Thursday, 31 July 2014

US superpower may not retire but it can at least work towards maturity

A reader pointed out an article on the Telegraph website by US editor Peter Foster tackling US President Barack Obama’s lack of action in the world’s hotspots. In it, the author rightly concludes that doing nothing can very often have profound consequences, as can acting irrationally or “precipitously” as he put it.

Earlier stories on this site looked at Mr Obama’s strategy of non-intervention in two flashpoints around the globe: Ukraine and Syria. The Telegraph article looks at the same question in a different light. But I believe the author is misguided. It also offers another chance to describe what I think is happening in the world in this new modern age.
New Zealand's overseas business interests will be directly affected by how often Mr Obama decides to deploy his armed forces, so it's important to get into his head and try to see where the faultlines are in the new global environment. I'm still unconvinced the situation in Europe after the crash of MH17 is as "shaky" as the author describes it. Again, I'd encourage taking a step back to look at what's going on in Europe from the Russian perspective.

As explained in a previous story, Ukraine and Crimea mean everything to Russia. But they mean considerably less to America. It's hard to know exactly what Europeans think but it looks like a mixed bag. Sure, Russia's adventures might appear to be a rising monster but Russia is weak.

Without wanting to simplify a complex history, what essentially stopped the Russians from taking over the world during in the Cold War was not incompetence from their leadership (although that didn't help); it was Russian geography. Russia owns a horrible piece of land surrounded by much more powerful neighbours. In 2014 Mr Putin is just doing what Russians always do: pushing its boundaries as far as possible until it gains either poltical or military safety or until they hit a natural obstacle like a mountain range or sea.

But in the end, Mr Putin won't be able to push his borders far enough and just as in 1991 and every time before, he will lead Russia to a destructive collapse. Mr Obama is not as stupid or weak as these commentators seem to think. I suspect he understands this acute Russian vulnerability better than most. So long as the West can contain Russia (it worked pretty well last time), then it might be able to give Mr Putin just enough rope to hang himself.

And that's essentially what happened with the MH17 shootdown. The whole rebellion in eastern Ukraine was stalemated for weeks before that aircraft crashed. It was not going to end soon and it was definitely not going to end in Mr Putin's favour. He pushed it too far and now he has innocents' deaths on his hands. All this bloodlust for American military intervention misses a basic point about our modern world. Hard power is not enough anymore and doesn't work in the same way it used to.

In the good old days you could just move masses of men and metal around the world to fix whatever was going on. An aircraft carrier parked off the coast was often more effective than a thousand strongly worded diplomatic letters. And there was a time when no one lost any sleep over a bunch of guerrillas hiding out in the grasslands of Ukraine or in the badlands of the Hindu Kush. 

But now aircraft carriers don't even factor into the plans of Russian militants or al Qaeda footsoldiers. They conduct their violence and spread it around the globe as if the American or NATO militaries didn’t exist. The old ways of countering military threats simply do not apply in the modern world. Just take one tiny, isolated example: tanks on the modern battlefield.

Tanks are meant to smash through fortified enemy fixed positions, circle around and attack those same positions from behind where the logistics and material lie exposed. They were perfect for blitzkrieg-type attacks or in theatres such as the Fulda Gap in Germany. But tanks have been rarely, if ever, used like that at all in the modern era.

Right now, they're being deployed in Syria to fight small numbers of largely unprotected militant groups in isolated pockets in built-up suburbs. The tactic often neutralises the militants but tank crews are experiencing a world of pain operating in an environment their machines simply weren’t built for.
The idea of armour moving through cities might be ad hoc and is "kind of" working. It's not ideal and everyone's trying to find a better way but it's the best method we have at the moment to fight this new emerging and decentralised threat.

Zoom out to the wider picture and the tank problem is a microcosm of exactly what's happening right across the world. Military theory is being upended by new threats requiring whole new ways of thinking. How can America deal with threats that cannot be solved by masses of men and metal (hard power)? We don't know. We've tried fighting fire with fire by sending intelligence officers and special forces but that doesn't give us the results we used to get by sending in thousands of tanks and troops.

So asking Mr Obama to send Marines into any region each time something bad happens is making the classic military mistake of fighting the last war, rather than the next one. We need a wiser way of addressing the world’s unrest and Mr Obama's hesitancy is not a bad place to start. At least it gives us time to think and adapt.

And it pays to remember just how many American troops are actually deployed across the earth at any one time. According to the CATO Institute, "the US has more than 200,000 troops in 144 countries ... it usually has another 20,000 sailors and Marines deployed afloat on Navy ships." Add to that the 12 aircraft carriers and hundreds of warships patrolling the seas, and it's hard to see where people get this idea that America is retreating or becoming isolationist. The US may not wish to engage in new combat roles but that hardly means it's drawing back into itself forever.

The reality is that a new American foreign policy of thinking before acting and treating the world as a dynamic place rather than an empire, is hard for the international community to digest. After all, this is hugely different from the way America acted over the last 100 years. But no one's been here before and no one has a clue about how to deal with future threats which in many ways are already upon us.

How quickly we all forgot what it was like in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. And we want to do this again in Syria? An arguably worse environment for intervention if the goal is to protect Western troops from horrific slaughter! Then we want to put NATO troops a few hundred meters from the Russian border just to root out a few separatists and "protect" Ukraine? This is presumably the same Russian border storing thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos across the country? 

Don't get me started on the idea of getting belligerent with China – another nuclear state – in some misguided plan to contain the rising dragon militarily. There are so many bad outcomes to this idea, and so few good outcomes, it almost doesn't bear thinking about. So no, the reasons for intervening in the world are never going to be clear-cut again. They will require more thinking and better tools. Both of which the world does not possess right now.

Mr Obama is thinking about this, and so is the rest of the international community. They are thinking about it urgently. They do know what is at stake, and they are trying everything they can to make the world a safer place. It is the foolish person who fights a battle they know they cannot win. And there are vanishingly few easy-to-win battles around the world right now.

If Mr Obama were to step into a conflagration each time they arose, the world would destabilse not stabilise, no matter what the interventionists dream. Intervention will be required in the future, that is guaranteed, but a cool head and serious thought must be applied.

No, superpowers do not get to retire, as historian Robert Kagan explained. But they most certainly should mature and the first step towards this is realising that a superpower is not always right or omnipotent. Right now, it looks like Mr Obama is laying the foundations for a new path toward greater order, rather than disorder, and I think we should all be applauding this.

After election, Indonesia's real struggles begin

Indonesian president-elect Joko Widodo is finally the 53-year-old leader of the $1.69 trillion Southeast Asian economy. Although a tough election campaign is behind him, his real struggles will all be ahead.

Now the dust has settled, the Indonesian election can be assessed. The winner, known as Mr Jokowi, gathered more than 53.2% of the vote after the system took two weeks to count the 135 million ballots filed from 480,000 polling station from across the archipelago. The fight was close, but not as close as first expected. The opposing political party of ex-military Prabawo Subianto won 46.9% of the vote but lost 23 of the country’s 33 provinces. In the end, Mr Subianto was defeated by 8.4 million votes.
Elected Indonesian President Joko Widodo 
delivers a speech to his supporters

The president-elect was placed 37 on the 2014 list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune magazine for his policies of transparency and honesty as mayor of the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

Mr Jokowi’s rival, Mr Subianto, has already mounted an expected challenge to the presidential results claiming voter fraud, but many Indonesian political parties appear to be abandoning his legal contest and siding instead with the new president.

The nation’s Constitutional Court will issue its verdict on Mr Subianto’s claim of voter fraud on August 21. His campaign points to irregularities involving 21 million ballots, which, if vindicated, would potentially upturn the official count. This will be the first democratic transition between two directly elected leaders. Indonesia has not been here before. Riot police were deployed a few days ago, but it appears Indonesia’s reputation for peaceful transition is to remain undamaged.

Mr Jokowi, if the court throws out the rival claim, can expect to be inaugurated on October 20. Once that is over, the tricky part of actually governing the highly diverse nation of Indonesia will emerge.

As pointed out in a pre-election analysis, the president of Indonesia will face significant obstacles in keeping the country moving in the right direction. An incredibly wasteful fuel subsidy will need assessing, while a notoriously corrupt bureaucracy hampers a useful allocation of government funds for desperately needed infrastructure projects.

Indonesia is the 16th largest economy in the world. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) it grew 5.8% in 2013 and is expected to slightly slow to 5.4% this year. In contrast to many developed countries that struggle to grow more than a few percent, this will be the slowest growth rate for Indonesia since 2009. However, this growth figure is well off the desired mark. The World Bank predicts the country will need at least 9% annual growth by 2030 to escape the middle-income trap and reach high-income status.

The World Bank has isolated both the fuel subsidies and “subdued revenue growth” as major factors in the potential for Indonesia to miss that target. They also suggest greater amounts of foreign direct investment, which Mr Jokowi will attempt to increase.

A symptom of slowing growth, even while it remains high at over 5% per annum, has nevertheless encouraged resource nationalism and protectionism among lawmakers and business. Indonesia’s raw mineral export industry has now all but stopped after a ban on exporting unprocessed minerals went into effect in January this year. If Mr Jokowi wants to increase the GDP of his country he will need to reassess the wisdom of this and other protectionist laws.
Voting distribution in Indonesia
Red/Jokowi - Yellow/Subianto

Ultimately, doing business in Indonesia should become easier with Mr Jokowi at the helm. He has already promised to begin major investments in infrastructure, remove corrupt officials, and significantly tone down the fuel subsidies which cost the country more than $US20 billion each year.

All of those tasks will be controversial and Mr Jokowi will face pushback from entrenched interests throughout the country. His reputation for honesty and transparency served him well in his previous role as mayor of Jakarta, but the realities of high office often constrain the best intentions.

Despite corruption rising to almost epidemic levels over the past two years, Mr Jokowi has asserted that all his ministers ““have to be clean … have to be competent, have to have good leadership, and a commitment to serve the people” or else he would find a replacement among “more than a thousand other good people in Indonesia.”

Although other political parties appear to be siding with Mr Jokowi, less than 40% of the legislature backs his coalition and he faces competition from inside his own party. He may even need to reach out to his rivals for important political appointments which could tarnish his reputation.

Finally, regardless of the Constitutional Court’s verdict in August, the political atmosphere will be uncertain for the foreseeable future. A level of mistrust is natural in any political system, but too much doubt about Mr Jokowi’s leadership may dissuade important foreign investment.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Is Edward Snowden a whistleblower?

The claim that NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a whistleblower is hard to justify. The laws surrounding the rights of a journalist or whistleblower are full of grey areas. Things aren't black and white and they never have been.

But surely this applies to modern intelligence gathering requirements as well? Given today's technology, by necessity they will come closer to the everyday life of the average citizen. In the good old days, it was easy to send eyes and ears out to foreign lands where you knew all the bad guys were. 

There wasn't a liberal progressive on the planet who would have opposed the collection of Soviet missile telemetry in 1982. But now the bad guys are among us and using the same underground wires to talk that you use to call your friends. And yet the situation is the same: The NSA's job is to protect us from our enemies.

The NSA and GCSB must see your communications whiz by as they look for the bad communications, because there is no other way sort them out. If there were, the NSA would have figured out how by now.

In fact it's really unclear what Edward Snowden actually 'exposed' with his leaks. He tried to show the American public how the NSA was spying on its own citizens, but all he ended up exposing was an attempt to create a haystack of all the communications in order to find the needle of a terrorist or drug smuggler. Again, that's the only way to do this.

All he ever did was show the US public how the NSA was doing the job they were designed and paid to do in a new and very complex world. That people were concerned their privacy was being eroded was a natural feeling, but ultimately misguided. Nothing in Mr Snowden's leaks has proven that the NSA spies on US citizens out of habit. 

Stepping back for a moment, it's pretty much impossible for the NSA (even with its enormous budget) to spy on all US citizens at once. That's what the media and Mr Snowden want you to think, but that's simply not happening. They don't care what you're doing. The NSA is only trying to look for the threats. That can actually be proven in Mr Snowden's documents because those are the tools the NSA created.

So is Mr Snowden a whistle-blower, traitor or simply a very troubled young man? I'd say it's neither of the first two options, and probably the latter. The US public gained nothing by learning the secrets of the NSA, except to be morally outraged (if misguided in that outrage) and to learn a few things they maybe didn't need to know. 

But America's enemies lifted up the curtain of US espionage and set back the NSA and GCSB's intelligence gathering advantage significantly. Every free person on the planet is now in a more dangerous world because of Snowden's poorly thought-out political bias and youth.

I think the nomenclature of what Mr Snowden actually is should rely on the content of his claims. And so far, his leaks have not shown he was justified in taking those steps publicly. If he ever needs to be defended legally, I think he'll find it very difficult.

Is Obama's hesitancy endangering the world? Part 3: The Syria story

The Syrian situation is grim with many complex moving parts. But it is crucial to discuss if we’re to know whether United States President Barack Obama’s non-intervention policy is detrimental, neutral or positive for US interests and world security.

The international community wants US bombs on Syrian targets to stop the bloodshed, they say, even though this idea is generally poorly thought out and would be unlikely to decisively conclude the fighting. Nevertheless, Mr Obama is pleaded with to send US missiles into Syria.

Syria came under siege by domestic popular unrest soon after the so-called Arab Spring broke out in the Middle East in 2011. Mr al Assad is now essentially the strongest warlord in what can only be called a geographical representation - rather than a country.

Presently, the situation on the ground is locked in a stalemate between regime forces and potentially hundreds of disparate and mutually exclusive opposition groups. Many of the initial demonstrators have now been superseded by brutal Islamist forces looking create a Muslim state out of the chaos.

No militant group controls more than a tiny fraction of Syria. Fighting between and among these groups is limiting their ability to coalesce into a single-front fighting force against the al Assad regime. On top of this, the conflict has evolved into a proxy war. The pro-democracy groups are now asking the US for help; the Islamic groups receive assistance from the Gulf States; and the regime receives funds and personnel from both Russia and Iran.

The Obama administration threatened multiple times to intervene militarily in Syria if more chemical weapons were used. They were used, but the US has so far not fired one missile at regime forces. His “red line” on chemical weapons was belligerently stepped over without a forceful response. This, coupled with an estimated 100,000 war deaths, has sullied the American reputation for a strong defensive foreign policy in the eyes of moral people.

Back in 2011, there was a small window to use military force and end the conflict early. But while hindsight is crystal clear, it must be remembered how murky everything seemed three years ago.

The whole Middle East was in danger of immolation. The crisis caught the world’s best intelligence agencies off-guard as they scrambled to predict what was coming next. Syria initially looked to be a repeat of the dynamics in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt so surely the al Assad government would collapse too.

Pink: Controlled by the Syrian government, 
Yellow: Controlled by Kurdish forces, 
Grey: Controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, 
Green: Controlled by other rebels
But it didn’t and the window for easy intervention closed. As the conflict grew, the players changed and the potential for mistakes increased. Mr Obama explains that his hesitancy grew from the fear of uncontrollable Islamists grasping power from the vacuum. Equally disturbing for him, the US military would be intervening to boost one religious sect over another, certain nations over others and some ethnic groups over other groups. That is the perennial Middle East problem of layers, and Syria is a particularly acute case.

The US military would have no problem removing Mr al Assad in short shrift with airpower. But bomb-assessment damage is difficult from the air and it is impossible to man a checkpoint from a fighter aircraft. Ground troops would be necessary for total regime change which would inevitably lead to mission creep and casualties. America learned that sobering lesson in Iraq.

Removing Mr al Assad would not solve the Islamist or sectarian problem either. And the last thing Mr Obama wants is dead US soldiers and pilots as frustrated Syrians turn on the new American aggressors. Mr Obama wisely decided not to commit troops. Instead, he covertly delivered weapons and training, but only to endorsed rebel groups.

Ultimately, Syria is a horrific conflict but it is largely contained. Some fighting spilled into Lebanon, but it was curtailed by Iran-backed Hezbollah and was not a sustained attack. The Lebanese population is in no mood to join the Syrian rebels in an uprising.

Iraq is under some threat from an Islamist group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) operating from Syria. But Iraq’s patron Iran is committed to maintaining stability in that country and will do everything it can to keep IS at bay. Turkey is under no threat from Syria, neither is Jordan, Israel nor Iran. The fighting only truly affects Syria and Mr Obama knows this.

On the positive side – from a Western perspective - the Syrian conflict demands the concentration of Hezbollah and their sponsor Iran, depleting their resources as they prop up the allied al Assad regime. Which brings to mind the old phrase of never interrupting your enemy when they’re doing something foolish.

So long as Iran focuses on Syria, it cannot concentrate on other targets of interest. Iran may also lose important players, such as military commanders and intelligence officers. Every Iranian or Hezbollah loss in Syria is a US gain.

The US strategy for the region is not under threat. None of the trade routes through the Middle East are affected. Oil still flows, US allies are mostly protected, enemies are distracted and people are still talking.

The assessment is that Mr Obama’s non-intervention in Syria has benefited US interests in some ways, but it has also been detrimental in others. Overall, the situation in Syria is currently in a beneficial framework for US interests, but that could change in the future.

Map of Syria's ethno-religious composition in 1976
The Obama administration may have to rethink its Syrian policy if returning Islamists to the West conduct a large-scale terrorist attack. Large numbers of Islamist fighters have travelled from Europe and other countries. So the calculus of non-intervention may have to be re-assessed eventually. Presently however, the decisions to not send troops into Syria slightly benefits the US and international community as the players sort the fighting out by themselves.

Throughout his presidency Mr Obama pursued an ideology of non-intervention. He has decided to wait for results rather than rush in. This strategy is risky in the best of times, but with both Ukraine and Syria it seems to be the best of a bunch of bad options.

Limited wars tend to be long and difficult, so America needs a clear sense of what it’s trying to achieve. As US Admiral Mike Mullen puts it, “I am tired of interventionists picking up a stick without a strategy, without knowing the political and diplomatic outcome.”

Although wars cannot be avoided altogether, in future America is aiming to fight them less often and more wisely. The US learned a deep lesson in Iraq about intervention without an endgame, and it learned about the limits of airpower in Libya and Bosnia. Mr Obama wants the US to catch its breath. This is the first year in over a decade where America is closing its long wars and reassessing its strategy.

Whether Mr Obama knows what’s coming next is unknown. But he has a track record of calm rationality when facing witheringly complex scenarios. There may be good reasons to commit US troops to battle in the future, but America may finally be using adult judgement.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Is Obama's hesitancy endangering the world? Part 2: The Ukraine story

Ukraine is a country really only in the modern understanding of cartography. It, more than most, houses people-groups who do not live inside neatly divided borders and who do not recognise those lines of control even during peacetime.

Simplifying the current dynamics, there are people in the western Ukraine who are more attuned to the trajectory of Europe, while those further east look to Moscow for affinity.

So a cartoonish description of today’s Ukraine conflict understands it as a centuries’-old struggle between the right of Russia to be secure from the West, the equal right of the Ukrainians to direct their fate - even if that means a partition - and the right of Western powers to get involved.

From Russia’s perspective it can point to many invasions from the west, all of them destructive and all coming through Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are deeply connected, the very name of Ukraine means “borderlands”. The first amalgamation of Russia was in a place known then as Kievan-Rus.

Russia knows losing control of Ukraine would undermine its geopolitical strategy and it cannot let this happen. In an ideal world Moscow would have a puppet leader in Kiev, but if not, will try to keep Ukraine’s eastern sections in flux. European powers do not plan invasion on Russia today, but wise men in Moscow know how quickly philosophies and capabilities change. They are also more than a little suspicious as to why the Americans seem to be so eager to control Kiev.

Moscow’s goal is to ensure their right to never be subjected to invasion again. Kiev understands that fear, but doesn’t think they should sacrifice parts of their country to achieve this. The West is split between fostering democracy wherever it appears and letting Ukraine decide its future in whatever capacity that ultimately looks like.

Yet it really doesn’t matter who’s right. The Russians live in their homes and need something, as do the Ukrainians. And the West doesn’t really have a dog in this fight. Nevertheless, the international community is being asked to intervene in eastern Ukraine. However, no American troops have yet arrived in Ukraine and it is unclear whether covert forces are in the country, although it can probably be assumed they are.

Instead Washington focused on Poland delivering a few hundred troops and increasing its air-defence presence in the country. The Baltic countries also received a few more US fighter jets, but Ukraine got no US troops at all.

United States President Barack Obama instead stuck to politically supporting the new pro-Western Ukrainian leader. He has followed a typically Obama-esque hands-off approach and the conflict still smoulders. So, in the light of the recent civilian airliner crash, has Mr Obama’s approach been detrimental to US interests in Eastern Europe and beyond?

A democratic uprising sparked the current unrest, but this did not change the fact that Ukraine has never been a strategically important country for the Americans. Ukraine is a “nice-to-have” country in a very turbulent, far away region. The Americans maintain that if Eastern Europe is pro-Western, then it is by default not pro-Russian and therefore not a threat to either Europe or the US. That’s a good outcome, but achieving this across the region isn’t a critical goal.

In Eastern Europe the pivot state is actually Poland. That country sits strategically on the North European Plain squished between Germany and Russia. Poland - or its vague geographic outline - has always been the target of first aggression in European military scuffles. If the Russians are frightened of invasion sitting a thousand kilometers away in Moscow, imagine how Warsaw must feel in such a vulnerable location. But Washington’s goal is bigger than just Poland or Ukraine.

It must not let a large anti-EU, anti-western power control Poland. That would put all of central Europe in danger and bring the power closer to achieving hegemony over the European peninsula. This is a strategic imperative of the United States: that it must not let any power grow to a point where it can challenge control of strategic trade routes or deny American transit.

Poland is the pivot because there is still no telling what Germany or Russia will do. Current politics may look benign, but they can quickly change for the worse. This is especially true in Europe. The US understands this reality, leveraging Poland’s fear of being caught between Germany and Russia. So Washington will strengthen Poland to keep the US and Brussels safe - not necessarily Warsaw.

However, should the fighting in Ukraine spread westwards towards the capital Kiev, Washington may have to reconsider its position. And at some point, if it gets really bad, the US may ask NATO to intervene to protect Kiev.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin knows Mr Obama will not push very hard to incorporate Ukraine into NATO nor will they permanently base Marines near Kiev. He predicts the US will attempt only haphazard restoration of Crimea to Ukrainian control. Mr Obama’s rhetoric about Russia’s “adventurism” endangering the world is more about warning it not to overstep his bounds. Which, of course, implies the last few months did not constitute overstepping in Mr Obama’s eyes.

In understanding the US grand strategy, Mr Obama’s refusal to send troops to Ukraine was not such a horrible foreign policy after all. He gambled that Russia’s control over Ukraine would only bring status quo back to the region, not a fanciful new “era of Russian predominance” in Europe. That Russia only nominally now controls a small percentage of eastern Ukraine, rather than the entire country, as it did earlier this year, is actually a foreign policy victory for the Obama administration.

Pushing Russia back was achieved simply by supporting protesters and pro-EU politicians and did not require a single US armed forces company. Mr Obama’s refusal to use force in the early part of this year was derided as weak, but it has avoided the pitfalls of incomplete intelligence and flawed forecasts. He also spotted the geographical split between west and east Ukraine, gambling that the two sides would largely avoid each other. This is essentially what has happened.

Now that pro-Russian separatists have shot down a civilian airliner in eastern Ukraine, the US strategic position will strengthen as Mr Putin’s control diminishes further, at least for the time being. Kiev will eventually quell the pro-Russian groups the east of the country and Ukraine will simmer down. Some will find affinity with Moscow and call themselves Russian and Kiev can live with that. But the borders are unlikely to change because they don’t really matter on the ground.

The analysis is that Mr Obama’s low-level covert action and political support for pro-western Ukrainian groups has had a neutral or slightly beneficial result for US interests and world security. Should Russia advance into the Caucasus or the Baltics Mr Obama’s strategic calculation of non-intervention may need reassessing. But currently, the eastern Ukraine is containable without the use of American or NATO troops.

The tragedy of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 shootdown aside, the international community is not directly under threat either. Crimea and eastern Ukraine already were essentially Russian and Mr Putin does not look like taking its adventure further into the Former Soviet Union or deeper into Europe - yet.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Is Obama's hesitancy endangering the world? Part 1: The problem is reality, not ideology

This three-part series assesses whether the non-interventionist foreign policy of US President Barack Obama will have a neutral, beneficial or detrimental effect on US interests and international security. The assessment will use two case studies, taking the militancy in Ukraine and the civil war in Syria and the American response to both.

Mr Obama is not a foolish man, and he is surrounded by excellent thinkers and strategists. He is also a deeply moral leader. Yet his foreign policy is being chastised for its immaturity and its damages to US power. Given his leadership position and life history, this assessment begins at the position that Mr Obama has rational reasons for his actions. This series will attempt to understand what those reasons are.

The former United States Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara had a number of lessons gleaned from his time at the top of the Washington political pile. One was to try to get in the other person’s shoes and think like them. To see the world from their eyes.

The year of 2014 is not even halfway finished and already it has been called a year of crisis. The nation “in charge” is still the enormous United States, but the Obama administration is receiving criticism for apparently not doing enough with his phenomenal power to minimise or negate the various threats around the globe.

According to many analysts, it is neither fumbling nor incompetence on Mr Obama’s behalf which stays his hand, but ideology. At bottom, Mr Obama is purported to despise war and does everything he can to avoid it. There is a sense in his administration’s ideology that America should not be trying to direct the world by force or manipulation.

America is bound to attract some measure of criticism. When he spoke to the UN General Assembly about the Middle East in September 2013, Barack Obama observed wryly that America is “chastised for meddling in the the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems.”

The United States’ power burdens them with a unique level of responsibility to world safety, but it also offers the rest of the world an excuse not to right the wrongs it sees by themselves. Yet this is no way to operate a world-system of interdependency. Mr Obama is realising that a New New World Order might be required if the globe is to find its way forward in the dark.

Those who think this is a position of weakness claim the world is more dangerous precisely because Mr Obama has not authorised the use of force to nip developing conflicts in the bud. They say acting early ends aggression and acting fast will deter future threats.

Their claim that Mr Obama’s reticence saps American prestige and legitimacy is echoed by anti-American ideologies in China and Russia too. American commentators have also heavily criticised the Obama administration for its seeming inability to differentiate between a legitimate conflict requiring intervention, and a legitimate conflict requiring a more nuanced approach.

But Mr Obama may not be putting the Unites States at risk by holding off from deploying troops every time some group or nation decides to throw its weight around. Intervention may often be the worst choice available. The default American position for the past 60 years since the end of World War II (and arguably longer), has been to react swiftly to any conflict without too much thinking about the long-term effects. During the Cold War, the geopolitical situation demanded speedy action to limit the spread of communism. But so often during that conflict the consequences of fighting small wars in far away places were hidden or pushed down while the overarching goal against the Soviet Union was lifted up.

It seemed as if America had fallen into a trap that Charles de Gaulle, the French president, had pointed out 40 years earlier. The general told the American ambassador to Paris that all countries with overwhelming power mistakenly come to believe that force will solve everything.

Sometimes, no matter how much it might hurt the sensibilities of kind people, it is better to sit on one’s hands than to stir the pot when all the dynamics are not understood. Mr de Gaulle was worried America would exhaust itself by overcommitting. The old metaphor is apt: when you have the world’s best hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.

Few are happy about this, especially America’s senior officers. “It’s too easy to use force,” says United States Admiral Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “It’s almost the first choice.” General Brent Scowcroft, national-security advisor to Gerald Ford and the elder George Bush, agrees. One reason why politicians have turned to the armed forces, he argues, is that war looks like a shortcut to success. Trying to change people’s minds and influence them in other ways is long and slow. “The fallacy is that often the use of force changes the circumstances of the question. By the time you have finished, the question is different and we frequently find ourselves in an unanticipated situation.”

We are now living in the long tail of the post-Cold War world. Many of the globe’s security issues are the direct result of the United States’ victory over the Soviet Union. As the US won, so did all of its proxies and allied regimes - some of them quite unpalatable. Others were inherited by the world from the defunct Soviet Union.

For decades, the US viewed geopolitical stability as more important than the promotion of democracy and freedom. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Afghan Islamists, Saudi Arabian sheiks, Israel, Egyptian junta leaders, Central American narco regimes - the list goes on. Each one was for some of its tenure backed by Washington troops and money.This was a realist calculation made to, again, break the back of the Soviet Union. And it was very effective.

The Soviet Union has fallen, and the world is a better place because of it. But the idea of how to deal with the consequences of that bitter struggle has not yet been fully thought out.

Nevertheless, Mr Obama realises the more America stirs the dynamics of various parts of the world, the more the various situations become unpredictable. Stepping in to kill a hundred terrorists here may seem like a short-term gain, but which people-group did that intervention benefit? Which nasty leader did US troops implicitly thrust into a position of power? Is the US now seen not as protecting peace and freedom but as propping up one sect of a religion which has been fighting another for centuries? In removing one militant group, did the US grease the path for a rival nation-state to leverage more control over the region?

In other words, does the pursuit of and unconditional support for democracy and freedom trump a more sober and nuanced view of the world? Mr Obama clearly believes that democracy is a good thing, but his foreign policy actions suggest he believes it doesn’t always have to arrive down the barrel of a tank.

His predecessor would have gone out of his way to support every democratic push around the world, even if it meant locking in US forces for extended campaigns, or removing stability. That was George W. Bush’s foreign policy in a nutshell.

Mr Obama looks at the Syrian civil war, the Ukraine stalemate, the Islamic terror blitzkrieg in Iraq, and the bubbling pools of ethnic conflict in Central Africa and chooses to do almost nothing. Aside from tasking special forces and intelligence officers, or funneling covert arms and training to particular groups, Mr Obama condemns from afar but does not decisively change the reality on the ground. His reasons are clear - and he has articulated them better than many of history’s best statesmen - but will his strategy of delaying intervention bolster US interests? Can it at least not detrimentally affect those interests?

In his speeches Mr Obama has made a stab at setting a new balance. He starts by affirming democracy, human rights and open markets, insisting that they are not Western exports but fundamental values. He goes on to accept that these ideas cannot be imposed by force, which means that America will sometimes be accused of hypocrisy for working with undemocratic governments.

But he also gives warning that some governments’ crimes are so egregious that other nations must act. If they fail, they will be undermining the very norms and institutions that they claim to cherish. This is the fine balance between intervention and isolation which Mr Obama is trying to strike in the new century.

Two of the world’s conflicts are worth analysing whether Mr Obama’s non-intervention policy is working. Part two asks: Is Mr Obama’s position on the Ukraine conflict detrimental, neutral or positive for US interests and world security?

Friday, 18 July 2014

In Ukraine, downed airliner could be catalyst for geopolitical shift

The Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 shot down in eastern Ukraine is a potential geopolitical game changer for the major powers at play in the country. The exact events leading up to and surrounding the supposed missile strike and responsibility for its launch will take weeks or months to categorically ascertain. It is what happens next that may alter the reality for the whole of Europe.

Pro-Russian separatists are still claiming they had nothing to do with the missile strike on the passing Boeing 777. Their handlers in Moscow are also distancing themselves from the tragedy. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to a press conference July 17 saying the incident would not have occurred if fresh fighting had not broken out recently. Ukraine’s military also assert their forces did not shoot down the civilian airliner. Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko says whoever is responsible for the incident should be considered part of a terrorist group.

Telephone intercepts of a call between Russian intelligence officers indicate that Moscow may know more about the details of the event than it is letting on. The fact that Russian intelligence officers are on the ground in eastern Ukraine is not surprising considering the interests of Moscow in the region. But the public exposure via the phone calls of known officers allegedly communicating and acting as leaders of particular pro-Russian separatist groups show how deep Moscow’s connections and involvement actually is with Ukraine’s conflict.

Adding some context to the crisis, today’s tragedy happened on the back of tightened sanctions against Russia’s elite and against Mr Putin’s inner Kremlin circle. Both the US and Europe agreed to pile on more sanctions, with the threat of more to come in the future.

European Union leaders agreed at a July 16 summit in Brussels to blacklist more Russian entities and individuals who are supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. Two international banks, the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, will block new projects in Russia. The European Commission will also suspend the majority of the roughly 450 million euros in grants and loans set aside for Russia. The news came shortly after the United States announced its own new batch of sanctions
The White House says it has decided to broaden US sanctions against Russia to include major banks and energy and defence firms. The decision will not fully cut off sectors of the Russian economy as threatened but will restrict access to US debt markets. At a July 16 European summit in Brussels, officials decided on less severe sanctions, including a plan to block loans for Russia from European investment and development banks.

These sanctions have an extra bite to them, and are slightly different to the ones levelled against strictly Russian elites made earlier in the year. For the first time, the United States is using sectoral sanctions against some of Russia's most important firms: Gazprombank, Rosneft, Novatek, and Vnesheconombank. Each new twist of the sanction screw pushes the US and Europe closer to the red lines Mr Putin has warned against. But neither Brussels nor Washington appear to be intimidated.

This calculation is rapidly changing. Now that a civilian aircraft has been struck, someone has to move. Russia has many sound reasons to keep its puppet strings attached to the separatists, but their options are narrowing. It is unclear whether the rebels are to blame for the missile strike, and yet Mr Putin can’t take the risk by either overtly or covertly backing the rebel groups so early in the event timeline. There are some moves he can make, but he will have to act quickly.

If Mr Putin has the influence many observers and analysts suspect over the rebels, then he is likely to instruct them to gather the black box flight recorders from MH17, bring them both to Moscow, assess the strike pattern on the plane wreckage, collect any relevant radar data from the surface-to-air missile systems, gather and remove any incriminating shards of missile amongst the debris, and try to control access to the site for as long as possible until the previous goals can be met.

Should his special forces and intelligence officers remain on the ground by the time international investigators arrive on the scene, his options for plausible deniability will shrink. Russia’s intelligence agencies do not want to be the last people holding the bag when the music stops. And considering Russian advisors were apparently training the separatists to use the exact advanced weapons systems which allegedly fired at the aircraft, data showing incompetence or any outright assistance will be bad news for Mr Putin.

Moscow may step away from the separatists for the time-being until the incident is controlled. However, the strategic underlying reasons for supporting the rebels still remain highly relevant. Ukraine is seen as critically important strategically for Russia to control as part of a defensive buffer from Europe proper. The issue of who controls the region is still unresolved and Moscow needs to keep some sort of dog in that fight. So if Russia steps back temporarily over the next few days, it can be guaranteed to come back in the near future. Its work is not over.

In Kiev, Ukraine’s government will first have to make sure their forces did not accidentally shoot the civilian aircraft down. Once they are sure, a range of rhetorical and potentially economic actions can be taken against Russia. The propaganda war will reinvigorate.

Kiev may also take the opportunity to push troops into the region to secure the crash site and take control of more of eastern Ukraine from the rebels. This will be made simpler if Moscow decides to quietly pull back the majority of its intelligence officers, special forces and especially the Russian armed forces parked just across the border. Should the Ukraine government reposition forces to attain this goal, the situation on the ground would have to include more international attention and actors such as inspectors and crash site investigators to dissuade Russia from intervening once again.

Ukraine’s president may decide to reposition troops near the region and facilitate the arrival of investigators but stop short of retaking the region by force. Mr Poroshenko has not been able to remove the rebel threat from the area for months, despite heavy fighting. Nothing has changed regarding the military capabilities of the Ukraine armed forces and, while clearly undertrained and incompetent, the separatists possess an impressive array of advanced weaponry with or without official  Russian assistance. US troops based in nearby Poland or the highly-secret EU quick reaction force (QRF) could be called in to secure the area as peacekeepers should Kiev feel it cannot operate unilaterally.

A miscalculation by either Kiev or Moscow could throw the region back into turmoil and risk spreading violence to other restive Ukraine regions or involving the Russian armed forces. Whatever happens in the next few days is likely to be carefully thought-out and deliberate, with a heavy dose of sideline talks and covert movements.

In Europe, the political climate could now be changing regarding how Brussels and Berlin see their relationship with Moscow. Brussels is so far cooperating and strengthening sanctions against Russia, but it has been unwilling to follow in lock-step with the United States for fear of a backlash from EU states dependent on Russian energy. Europe has deep ties with Russian money and energy and can’t risk alienating it.

Berlin is a particularly special case here, given their high dependency on Russian energy exports. They are yet to show seriousness in sanctioning Russia’s government or business interests. But this is not from lack of desire. The missile strike might offer Berlin the excuse it has been looking for to impose sanctions on Russia. However, Moscow and Berlin have been getting closer over the years and punitive actions by Germany may be politically unpalatable even given the new climate.

Mr Putin could hurt Germany by shutting off gas supplies as it has done multiple times against Ukraine, but this doesn’t carry as much weight in the third quarter of 2014.

For one, Russia has already lost a significant amount of prestige with the missile strike, Crimea invasion, and ongoing support of rebels in eastern Ukraine. Plus it is summertime in Europe, which means the demand for energy is seasonally at its lowest ebb. By the time Germany or western Europe needs to import more energy from Russia later in the year, the sanctions they leverage against Russia will have had their desired effect. Moscow is now on the back foot almost everywhere it turns.

If European powers seize the opportunity to put more pressure on Russia, tensions in the region will rise. Mr Putin planned the current campaign from the beginning of his adventure in eastern Europe, but he could not have predicted this black swan event. The randomness of war has constantly beaten the brightest forecasting minds of history and Mr Putin is not a genius.

How he rolls with this new obstacle will show exactly how much control he has over the region and whether he is truly a master tactician and adaptable. It will also flush out his assets in the region and show what they are capable of, all well before he is ready to activate them. The assessment is that Mr Putin will probably not show panic or frustration, but will find it difficult to make any robust actions probably for the rest of the month. His campaign to control Ukraine has lost the initiative and Kiev and Europe now step into an advantage.

Israel launches ground phase of Protective Edge

Israel Defence Forces (IDF) elements have penetrated the northern part of Gaza in a combined arms operation against limited targets July 17 as part of Operation Protective Edge…IDF and Palestinian fighters exchanged fire in Khan Younis, a city in southern Gaza, at 10:30pm local time…There are also unconfirmed reports of Israeli forces exchanging fire with Hamas militants in the south of Gaza, immediately southeast of Rafah…Offensive support continues to be provided by Israeli fixed-wing and rotary aircraft and indirect fire from land and sea…Hamas publicly ordered Gaza residents to stay home, branding those who leave as collaborators with the “Zionist enemy”...Jerusalem this morning approved mobilising an additional 18,000 reservists, this would lift the current military personnel participating in Operation Protective Edge to 70,000…The ground phase of the 10-day Israel-Hamas war occurs during the second failed cease-fire in less than a week…Tens of thousands of IDF troops were positioned close to the Gaza border since early in the fresh conflict, indicating a ground operation was expected eventually…IDF commanders ordered the incursion after reports emerged of Hamas fighters tunnelling into Israel…Israeli forces will now immediately look for known and unknown Hamas tunnel systems and rocket caches which airstrikes could not destroy…The operation is not expected to be long or extensive as Hamas militants will employ superior terrain knowledge and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against IDF troops…Israel’s endgame is removing Hamas’ military capability but stopping short of removing Hamas from power…Hamas will likely intensify its rocket barrage in a use-it-or-lose-it calculation…Egypt is offering to mediate the conflict but is expected to conduct its own operations against Hamas tunnels in the south of Gaza in the next few days.

Tension to rise in Ukraine after pro-Russian rebels shoot down airliner

At 4:21pm local time the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur carrying 295 people crashed near the town of Shakhtyorsk in the embattled Donetsk province of eastern Ukraine.

The last known position of the aircraft places it at 32 kilometres from the Russian border. The Boeing 777 aircraft type cruises at an altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet). The MH17 was reportedly on its regular flight path when it crashed.

US intelligence has confirmed that it was a surface–to–air missile that struck the aircraft as it flew over rebel–held territory in eastern Ukraine. The government in Kiev has pointed to pro–Russian separatists as responsible for the crash but they have so far either denied the accusation or remained silent.

However, an alleged phone call from the separatist leader Igor Bezler, described as a Russian military intelligence officer and leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic rebel group, suggests pro–Russian rebels may actually have shot the civilian airliner down.

The call reportedly was made 20 minutes after the initial reports of loss of contact with the Malaysian Airlines plane. Mr Bezler is recorded talking to a colonel in the main intelligence department of the Russian armed forces.

“We have just shot down a plane. Group Minera. It fell down beyond Yenakievo.” Mr Bezler says. (transcript below)

The location of the crash over towns in Donetsk lends credence to the theory of a missile strike. This region has experienced heavy fighting in the past week between separatists and Ukraine forces.

Two days ago, separatists using self–propelled or man–portable air defence weapons shot down Ukrainian SU–25 close air support jets in the province. Earlier in the week a military transport AN–26 aircraft was reportedly shot down by similar weapons.

Russian officials denied the accusation they assisted with the shootdown of these aircraft, while pro–Russian separatists claimed full responsibility.

Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of giving the rebels a BUK SA–17 system – a road–mobile self–propelled missile system – although the exact intelligence on this claim is expectedly hazy.

The SA–17 has already been suggested as the possible cause of the Malaysian Airlines crash. It has an engagement envelope of 15,000 meters and a range of 3-42 kilometers.

However, this weapons system is far more complex than the type apparently used to bring down the other military aircraft earlier this week. Several different variants of such missiles are known to be capable of engaging planes at the reported altitude and are deployed in both Ukraine and Russia.

Taking the altitude of the civilian airliner, only a medium– to long–range surface–to–air missile could have struck the aircraft. There have been unconfirmed sightings of the SA–17 system in rebel hands over the past few weeks.

Again, the rebels have denied they have weapons of the necessary range and operational envelope to hit a cruising civilian airliner. 

Targeting an international airliner has not been the separatist’s goal, so the strike is likely to be a mistake if it was from their weapons. Although the route of the MH17 from west to east could have tripped the early warning radar on rebel missiles which would have been looking for approaching Ukrainian military aircraft from the same direction.

If the rebels have shot the plane down, sanctions on Russia can be expected to tighten and pressure for international governments to quell the fighting in Ukraine will be stepped up.

If the Ukrainian military has accidentally shot the aircraft down, the Russian claim that Ukraine’s campaign in the eastern provinces is illegitimate because of civilian deaths will be strengthened.

Should the evidence mount that Russia had a hand in facilitating the missile strike, the US will find it easier to convince European leaders to back their sanctions regime. This will increase tension in the region.

Below is the transcript of the phone call between the Russian separatists and Russian military intelligence officials. The translation is unofficial and taken directly from open–source audio, translated by STRATFOR:

Igor Bezler: We have just shot down a plane. Group Minera. It fell down beyond Yenakievo.

Vasili Geranin: Pilots. Where are the pilots?

IB: Gone to search for and photograph the plane. It's smoking.

VG: How many minutes ago?

IB: About 30 minutes ago.

Security Service of Ukraine comment: After examining the site of the plane the terrorists come to the conclusion that they have shot down a civilian plane. The next part of the conversation took place about 40 minutes later.

"Major": These are Chernukhin folks who shot down the plane. From the Chernukhin check point. Those cossacks who are based in Chernukhino.

"Greek": Yes, Major.

"Major": The plane fell apart in the air. In the area of Petropavlovskaya mine. The first "200" (code word for dead person). We have found the first "200." A Civilian.

"Greek": Well, what do you have there?

"Major": In short, it was 100 percent a passenger (civilian) aircraft.

"Greek": Are many people there?

"Major": Holy sh-t! The debris fell right into the yards (of homes).

"Greek": What kind of aircraft?

"Major": I haven't ascertained this. I haven't been to the main site. I am only surveying the scene where the first bodies fell. There are the remains of internal brackets, seats and bodies.

"Greek": Is there anything left of the weapon?

"Major": Absolutely nothing. Civilian items, medicinal stuff, towels, toilet paper.

"Greek": Are there documents?

"Major": Yes, of one Indonesian student. From a university in Thompson.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Japan's resurgence poses more questions than answers

Following Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to both New Zealand and Australia last week, it’s worth considering why the East Asian powerhouse is acting more extroverted lately, especially in the security sphere.

Mr Abe’s special brand of reparative economics is gaining a lot of attention, but so is his drive to normalise the use of Japan’s substantial military force. Japan already boasts the strongest navy in the Pacific after the United States, but it can’t use it – yet.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews an
honor guard before meeting with high-ranking officers

This build-up has happened right in front of the world as we focused our attention on the China heavyweight instead. It’s been a long time since WWII, but the militaristic history of Japan is within living memory. An evolution is happening in Japanese society and Mr Abe’s responses are touching very tender nerves in the region.

The prime minister is overhauling Japan’s security policy, including revising the US–Japan Defence Cooperation guidelines. At the beginning of the month, Mr Abe announced a resolution enabling Japan to bypass its 60-year-old constitutional ban on maintaining armed forces and waging war.

In particular, he’s changing the section of the Japanese constitution known as Article Nine which places severe restrictions on the military and limits its role to self-defense. It was drafted under US occupation and ratified in 1947.

It states that the “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” For that purpose, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Japanese elites now say these limitations probably do more harm than good. They don’t want them repealed, just changed.

After all, the purpose of Japan’s constitutional pacifism is to maintain peace, but what if this requires the threat or use of hard force? Should Article Nine be interpreted literally, as an absolute abandonment of the use of force, or should it be interpreted more loosely as an imperfect articulation of Japan's desire to preserve peace?

Mr Abe is now claiming that Japan is preparing for war to preserve peace. The decision to reverse its pacifist stance and use the Self Defence Force (SDF) where Japan’s territory is not directly under threat is only the beginning of the country's reinvention.

This will be a significant shift in Japanese foreign policy. But the potential for Japanese forces to be deployed overseas in not only a humanitarian but also in a greater security capacity introduces more questions than it answers.

These questions are not theoretical. Japan’s SDF has learned valuable lessons about how far they can and can’t go when deployed overseas, and it is frustrating many officials.

A high–ranking Japanese defence official commented recently to the National Business Review that the SDF’s experience in assisting United Nations operations in South East Asia, for instance, over the past couple of decades is highly contradictory and almost laughable.

He explained how a nearby UN military base came under attack by rebel forces. The call went out for immediate aid but the Japanese SDF – based less than a kilometre away –was unable to respond because of the constraints on using military force built into their constitution. They sat helplessly in their base as another country’s armed forces took responsibility instead.

Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force's Aegis
guided-missile destroyers, Kongo (front) and Chokai (rear)
Mr Abe’s legal advisors argue that constitutional interpretations have evolved since their imposition. Yet with examples like the above there is clearly plenty of room for further evolution. The pervading belief now is that a pacifist principle is an end, rather than a means.

From this perspective emerging threats from abroad will force Japan to develop new ways of countering those threats to preserve peace. Details must be sorted out but the final result will allow Japan to exercise collective self-defence when under direct attack or when direct harm is done to the US-Japan alliance, the international order or the Japanese people.

If these turn out to be the final conditions, they’ll justify action in almost any scenario, and that should be worrying.

It is unclear where Japan intends to stop with their broad-brush reinterpretation. Will they be happy with a competent defence structure built at minimum to protect against regional threats and cooperate with US forces? Or are they looking to counter China by constructing a military on parity?

If it’s the latter - and far more strategically important – end of the spectrum what will Japan do if China’s current military expansion slows or turns inwards to deal with rising domestic unrest? And that is by no means a fanciful dystopia: a Chinese slowdown is a very real possibility.

Japan has made no secret that China’s growing military capabilities and desire to change the status quo are providing the most compelling reasons for its military normalisation. But would Mr Abe apply the brakes if China reduced its regional threat? Not likely. There’s a much bigger game here.

Mr Abe’s visit to New Zealand and Australia has context. Japan is apparently wide–awake and willing to interact much more vigorously. The Asia Pacific better get used to it, because Japan is back. Now we each must decide whether this is such a promising sign after all.