for raw materials. China gets about one third of its oil from Africa, plus platinum, copper, timber and iron ore.
The new policy made its début in Somalia when the U.S. actively aided Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion to support the unpopular and isolated the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFGS). The invasion overthrew the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had brought Somalia its first stable government in 15 years.


The ICU was a coalition of Islamic organizations that included a small group calling itself the “Shabab,” Arabic for “Youth.” While the ICU was Islamic in ideology, it was more moderate than the Shabab. The ICU also had more support than the TFGS, because it had routed the clan warlords who had dominated Somalia since 1991.


However, those warlords—united in an organization incongruously called the “Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism”—were strongly supported by the U.S. CIA. Claiming that the ICU was linked to Al-Qaeda, Washington leaned on Ethiopia to invade. When they did, U.S. Special Forces based in Djibouti accompanied them and gave them intelligence and equipment. The U.S. Navy shelled a town in Southern Somalia, killing, according to Oxfam and the United Nations, 70 civilians and wounding more than a 100. While the New York Times claims that U.S. support for the invasion was “covert,” it was anything but.


The powerful Ethiopian Army crushed the ICU, but the brutality of the occupation that followed fired up a resistance movement led by the Shabab. Given that Ethiopians and Somalians are traditional enemies, and that the former is largely Christian, the latter overwhelmingly Muslim, one wonders what Washington was thinking when it backed the invasion.


It was the 2006 Ethiopian-U.S. invasion that turned the Shabab into a major player, just as the invasion of Iraq fueled the creation of, first, Al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.


The Shabab quickly took over most of southern and central Somalia, although their brutality and strict interpretation of Islam eventually alienated them from much of the population. However, the one thing that Somalians could unite around was expelling the Ethiopians, and after two years of ambushes, roadside bombs and suicide vests, Addis Abba withdrew most its forces.


At the time, the Shabab was not affiliated with Al-Qaeda—it did not do so until 2012—and its concerns were mainly local. The organization was more like the Taliban in Afghanistan, albeit with a more extreme interpretation of Islam. But that distinction was lost on Washington, which pressed the African Union (AU) to send in troops. In 2007, the AU, with UN compliance, established the African Union Mission in Somalia (AUMIS) and deployed 9,000 troops to support the TFGS.


It is no coincidence that the bulk of AUMIS troops are from Uganda and Burundi, two countries that receive U.S. aid, as does Ethiopia. From 2009, U.S. military aid to Addis Abada jumped 256 percent.


The U.S. also footed the bill for private mercenary organizations, like Bancroft Global Development, to train Ugandan and Burundi troops in counter-insurgency warfare. The fact that Bancroft is a private company shields it from public scrutiny, including by the U.S. Congress.


While the initial AUMIS deployment was not very successful, it finally drove the Shabab out of the nation’s capital, Mogadishu, although that was, in part, a reflection of the Shabab’s loss of support among Somalians, alienated by the group’s brutality. Eventually the organization was driven out of all Somalia’s major cities. But even with numerous setbacks, a recent attack in the capital that killed 15 people and wounded 20 demonstrates the Shabab still has a bite.


Kenya—another recipient of U.S. aid whose soldiers are trained by U.S. Special Forces—invaded southern Somalia in 2011 and seized the Shabab-controlled port of Kismayo . While publically the reason for the invasion was Shabab kidnappings of Kenyans and tourists, apparently Nairobi has long had its eye on the port of Lamu as part of a development plan for the northeast part of the country.


Again, the Shabab was scattered rather easily, but only then to resort of guerilla war and attacks on civilian targets in Kenya and Uganda. In 2011, it set off two bombs in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 76 people. In 2013, it killed 67 people in a shopping mall in Nairobi and then topped that with the massacre at Garissa University.


The response of the Kenyan government has been targeting ethnic Somalians living on the Kenyan side of the border with Somalia, threatening to close down one of the largest refugee camps in the world, and squeezing the country’s Muslim. Those are actions liable to alienate Kenya’s large ethnic Somali population and its minority Muslim communities. “Shabab needs to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion to gain a foothold,” security analyst Mohamed Mubarak told the Financial Times,” “And they may succeed if the Kenyan response is not thought out carefully.”


The blowback attacks have soured most Kenyans on the invasion. A poll taken last fall, six months before the Garissa University bloodbath, found that a majority of the country wants its troops out, and two in three Kenyans thought there would be more terrorist attacks.


What seems clear is that the Heritage Foundation’s blueprint for using military force in Africa has been a disaster. It has destabilized Somalia by overthrowing the ICU, spreading the war to Uganda and Kenya. It turned Libya into a failed state, which in turn unleashed a flood of arms that have helped fuel civil wars in Mali, Niger and the Central African Republic.


The widespread use of drones may kill some terrorist leaders, along with large numbers of civilians, and, rather than destroying organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Shabab, it ends up atomizing them into groups that are smaller and harder to track, but no less capable of committing mass murder. Indeed, for organizations like the Shabab and Al-Qaeda, drones have proved to be the 21st century’s most effective recruiting sergeants.


Military occupation sows the seeds of its own destruction, and, while using drones and proxies may keep the American death count down, that strategy ultimately creates more enemies than it eliminates.


The solution in Somalia (and Syria and Yemen) is political, not military. According to Bronwyn Bruton of the Council On Foreign Relations, the Shabab is “not a monolithic movement,” but includes leaders from the old Islamic Courts Union that the U.S. and it allies so disastrously overthrew. “Some of these leaders are extremists, and the idea of talking with them is unappetizing. But the United States can and should negotiate with them directly.”


In short, talking beats bombing and works better.











Filed under Africa, Military

Dispatch Awards 2014

Dispatch Awards 2014

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 1, 2015



Each year Dispatches From the Edge gives awards to individuals, companies and governments that make following the news a daily adventure. Here are the winners for 2014.


The Pandora’s Box Award to Israel and the U.S. for launching the world’s first cyber war and creating a monster in the process. In 2010 both countries secretly released the Stuxnet virus to disable Iran’s nuclear energy program, in the process crashing thousands of Teheran’s centrifuges.


According to a report by the security company Cylance, “Stuxnet was an eye-opening event for the Iranian authorities, exposing them to the world of physical destruction via electronic means. Retaliation for Stuxnet began almost immediately.”


The Financial Times now reports that “Iranian hackers have penetrated dozens of international organizations, including six top-tier oil and gas companies, six international airports, seven airlines, a blue-chip U.S. defense contractor, 10 prestigious universities, and the government computer systems of several Gulf states.”


An Iranian hacker program dubbed “Cleaver” has, according to Cylance, “extracted highly sensitive materials” from governments and key companies in Canada, China, France, Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Britain, China, Germany, India, Mexico, Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.


What ye sow, so shall ye reap.


The Golden Scold Award to Germany and Chancellor Andrea Merkel for lecturing the Greeks on profligate spending and forcing Athens to swallow crippling austerity measures, while at the same time bribing Greek military officials to spend billions of dollars on useless weapons.


According to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, arms dealers—mostly German, but also French, Swedish, and Russian—handed out close to $3 billion in bribes to secure $68 billion in weapons contracts over the next decade. One arms dealer dropped off a suitcase with over $800,000 in it at the Greek Arms Ministry.


Athens spent $2.3 billion to buy 170 German Leopard II tanks, which are largely useless for fighting in Greek terrain. In any case, the tanks were sent without any ammunition (although this past August The Greek Defense Ministry coughed up $69.9 million to buy ammunition from the German company Rheinmetall)


The Greeks also paid more than $4 billion to purchase German submarines that are still in dry dock, and, from all accounts, are very noisy. It is not good to be noisy in the silent service. According to Der Spiegel, the German company that makes the U-214 shelled out over $2 million in bribes to land the contract.


In the meantime, the austerity policies forced on Greece by the “troika” of international lenders—the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, and the European Union—has impoverished millions of people and driven the unemployment rate to over 20 percent (50 percent for those under 25). Since 2008, Greek infant mortality has risen 21 percent and child mortality is up 43 percent. Suicides are up 45 percent.


In exchange for the military spending, the Greeks got submarines that sit on the land, tanks they can’t use, and lectures from Merkel about saving money.


The Misplaced Priorities Award goes the Indian government for spending $33 million on a nearly 600-foot bronze statue of Indian independence leader Vallabhbhai Patel, while, according to the UN, 213 million Indians are undernourished—the most for any country in the world and constituting one out of every four hungry people on the planet. Some 48 percent of children under five are below weight, and India and Nigeria account for almost one-third of deaths among children under five. Inequality in earnings is worse in India than in any other emerging economy in the world. Life expectancy is actually better in Bangladesh and Pakistan.


Independent investigative journalist P. Sainath, who has covered rural India for decades, writes that “A total of 2,960,438 farmers have committed suicide since 1995.” In virtually every case the cause was debt to moneylenders and landlords.


Dispatches suggests Indian government leaders design a program to aid farmers, feed the poor, and take a moment to read Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozmandias.”


The Shoot-In-The-Foot Award to the Obama administration for ending the purchase of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines as part of U.S. sanctions leveled at Moscow over the crisis in the Ukraine. The RD-180—a cheap, reliable workhorse engine that has lifted U.S. Atlas III and Atlas V rockets into space since 1997—will cost $1.5 billion and six years to replace. A new engine means that launch vehicles will also need to be re-designed and satellite programs delayed. In the end, that could cost $5 billion.


In retaliation for the RD-180 ban, Russia will no longer lend its Soyuz rockets to supply the international space station. Asked how astronauts will get to the station, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested they “use a trampoline.”


The European Space Agency (ESA) will also take a hit. Besides losing the Soyuz taxi service to the space station, the ESA will lose access to the RD-180 engine as well, and will have to accelerate its troubled Ariane VI rocket program to replace the Agency’s Ariane V. The “VI” has been criticized as too big, too inflexible, and much too expensive—$4. 2 billion.


Russia announced it would shift monies it spends on the International space station to joint space projects with China.



The Dog Ate My Homework Award to the British Foreign Office for “accidently destroying” documents which would have shown that London was deeply—and illegally—involved in the U.S. CIA’s rendition program. Renditions moved terror suspects to countries that allowed torture, or kept the suspects in secret “black bases” where the CIA carried out its own torture program.


Britain allowed over 1,600 CIA flights in and out of the country and permitted suspects to be held at the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Complicity with the rendition program is a violation of British domestic laws against kidnapping, arbitrary detention, and the right to a fair trial. It also violates international laws against torture.


“It’s looking worse and worse for the UK government on Diego Garcia,” says Cori Crider, director of the human rights organization Reprieve. “They need to come clean about how, when, and where this evidence was lost.”


Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmons says the records were lost due to “water damage.”


The Mouse That Roared Award to the Marshall Islands for hauling the nuclear armed powers—the U.S., China, Russia, France, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea—before the International Court of Justice at Hague for violating Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Article VI calls for the “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and nuclear disarmament.” India, Israel and Pakistan are not treaty members—North Korea withdrew—but its hard to argue with the Marshallese on the subject of nukes: in 1954 the U.S. vaporized Bikini Atoll with a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb and irradiated thousands of islanders.


Over a period of 12 years, the U.S. detonated some 67 nuclear warheads with an aggregate explosive power of 42.2 megatons in the Marshalls. The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. The Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal found the U.S. liable for $2 billion in damages, but so far Washington has only paid out $150 million.


It wasn’t just Marshall Islanders who got zapped either. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that the U.S. Navy decommissioned some of the ships that had taken part in those tests at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The Navy then buried the nuclear waste around the island, creating numerous “hot spots.” Some 2,000 low-income or homeless San Francisco residents—who live in subsidized housing on the island—were assured there was nothing to worry about, and then instructed not to let their children dig in front or back yards (“Look, Mom, this rock glows in the dark!”).


Nuclear contamination was also found at several other California bases, including Alameda Naval Air Station, Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, and McClellan Air Force Base near the state’s capital, Sacramento.


Radiation, the gift that keeps on giving.


Golden Lemon Award once again goes to Lockheed Martin for its $1.5 trillion F-35 stealth fighter-bomber—the most expensive weapon system in U.S. history—that can’t get its software to work, won’t fly in the rain, and burns up trying to get off the ground. In fact, foreign buyers are beginning to have second thoughts about buying the plane at all. Canada just tested the F-35 against the old U.S. F-18 Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and France’s Dassault Rafale and found the only difference was that the F-35 was much more expensive: between $116 million to $160 million per plane, vs., respectively, $60 million, $90 million, and $64 million apiece.


The U.S. was forced to cancel the F-35’s debut at the prestigious Farnborough International Air Show in Britain because a plane caught fire trying to take off from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The F-35 has since been restricted to lower speeds and three hours flying time, not enough to make the hop across the Atlantic.


Lockheed Martin and Austal USA also scored big in the Lemon category with their Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), the USS Freedom and the USS Independence. The $37 billion LCS program will build a fleet of shallow draft, high-speed warships that, according to a recent Pentagon study, won’t survive combat. The Defense Department’s Director of Operational Testing and Evaluation, Michael Gilmore, says Lockheed Martin’s USS Freedom and Austal’s USS Independence, are “not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment and are not intended to be employed in a manner that puts them in harm’s way.”


Translation: if they get in a fight, they’re toast.


But that might not be a problem because the LCSs high maintenance requirements means the ships can’t get to where the action is anyhow. The USS Freedom spent 58 percent of its time in Singapore port—more than twice the average for U.S. Navy ships—and the USS Independence spent most its time tied up in San Diego.


A Farewell to Fred Branfman, who died from Lou Gehrig’s disease at 72. Branfman helped expose the secret U.S. air war against Laos that killed tens of thousands of civilians and sowed that tiny country with millions of unexploded bombs, weapons that continue to inflict pain and death on Laotians today. The U.S. carried out 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, dropping almost a ton of bombs for every person in that country. Branfman help to found the Indochina Resource Center, which documented what he had seen in Laos as an aid worker. He later wrote “Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War.”


























Filed under Europe, India, Military, Year Awards

Syria: Turkey In The Fray

Syria: Turkey In the Fray

Dispatches From the Edge

Dec. 16, 2014


The pieces for a political resolution of the Syrian civil war are finally coming together, but the situation is extremely fragile, which is not good news in a region where sabotaging agreements and derailing initiatives comes easier than sober compromise. But while many of the key players have already begun backing away from their previous “red lines,” there remains one major obstacle: Turkey.


Back in August, Abbas Habib, coordinator of the Council of Syrian Tribes, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to explore the possibility of a “preliminary conference” of the antagonists, first in Moscow, then in Syria. In November, the Russians also met with Qadri Jamil, a leader of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, an in-house opposition party that functions inside Syria. The outcome of the November talks was an agreement to “promote the launch of an inclusive intra-Syrian negotiation process on the basis of the Geneva communiqué of June 30, 2012.”


The 2012 Geneva agreement called for “the establishment of a transitional governing body, which would include members of the present government and the opposition, an inclusive National Dialogue process, and a review of the constitutional order and the legal system.” Implementation dissolved in the face of intransigence on all sides, and stepped up support for the armed opposition by Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf monarchies, plus the U.S., Turkey, and France.


But two more years of brutal warfare has accomplished very little except generating millions of refugees, close to 200,000 deaths, and widening instability in neighboring countries. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad admits there is no military solution to the war, and the U.S. has backed away from its “Assad must go” demand. According to David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, most of the rebels and their backers have also concluded that “Assad’s departure cannot be a precondition for talks.”


In essence, most of the players fear the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) more than they do of the repressive Assad regime. As Harland puts it, “Better to have a regime and a state than not have a state.”


But that approach runs counter to Turkey’s strategy, which has as its centerpiece the ouster of Assad. Indeed, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues that the threat of the ISIS is secondary to overthrowing the Damascus government, and that once Assad is gone, the Islamic extremists will disappear.


That analysis—shared by virtually no on else in the region—is why the Turks have locked horns with the U.S. by resisting to supporting the Kurds fighting to hold the Syrian border town of Kobani against the ISIS. Most of the Kurds involved in that battle are members of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD), an offshoot of Turkey’s long-time nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). As Erdogan told reporters, “The PKK and ISIS are the same for Turkey. It is wrong to view them differently. We need to deal with them jointly.”


But aside from the Syrian Army, the PYD is the only serious military force resisting the ISIS, a fact that even the U.S. has come around to recognizing. Initially reluctant to support a group tied to the PKK—officially designated a “terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union (EU)—the Americans have done a 180 degree turn, supplying the PYD with arms, ammunition and food.


Under pressure from the U.S., France and Britain, Turkey allowed a modest number of Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Iraq to cross the border and fight in Kobani, and agreed to train insurgents, including Kurds, to fight in Syria. But who those soldiers will fight is hardly clear.


So far, the Erdogan government has refused to allow the U.S. to use its huge Incirlik air base to bomb ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq unless Washington agrees to support Ankara’s four demands: a no-fly zone over Syria, a “safe zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border, training of rebels, and equal targeting of the ISIS and the Assad regime.


The Americans are already instructing rebel forces in Jordan and Qatar, are preparing to do so in Saudi Arabia, and appear willing to pick up the bill if Turkey opens up training camps. Washington, however, is less enthusiastic about a “safe zone,” which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called “premature.”


What a “safe zone” would actually involve is unclear, although Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Darutoglu says it should include the five northern cities of Ibid, Latakia, Hasakah, Jarablus, and Kobani, a significant slice of Syria.

Establishing it would certainly violate international law unless it had UN sanction, and Russia is unlikely to permit that. It would also put the Obama administration at odds with its Kurdish allies in Kobani, who see the “safe zone” as just an attempt by Ankara to meddle in Kurdish affairs.


The “no fly zone” would require the U.S. to smash up Syria’s air defense system and ground its air force. That would not be terribly difficult—though it has risks—but it would mean that the U.S. would essentially be at war with Syria. “No fly” zones also don’t have a particularly good track record in the region. The U.S. imposed no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, but it took the U.S. Army to overthrow Saddam Hussein.


As for equally targeting the ISIS and Assad, not even the Turkish public supports that. A recent poll found that 66 percent supported military action against ISIS, but not Ankara’s goal of regime change, and only a slight majority thought Turkey itself should take part in military actions against the Islamic State.


Part of this hesitation is the fear that the war will spill over into Turkey, something that has already happened to a certain degree. There have been several car bombings on the Turkish-Syrian border, and last year car bombs in the Turkish town of Reyhanli killed 43 people and wounded dozens more. While Ankara blames Syria, the locals blame the Syrian rebels.


In October, Turkish authorities in Gaziantep, a city 40 miles north of the Syrian border, seized dozens of suicide vests, hundreds of pounds of powerful C-4 explosives, grenades and Kalashnikov rifles. Local authorities say that ISIS is active in the area and has cautioned westerners they might be potential kidnap victims.


There are also proposals for local ceasefires that might lay the foundation for a general peace agreement. The UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffen de Mistura, is trying to work out an armistice in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Russia supports the proposal and de Mistura said the Damascus government expressed “constructive interest” in such an agreement.


De Mistrua met Dec. 7 with Hadi al-Bahra of the western-backed National Coalition and the following day with various rebel groups in Gaziantep


According to Al Monitor, the plan would “focus on the real threat of terrorism as defined by the resolutions of the Security Council,” reduce violence, and move toward a “political solution.” Under the terms of the ceasefire, all groups would keep their arms. This latter point is an important one, because an earlier ceasefire in Homs required disarmament, an action that many of the opposition groups interpreted as surrender.


But the Erdogan government is not happy with a focus on “terrorism” that doesn’t include the Assad government, a posture that has isolated Turkey regionally and internationally. At the 60-nation meeting in Brussels on Dec. 3, Turkey’s argument equating the ISIS and the PKK received zero support. “Erdogan’s fixation with regime change in Syria has blinded his practical decision-making,” Suat Kiniklioglu, a former member of Parliament for the President’s Justice and Development Party told the Financial Times.


Ankara’s obstinacy around Kobani touched off riots that killed more than 30 people in Kurdish towns and villages all over Turkey and threatens to derail one of the Erdogan’s more successful initiatives, peace with the Kurds.


Ankara is certainly in a position to cause trouble. It has already permitted rebel groups, including ISIS, to infiltrate fighters and supplies through its long border with Syria, and it is hard to imagine a lasting peace without a buy-in from Turkey.


The Erdogan government is not the only player in the Middle East that would like to see the Syrian civil war continue. Israel has been aiding rebel forces in Southern Syria and has bombed suspected government weapons depots on several occasions.


Getting all the rebel groups on board will be no picnic either. The ISIS is not interested in talking with anyone, and the Free Syrian Army has little support inside the country. The Kurds are willing to talk, but about what? Autonomy? The very thing that Ankara fears the most? Will the newly resurgent Republicans in the Congress—including some Democrats and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton—balk at anything that keeps Assad in power, if only temporarily? And in the end, the Syrian government may be deluded into thinking it can win a military victory.


Writing in Foreign Policy, journalist James Traub, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the proposed plan could lead to “an end to the war, a comprehensive reform of the constitution, and internationally supervised elections.”


There are myriad ways that a peaceful resolution of the Syrian civil war can be derailed, but the pieces for an agreement are on the table. Failure to put them together will accelerate the destabilizing effects of the war in neighboring countries and deepen the misery of the Syrian people.






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The Big Chill: Tensions in the Arctic

The Big Chill: Tensions In The Arctic

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 31, 2014


One hundred sixty eight years ago this past July, two British warships—HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—sailed north into Baffin Bay, bound on a mission to navigate the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. It would be the last that the 19th century world would see of Sir John Franklin and his 128 crewmembers.


But the Arctic that swallowed the 1845 Franklin expedition is disappearing, its vast ice sheets thinning, its frozen straits thawing. And once again, ships are headed north, not on voyages of discovery—the northern passages across Canada and Russia are well known today—but to stake a claim in the globe’s last great race for resources and trade routes. How that contest plays out has much to do with the flawed legacies of World War II, which may go a long way toward determining whether the arctic will become a theater of cooperation or yet another dangerous friction point. In the words of former NATO commander, U.S. Admiral James G. Stavridis, an “icy slope toward a zone of competition, or worse, a zone of conflict.”


There is a great deal at stake.


The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 30 percent of its natural gas. There are also significant coal and iron ore deposits. As the ice retreats, new fishing zones are opening up, and, most importantly, shipping routes that trim thousands of miles off of voyages, saving enormous amounts of time and money. Expanding trade will stimulate shipbuilding, the opening of new ports, and economic growth, especially in East Asia.


Traffic in the Northern Sea Route across Russia—formerly known as the Northeast Passage and the easiest to traverse— is still modest but on the uptick. The route has seen an increase in shipping, from four vessels in 2010 to 71 in 2013, and, for the first time in history, a Liquid Natural Gas Tanker, the, made the trip. On a run from Hammerfest Ob River, Norway, to Tobata, Japan, the ship took only nine days to traverse the passage, cutting almost half the distance off the normal route through the Suez Canal.


Which is not to say that the Northern Sea Passage is a stroll in the garden. The Arctic may be retreating, but it is still a dangerous and stormy place, not far removed from the conditions that killed Franklin and his men. A lack of detailed maps is an ongoing problem, and most ships require the help of expensive icebreakers. But for the first time, specially reinforced tankers are making the run on their own.


Tensions in the region arise from two sources: squabbles among the border states—Norway, Russia, the U.S., Canada, Denmark (representing Greenland), Finland, Iceland, and Sweden—over who owns what, and efforts by non-polar countries—China, India, the European Union and Japan—that want access. The conflicts range from serious to somewhat silly. In the latter category was the 2007 planting of a small Russian flag on the sea-bed beneath the North Pole by private explorer Artur Chillingarov, a stunt that even the Moscow government dismissed as theatrics.


But the Russians do lay claim to a vast section of the North Pole, based on their interpretation of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Seas that allows countries to claim ownership if an area is part of a country’s continental shelf. Moscow argues that the huge Lemonosov Ridge, which divides the Arctic Ocean into two basins and runs under the Pole, originates in Russia. Canada and Denmark also claim the ridge as well.


Canada’s organized an expedition this past summer to find out what really happened to Franklin and his two ships. The search was a success—one of the ships was found in Victoria Straits—but the goal was political not archaeological: Ottawa is using the find to lay claim to the Northwest Passage.


Copenhagen and Ottawa are at loggerheads over Hans Island, located between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. The occupation of the tiny rock by the Canadian military has generated a “Free Hans Island” campaign in Denmark.


The U.S. has been trying to stake out terrain as well, though it is constrained by the fact that Washington has not signed the Law of the Seas Convention. However, the U.S. has locked horns with Ottawa over the Beaufort Sea, and the Pentagon released its first “Arctic Strategy” study. The U.S. maintains 27,000 military personnel in the region, not including regular patrols by nuclear submarines.


The Russians and Canadians have ramped up their military presence in the region, and Norway carried out yearly military exercises—“Arctic Cold Response”—involving up to 16,000 troops, many of them NATO units.


But you don’t have to be next to the ice to want to be a player. China may be a thousand miles from the nearest ice floe, but as the second largest economy in the world, it has no intention of being left out in the cold. This past summer the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon made the Northern Sea Passage run, and Beijing has elbowed its way into being a Permanent Observer on the Arctic Council. The latter, formed in 1996, consists of the border states, plus the indigenous people that populate the vast frozen area. Japan and South Korea are also observers.


And herein lies the problem.


Tensions are currently high in East and South Asia because of issues deliberately left unresolved by the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco that ended WW II. As Canadian researcher Kimie Hara recently discovered, the U.S. designed the Treaty to have a certain amount of “manageable instability” built into it by leaving certain territorial issues unresolved. The tensions that those issues generate make it easier for the U.S. to maintain a robust military presence in the region. Thus, China and Japan are involved in a dangerous dispute over the uninhibited islands in the East China Sea—called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan—because the 1952 Treaty did not designate which country had sovereignty. If it came to a military confrontation, the U.S. is bound by treaty to support Japan.


Similar tensions exist between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, between Japan and Russia over the Northern Territories/Southern Kuriles islands, and between China, Vietnam, and Taiwan over the Spratly and Paracel islands. Brunei and Malaysa also have claims that overlap with China. Any ships traversing the East and South China seas on the way north will find themselves in the middle of several nasty territorial disputes.


In theory, the potential of the Arctic routes should pressure the various parties to reach an amicable resolution of their differences, but things are complicated these days.


Russia has indicated it would like to resolve the Northern Territories/Kuriles issue, and initial talks appeared to be making progress. But then in July, Tokyo joined Western sanctions against Russia over its annexation of the Crimea and the Ukraine crisis, and negotiations have gone into the freezer.


Moscow just signed off on a $400 billion oil and gas deal with Beijing and is looking to increase trade with China as a way to ease the impact of Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. At least for the present, China and Russia are allies and trade partners, and both would like to see a diminished role for the U.S. in Asia. That wish, of course, runs counter to Washington’s growing military footprint in the region, the so-called “Asia pivot.”


The tensions have even generated some good old-fashioned paranoia. When a Chinese tycoon tried to buy land in northern Norway, one local newspaper claimed it was a plot, calling the entrepreneur “a straw man for the Chinese Communist Party.”


The Arctic may be cold, but the politics surrounding it are pretty hot.


At the same time, the international tools to resolve such disputes currently exist. A starting place is the Law of the Seas Convention and a commitment to put international law over national interests. The Chinese have a good case for sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyus, and Japan has solid grounds for reclaiming most of the Southern Kuriles. Korea would likely prevail in the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, and China would have to back off some of its extravagant claims in the South China Sea.


For all the potential for conflict, there is a solid basis for cooperation in the Arctic. Russian and Norway have divided up the Barents Sea, and Russia, Norway, the U.S. and Britain are cooperating on nuclear waste problems in the Kola Peninsula and Arkhangelsk. There are common environmental issues. The Arctic is a delicate place, easy to damage, slow to heal.


As Aqqaluk Lynge, chair of the indigenous Inuit Circumpolar Council says, “We do not want a return to the Cold War.”










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Parsing the East Asian Powder Keg

China & The U.S.: The Past’s Dead Hand

Dispatches From The Edge

July 22, 2014



A major cause of current tensions in the East and South China seas are two documents that most Americans have either forgotten about or don’t know exist. But both are fueling a potential confrontation among the world’s three most powerful economies that is far more unstable and dangerous than most people assume.


Consider what has happened over the past six months:


  • In February, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assured Japan that the Americans would defend Japan in case of a military confrontation between Tokyo and Beijing. That same month, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said the Philippines could count on American support if there were a clash with China in the South China Sea.
  • In early May, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces practiced “retaking” islands of the Amami Group near Okinawa in a not-so-subtle challenge to China over the ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. That same week, U.S. and Philippine forces held joint war games, while President Barack Obama promised “ironclad” support against “aggressive” neighbors seeking to alter “changing the status quo” in Asia.
  • In mid-May, China challenged Japanese ownership of Okinawa, stating it did “not belong to Japan,” challenging Tokyo, and indirectly calling in to question the presence of huge U.S. bases on the island.
  • At the end of May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Tokyo would support the Philippines, Vietnam, and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in their disputes with Beijing over islands and shoals in the South China Seas.
  • On July 1, the Abe government “re-interpreted” Article 9 of its peace constitution to allow Japan to use military force in support of its allies. U.S. allies in the region supported the move. The Philippines agreed to allow the U.S. military use of the former American base at Subic Bay.


American naval vessels have accused the Chinese Navy of playing chicken off China’s coast. Chinese ships are blockading Philippine ships near a number of disputed shoals and reefs. Vietnam claims China rammed some of its ships. Japan scrambled a record number of fighter planes to intercept supposed incursions by Chinese and Russian aircraft. U.S. Senator John McCain called China “a rising threat,” and the Pentagon’s Frank Kandell told the House Armed Forces Committee that U.S. military superiority in the Pacific was “not assured.”


In short, “tense” doesn’t quite describe the situation in Asia these days, more like “scary.”


A major source of that friction are two documents, the 1951 “San Francisco Treaty” that ended World War II in Asia, and a little known doctrine called the AirSea Battle plan.


According to research by Kimie Hara, the Director of East Asian Studies at Renison University College and the author of numerous books on the Cold War in Asia, today’s tensions were purposely built into the 1951 Treaty. “Close examination of the Allies’ documents, particularly those of the United States (which was primarily responsible for drafting the peace treaty), reveals that some, if not all, of these problems were intentionally created or left unresolved to protect U.S. strategic interests.”


Hara say the U.S. wanted to create “strategic ambiguity” and “manageable instability” that would allow the U.S. to continue a major military presence in the region. She specifically points to disagreements over the Kurile/Northern Territories Islands, the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the Spratley/Nansha and Paracel/Xisha islands, the divided Korea, and the Taiwan Straits. All of these—plus a few others—have led to tensions or confrontations among Japan, China, Russia, the Philippines, Vietnam, South and North Korea, Malaysia and Brunei.


Neither China nor Korea was invited to the Treaty talks, and while the USSR was present, it was not a signatory.


Sometimes the U.S. directly sabotaged efforts to resolve issues among Asian nations. In 1954, Japan and the Soviet Union restored diplomatic relations and were on the verge of cutting a deal over the Kurlies/Northern Territory islands, essentially splitting the difference: Japan would take two islands, the USSR another two.


However, Washington was worried that a peace treaty between Tokyo and Moscow would eventually lead to diplomatic ties between Japan and communist China, and that would have exerted, says Hara, “considerable pressure on the United States to vacate Okinawa, whose importance had significantly increased as a result of the Americas’ Cold War strategy in Asia.” Okinawa was a major base for the U.S. during the Korean War.


So Washington torpedoed the deal, telling Tokyo that if it did not demand all four islands, the U.S. would not return Okinawa to Japan. The U.S. knew the Soviets would reject the Japanese demand, which would scuttle efforts to reduce tensions between the two nations. There is still no peace treaty between Russia and Japan.


AirSea Battle (ASB) has been official U.S. military doctrine in Asia since 2010, and what it calls for is chilling: the military defeat—WW II style—of China. Not even during the height of the Cold War did the U.S. and it allies envision defeating the Soviet Union, seeking to rather “contain” it.


In the 1990s, China began building a military that could defend its coastal waters. Called “denial of access,” it includes a variety of anti-ship and ballistic missiles, stealth submarines, cyber warfare and space surveillance. China’s turn from its traditional reliance on land forces to “denial of access” was given a major push in 1996 when the Clinton administration deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Straits during a period of tension between China and Taiwan. Beijing could do nothing about it, and the Chinese military was deeply embarrassed.


ASB is designed to neutralize “denial of access” by “blinding” Chinese radar and surveillance capabilities, destroying missile sites and command centers, and, according to Amitai Etzioni of Washington University—author of books on U.S. foreign policy and a former Senior Advisor to the White House under Jimmy Carter—allowing U.S. military forces to “enter contested zones and conclude the conflict by bringing to bear the full force of their material military advantage.”


A land invasion of China?


The potential dangers involved in such an undertaking are sobering. Since ASB includes strikes deep into Chinese territory, Beijing might assume such attacks were directed at China’s nuclear weapons arsenal. The general rule with nukes is “use them or lose them.” According to Etzioni, the Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes that, “China is likely to respond to what is effectively a major attack on its mainland with all the military means at its disposal—including its stockpile of nuclear arms.”


While Pentagon officials claim that ASB is not aimed at any particular country, China is the only power in Asia capable of “access denial” to the U.S. military. Etzioni quotes one “senior Naval official” as saying “AirSea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition.”


The Chinese are fully aware of ASB, which does much to explain their recent assertiveness in the East China Sea. The Diaoyu/Senkakus are part of the “first island chain” through which Chinese submarines and surface craft must pass in order to exit Chinese coastal waters. If Japan controls those islands it can detect—and with anti-ship missiles destroy—anyone going from China to the Pacific.


The South China Sea disputes also find their roots in the San Francisco Treaty. China has a good case that Japan’s claim to the Diaoyu/Senkakus violates the 1945 Potsdam Agreement. Potsdam was supposed to dismantle Japan’s empire, including territories that it had seized during its years of expansion. The Diaoyu/Senkakus were absorbed by Japan following the1894-5 Sino-Japanese War, so China has a solid ownership argument.


However, it can make no such case for the Spratleys, Parcels or reefs and shoals of the South China Sea. It may be that defense considerations are driving some of those disputes—most of China’s energy supplies transit the region—but oil, gas and fishing rights would seem to loom larger. In any case, China appears to be in violation of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that guarantees countries a 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone.” China, using a 19th century “nine dash line” map claims “indisputable sovereignty” over 3.5 million sq. kilometers of the South China Sea, a sea that borders six nations and through which one third of the world’s shipping passes.


While China’s forceful behavior in the East China Sea is somewhat understandable, throwing its weight around in the South China Sea has given the U.S. an opportunity to exploit the situation. Because of tensions between China the Philippines, the U.S. military was invited back into the islands. And China’s unilateral actions in the Paracels has some Vietnamese talking about a military relationship with Washington.


All sides need to take a step back.


China should adhere to a 2002 ASEAN code of conduct to consult and negotiate its disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines, and to bring the issue of the Diaoyu/Senkaku before the International Court.


The U.S. should back off its blank check support for the rightwing Abe government. Tokyo started this fight in 2010 by first arresting a Chinese fisherman—thus violating an agreement not to apply domestic trespassing laws to fishing violations—and then unilaterally declaring sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkakus in 2012, a violation of a 1972 agreement with China to leave that issue up to negotiations.


Washington sould also reverse its expensive expansion of military forces in Asia—the so-called “Asia pivot”—and reconsider the folly of the AirSea Battle doctrine. According to Raoul Heinrich of Australian University, ASB “will greatly increase the range of circumstances for maritime brinkmanship and dangerous naval incidents.” Establishing military “hot lines” between the major powers in the region would also be helpful.


The current tensions are exactly what the San Francisco Treaty was designed to do: divide and conquer. But with the potential dangers of escalation embedded in the doctrine of AirSea Battle, local tensions are threatening international order.




















Filed under Asia, China, Military

WikiLeaks, Ukraine & NATO

WikiLeaks, Ukraine & NATO

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 10, 2014

Is the Russian occupation of the Crimea a case of aggressive expansionism by Moscow or aimed at at blocking a scheme by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to roll right up to the Russia’s western border? WikiLeaks has revealed a secret cable describing a meeting between French and American diplomats that suggests the latter, a plan that has been in the works since at least 2009.

Titled “A/S Gordon’s meeting with policy makers in Paris,” the cable summarizes a Sept. 16, 2009 get-together between Philip Gordon, then assistant U.S. Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, and French diplomats Jean-David Levitte, Damien Loras, and Francois Richier. Gordon is currently a special assistant to President Obama on the Middle East.

While the bulk of the cable covers an exchange of views concerning Iran, the second to last item is entitled “NATO’s enlargement and strategic concept.” At this point Levitte, former French ambassador to the U.S. from 2002 to 2007, interjects that “[French] President [Nicholas] Sarkozy was ‘convinced’ that Ukraine would one day be a member of NATO, but that there was no point in rushing the process and antagonizing Russia, particularly if the Ukrainian public was largely against membership.” Gordon goes on to paraphrase Levitte’s opinion that, “the Bucharest summit declaration was very clear that NATO had an open door and Ukraine and Georgia have a vocation in NATO.”

Levitte is currently a fellow at the conservative Brookings Institute.

At the April 2008 NATO summit in Romania, Croatia and Albania were asked to join—they did so in 2009—and postponed a decision concerning Georgia and Ukraine until December 2008. But in August, Georgian forces attacked the breakaway province of South Ossetia—possibly under the delusion that NATO would come to their aid—setting off a short and disastrous war with Russia. The vote on Georgia and Ukraine was shelved both by that war and a Gallup Poll indicating that 40 percent of Ukrainians considered NATO a threat, while only 17 percent had a favorable view of the alliance.

The move by NATO to extend the alliance to the Russian border is a controversial one that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of a February 1990 agreement between then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany.

The issue at the time was Germany and NATO. Under the treaty ending World War II, the Soviets had a right to keep troops in Eastern Germany. The U.S. and the Germans were trying to negotiate a reunion of the two Germanys that would remove the 380,000 Soviet troops in the East, while maintaining U.S. and NATO forces in the West.

The Russians were willing to exit their troops, but only if U.S. and NATO forces did not fill the vacuum. On Feb. 9, Gorbachev told Baker “any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.” Baker assured him that “NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward.”

The Baker-Gorbachev meeting was followed the next day by a meeting between Gorbachev and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who assured the Soviet leader that “naturally NATO could not expand its territory” into East Germany. And, in a parallel meeting between West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, Genscher told Shevardnadze “for us, it stands firm: NATO will not expand to the East.”

But none of the assurances were put in writing and, as the Soviet Union began to implode, the agreement was ignored and NATO forces moved into the old East Germany. Despite Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s complaint that NATO’s eastward march “violated the spirit” of the agreement, Russia was in no position to do anything about it.

As former New Republic editor Peter Beinart notes in The Atlantic, the decision to expand NATO was considered to be “recklessly provocative” by a number of foreign policy experts. “As eminent Cold War historian John Lewis wrote, “Historians—normally so contentious—are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill-considered, ill-timed, and above all ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.”

But with Russia severely weakened, Cold War triumphalism took over: President Bill Clinton took NATO to war in Yugoslavia in 1995, and put troops into Bosnia. By 1997 Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO, followed in 2004 by seven Soviet bloc countries, including former Soviet republics Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” was expanded to include the former Soviet Republics of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

The recent “bailout” offer to Ukraine by the European Union contained a clause that would have tied Kiev to the EU’s military organization.

In short, Russians feel like they are surrounded by hostile forces, a fact critics of Moscow’s moves in the Crimea should keep in mind.

The danger of pushing a military alliance up to the borders of a potential adversary was made clear this week when NATO began deploying forces in the Baltics and Poland, and the U.S. sent a guided missile destroyer into the Black Sea.

The Pentagon announced it was sending F-16 fighter-bombers and F-15 fighters to Poland and the Baltic States, as well as C-130 transport planes and RC-135 aerial tankers. In the case of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, this will result in an increase in NATO forces on Russia’s northern border.

The USS Truxtun is an Arleigh Burke class destroyer armed with cruise missiles and anti-ship Harpoon missiles. Cruise missiles can carry a nuclear warhead. According to the U.S. Navy, the Truxtun’s mission has nothing to do with the crisis in the Ukraine but is simply carrying out joint maneuvers with the tiny Romanian and Bulgarian navies.

It is unlikely that the USS Truxtun will go looking for trouble or that the F-15s and F-16s will play chicken with Russian MIGs and Sukhois, but mistakes happen, particularly when tensions are high. It is exactly the current situation that Gorbachev was trying to avoid back in 1990, and why NATO’s relentless march east puts more than the Ukraine in harm’s way.



Filed under Europe, Military