Focal Points Blog

WikiLeaks VIII — Congressman King: “Bring me the head of Julian Assange”

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the eighth in the series.

Peter King has never been one to worry about looking foolish in public. From suggesting that there are “too many mosques in this country” to declaring that George W. Bush should be awarded a medal for authorizing torture, the Long Island Republican representative does not hesitate to play the jackass on our national stage.

But his public outrage against today’s WikiLeaks information dump, and its sponsor Julian Assange, reaches new heights of stupidity. Speaking on 1010 WINS on Sunday afternoon, King crazily asserted that the leaks are “is worse even than a physical attack on Americans, it’s worse than a military attack.”

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiight.

According to CBS News,

King has written letters to both U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking for swift action to be taken against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.

King wants Holder to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act and has also called on Clinton to determine whether WikiLeaks could be designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

“By doing that we will be able to seize their funds and go after anyone who provides them with any help or contributions or assistance whatsoever,” King said.

In his letter to Clinton, King argues that

WikiLeaks presents a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States. I strongly urge you to work within the Administration to use every offensive capability of the US government to prevent further damaging releases by WikiLeaks.

King was at it again today, suggesting that the president isn’t “as upset as he should be.” The reason? Because Obama’s “political upbringing” renders him ideologically incapable of taking “action against someone who is the logical descendent” of Daniel Ellsburg.

Given his wildly inappropriate statement that the WikiLeaks revelations are worse than an attack on US soil, one wonders if King was speaking literally when he urges the White House “to take action” using “every offensive capability” to put a stop to the Assange’s activities. One might also wonder, what’s more dangerous to the American way of life: WikiLeaks, or the likes of Peter King?

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

WikiLeaks VII: Our Man in Zimbabwe Flatters His Way up the Foreign-Service Ladder

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the seventh in the series.

While some of the WikiLeaks documents dropped thus far offer lively writing and candid assessments worthy of a gossip magazine, others prove excruciating in the extreme. Take the sole document leaked thus far from the US embassy in Zimbabwe, for example.

Writing during the summer of 2007, then-Ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell jotted down some final thoughts on Zimbabwean politics before leaving his post. His cliché-ridden prose, dripping with patriotic commitment, is enough to set the teeth of even George W. Bush’s speech writers on edge. The cable, preposterously entitled “The End is Nigh,” begins with a neat summary of where things stood three years ago [spelling errors left intact -- Ed.]:

My views can be stated simply as stay the course and prepare for change. Our policy is working and its helping to drive change here. What is required is simply the grit, determination and focus to see this through.

If only it were so simple! The key challenge, of course, that stands in the way is Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, a leader Dell paints as if pitching the super villain in a Hollywood script.

Rober Mugabe has survived so long because he is more clever and more ruthless than any other politician in Zimbabwe. To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactition and has long thrived on his ability to abruptly change the rules of the game, radicalize the political dynamic and force everyone else to react to his agenda.

It may be worth pointing out that, with the exception of the “brilliant” part, it seems Dell’s description could have equally applied as much to then-president Bush as to Robert Mugabe. Nevertheless, Dell argues that like all action movie scoundrels, Mugabe suffers from several Achilles’ heels which will ultimately prove to be his undoing.

He is fundamentally hampered by several factors: his ego and belief in his own infallibility; his obsessive focus on the past as a justification for everything in the present and future; his deep ignorance on economic issues (coupled with the belief that his 18 doctorates give him authority to suspend the laws of economics, including supply and demand); and his essentially short-term tactical style.

With not a trace of irony, Dell follows up immediately with the observation that Mugabe’s supposed weakness—a short-term tactical style—has done a pretty good job of “keep[ing] him in power for 27 years.” Short-term indeed. Dell also ignores the fact that the president is hardly alone in believing himself untouchable. Apparently the ambassador is not familiar with power of a healthy cult of personality. More interesting still is Dell’s seeming blindness to the powerful residue of Mugabe’s past glories. He seems to take Mugabe’s self-regard as important to the president alone, when in fact history still impacts the decision-making of foreign leaders—especially in the Global South—well-aware of his position as a liberation hero of the decolonization period.

In any event, Dell casts about with assertions of Mugabe’s imminent demise–predictions that have proven to be flat-out wrong. Still, he does a good job of protecting his predictions against the possibility of failure by blaming the US allies on the ground in Zimbabwe.

Dell doesn’t mince words about the political opposition to Mugabe in the country. He arrogantly notes that

I leave convinced that had we had different partner we could have achieved more already. But you have to play the hand you’re dealt. The current leadership..will require massive hand holding and assistance should they ever come to power.

On the subject of the country’s prime minister, Morgan Tsvangarai, Dell has this to say:

Tsvangarai is a brave, committed man and, by and large, a democrat…But Tsvangarai is also a flawed figure, not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment in selecting those around him.

Whether Tsvanagarai is not readily open to advice generally, or just from the United States in particular, Dell doesn’t say. But he does find a cute, and actually appropriate, analogy to sum things up:

He is the indespensible element for opposition success, but possibly an albatross around their necks once in power. In short, he is a kind of Lech Walesa…Zimbabwe needs him, but should not rely on his executive abilities to lead the country’s recovery.

Of Dell’s other assessments, none are particularly interesting save one, but only for the reaction it provoked. Speaking of Zimbabwe’s Industry and Commerce Minister, Dell asserts that

Welshman Ncube has proven to be a deeply divisive and destructive player in the opposition ranks and the sooner he is pushed off the stage, the better. But he is useful to many, including the regime and South Africa, so is probably a cross to be borne for some time yet. The prospects for healing the rift within the MDC seem dim, which is a totally unnecessary self-inflicted wound on their part this time.

Not missing a beat to capitalize on the WikiLeaks scandal, Ncumbe fired back that Dell’s assessment constitutes nothing less than evidence that the United States intended to kill him. Speaking with New Zimbabwe

Ncube stormed: “I’m a politician and my future rests in the hands of voters who can vote for me, or choose not to vote for me. But when I lose an election, I don’t leave the stage but continue fighting over ideas. So if Dell is proposing that I be taken off stage, how do you do that without killing me?

He was seeking to determine on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe which leaders should lead the country and interfering so extensively and so deeply in the internal affairs of Zimbabwe that he had no problem recommending literally the assassination of leaders the Americans don’t like.”

Apparently, Ncumbe hasn’t considered the fact that if the United States was conspiring to kill anyone in Zimbabwe, it would likely be Robert Mugabe, not himself. But Dell clearly has other things on his mind besides murder, namely, promoting his own career. In a telling closing paragraph, he indignantly remarks that

The official media has had a field day recently whooping that “Dell leaves Zimbabwe a failed man”. That’s not quite how it looks from here. I believe that the firm U.S. stance, the willingness to speak out and stand up, have contributed to the accelerating pace of change. Mugabe and his henchman are like bullies everywhere: if they can intimidate you they will. But they’re not used to someone standing up to them and fighting back. It catches them off guard and that’s when they make mistakes.

In other words, Mugabe and his thugs weren’t prepared for the likes of Christopher Dell. Nor will they withstand the mighty powers of the United States, even as it stands alone while everyone wimps out.

We need to keep the pressure on in order to keep Mugabe off his game and on his back foot, relying on his own shortcomings to do him in. Equally important is an active U.S. leadership role in the international community. The UK is ham-strung by its colonial past and domestic politics, thus, letting them set the pace alone merely limits our effectiveness. The EU is divided between the hard north and its soft southern underbelly. The Africans are only now beginning to find their voice. Rock solid partners like Australia don’t pack enough punch to step out front and the UN is a non-player. Thus it falls to the U.S., once again, to take the lead, to say and do the hard things and to set the agenda.

Not only that

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of ordinary Zimbabweans of all kinds have told me that our clear, forthright stance has given them hope and the courage to hang on. By this regime’s standards, acting in the interests of the people may indeed be considered a failure. But I believe that the opposite is true, and that we can be justifiably proud that in Zimbabwe we have helped advance…

…wait for it…

…the President’s freedom agenda. The people of this country know it and recognize it and that is the true touchstone of our success here.

It’s not clear whether the Bush, and then Obama, administration shared Dell’s assessment of his successes. He was immediately posted to Afghanistan following his assignment in Harare, and was later appointed to his current position as Ambassador to Kosovo.

Ultimately, the lone document released so far by WikiLeaks gives little more than the standard macho blather common during the George W. Bush years, and reveals little insight into the actual operations of American diplomacy in Zimbabwe. But there’s more to come. WikiLeaks has indicated that it has nearly 3,000 more cables related to Zimbabwe that will drop here and there over the coming weeks. This is certainly unpleasant news for some in Zimbabwe and possibly in the United States. Says one Mugabe ally, “You just don’t know what’s coming next. If these documents go back to 1980, it’s likely there would be something in there embarrassing for the [president’s] party.”

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

WikiLeaks VI: U.S. Supporting Separatist Kurd Party Fighting Turkey?

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the sixth in the series.

Already rocky relations between Washington and Ankara may get a whole lot rougher this coming week. As part of the massive WikiLeaks document dump set to drop this week, files will purportedly be released suggesting that the United States and Turkey have been active underminers of one another’s security.

The Wikileaks dump will supposedly demonstrate US support for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a separatist organization that has been fighting the Turkish state for the past thirty years. The group has been classified a terrorist organization since the late 1970s, and the George W. Bush administration worked closely with Ankara to help Turkey root out PKK redoubts in northern Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration denies the claim as part of its blitzkrieg damage-control offensive.

Deborah Guido, spokeswoman for the US embassy in Ankara, told the Daily News that the US government’s policy “has never been nor will ever be in support of the PKK. Anything that implies otherwise is nonsense.”

Recalling that the United States considers the PKK a terrorist organization, Guido said: “Since 2007, our military cooperation with the Turkish government in fighting the PKK has shown results. The U.S. Treasury Department has also named top PKK figures as ‘drug kingpins’ in issuing further sanctions against the PKK…

“We are committed together with the Turkish government to fighting terrorism, whether from al-Qaeda or the PKK. My government remains firmly committed to supporting Turkey’s efforts to combat the PKK, which has for too long threatened Turkey and taken Turkish lives,” Guido said. “The United States is continuing all operational and informational support and, since the increase in PKK attacks, it has increased facilitation in various ways.”

For their part, the Turks aren’t themselves idle victims—if the leaked leaks prove accurate. The document dump will supposedly show that the United States had come to believe that Turkey was facilitating arms transfers across its borders into northern Iraq, weapons destined for use by al-Qaeda in Iraq against American forces.

But others aren’t so sure.

Pinar Tank, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, said media reports about the WikiLeaks release suggested that Iraqi citizens residing in Turkey aided groups in Iraq with links to al-Qaeda.

“A U.S. military report charges Turkey with failing to control its borders,” Tank wrote in an e-mail to the Daily News. “While this may be the case, this cannot be equated with an official policy of aiding al-Qaeda.”

If preliminary reports concerning the contents of the latest Wikileaks dump prove accurate, the revelations couldn’t come at a worse time for the Obama administration. Beyond the increasing divide between the White House and Anakara on the appropriate approach to dealing with Iran, relations are suffering from the absence of a US ambassador to Turkey. The post has been vacant since July, and will likely remain empty well into 2012. Obama’s appointment, Frank Ricciardone, has been denied confirmation by antagonistic Republicans in the Senate. As the Daily News reports,

Obama nominated Ricciardone, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and the Philippines, for the Ankara post July 1. Ricciardone won the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s backing July 22. But on the last day before the Senate went to a summer recess in August, influential Republican Sen. Sam Brownback from Kansas formally put a hold on his nomination, saying: “I am not convinced Ambassador Ricciardone is the right ambassador for Turkey at this time – despite his extensive diplomatic experience.”

Brownback’s move effectively prevented a full Senate vote on Ricciardone’s nomination.

US presidents have the right to bypass the Senate and appoint senior administration officials at times of congressional recesses. This opportunity was expected to arise Nov. 2 when the United States held midterm congressional elections. But this year, the Senate has not gone to an official recess—for the first time in modern history—robbing Obama of the chance to appoint Ricciardone.

As Michael Werz notes, Brownback’s resistance to Ricciardone’s appointment may have less to do with Barack Obama and more to do with George W. Bush.

The continuing holdup of Ambassador-to-be Frank Ricciardone’s confirmation by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) is incurring considerable damage. Sen. Brownback’s reasons for doing so have the taste of payback because he is suggesting that Ricciardone “downplayed” the Bush administration’s pro-democracy efforts in Egypt during his time as ambassador in Cairo, and did not subscribe to working with Iraqi opposition groups before the U.S.-led invasion. Holding up a key ambassadorial appointment is yet another indicator that conservative leaders in Congress are tone deaf to the changed environment and the consequences of the Iraq invasion—some are still dancing the old polka to the new rhythm of a polyphonic world. (Ricciardone is not the only collateral damage of partisan politics. Robert Ford is being prevented from starting work in Syria and so is Matthew Bryza, the nominee for Azerbaijan.)

Regardless Brownback’s motivations, the failure to situate an ambassador in Anakara—stupid even during moments of political calm—will surely produce negative dividends for both sides as Wikileaks revelations continue surfacing over the coming weeks.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

WikiLeaks V: Spying on the UN — Et Tu, Obama Administration?

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fifth in the series.

As eye-opening revelations concerning international diplomacy begin to pour out from the Wikileaks document dump, it is increasingly clear that the administration of Barack Obama will have a massive public relations mess to clean up. The latest scandal: Hillary Clinton ordered American diplomats to spy on top officials in the United Nations, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

According to the Guardian, which received leaked documents directly from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange,

A classified directive which appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying was issued to US diplomats under Hillary Clinton’s name in July 2009, demanding forensic technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications.

It called for detailed biometric information “on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders” as well as intelligence on Ban’s “management and decision-making style and his influence on the secretariat”. A parallel intelligence directive sent to diplomats in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi said biometric data included DNA, fingerprints and iris scans.

But it doesn’t stop there. Beyond these top-secret intelligence gathering operations, the State Department also

wanted credit card numbers, email addresses, phone, fax and pager numbers and even frequent-flyer account numbers for UN figures and “biographic and biometric information on UN Security Council permanent representatives”.

The Guardian goes on to report that

The operation targetted at the UN appears to have involved all of Washington’s main intelligence agencies. The CIA’s clandestine service, the US Secret Service and the FBI were included in the “reporting and collection needs” cable alongside the state department under the heading “collection requirements and tasking”.

Of course, spying is hardly a new phenomenon in Turtle Bay. The National Security Agency, among other groups, was caught spying on Security Council members in 2003, and was accused of tapping the phone of then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Still, this latest episode will surely complicate matters between the world body and an Obama administration eager to mend the strained relations engendered during the presidency of George W. Bush.

The leaked cables reveal a wide-range of US interest in UN matters.

Washington wanted intelligence on the contentious issue of the “relationship or funding between UN personnel and/or missions and terrorist organisations” and links between the UN Relief and Works Agency in the Middle East, and Hamas and Hezbollah. It also wanted to know about plans by UN special rapporteurs to press for potentially embarrassing investigations into the US treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, and “details of friction” between the agencies co-ordinating UN humanitarian operations, evidence of corruption inside UNAids, the joint UN programme on HIV, and in international health organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO). It even called for “biographic and biometric” information on Dr Margaret Chan, the director general of WHO, as well as details of her personality, role, effectiveness, management style and influence.

But cables reveal that the spying orders were not only issued for missions within the headquarters on Second Avenue. The Guardian reports further that

They are packed with detailed orders and while embassy staff are particularly encouraged to assist in compiling biographic information, the directive on the mineral and oil-rich Great Lakes region of Africa also requested detailed military intelligence, including weapons markings and plans of army bases. A directive on “Palestinian issues” sent to Cairo, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Amman, Damascus and Riyadh demanded the exact travel plans and vehicles used by leading members of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, without explaining why.

In one directive that would test the initiative, never mind moral and legal scruples, of any diplomat, Washington ordered staff in the DRC, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi to obtain biometric information of leading figures in business, politics, intelligence, military, religion and in key ethnic groups.

The Obama administration seemingly wanted information on matters of less global strategic import as well. In one example,

a cable to the embassy in Sofia last June, five months before Clinton hosted Bulgaria‘s foreign minister in Washington, the first request was about government corruption and the links between organised crime groups and “government and foreign entities, drug and human trafficking, credit card fraud, and computer-related crimes, including child pornography”.

Washington also wanted to know about “corruption among senior officials, including off-budget financial flows in support of senior leaders … details about defence industry, including plans and efforts to co-operate with foreign nations and actors. Weapon system development programmes, firms and facilities. Types, production rates, and factory markings of major weapon systems”.

So far no comment has been issued from the Secretary-General’s office, nor any of the other agencies affected by US espionage.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

WikiLeaks IV: Getting Personal

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fourth in the series.

You’ve got to hand it to US diplomats: they keep things lively.

The Guardian reports this afternoon on some of the tastiest tidbits of American assessments of foreign leaders and regimes. Among other things, the paper reveals funny observations made about Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (“plays Robin to Putin’s Batman”), French president Nicholas Sarkozy (“thin-skinned” and possessed of an “authoritarian personal style”), Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe (“the crazy old man”), Libyan loony Muammar Gaddafi (“just strange”), and Yemeni President President Ali Abdullah Saleh (“dismissive, bored and impatient”).

Some of the other criticisms leveled against leaders are less news-worthy, including those concerning Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

A dispatch from Kabul reports the view that the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is “an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts but was instead easily swayed by anyone who came to report even the most bizarre stories or plots against him.”

Yeah, no kidding. We learned of Karzai’s paranoia months ago with the release of Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, where US administration assessments of the Afghan leader’s fragile mental state were frank, and frankly startling if they prove accurate.

Similarly, no one will be surprised to learn what the American think of Italian misogynist-in-chief Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian prime minister is

“feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader”, according to Elizabeth Dibble, US charge d’affaires in Rome. Another report from Rome recorded the view that he was a “physically and politically weak” leader whose “frequent late nights and penchant for partying hard mean he does not get sufficient rest”.

Perhaps more strangely, however, is the news released by the New York Times that

American diplomats in Rome reported in 2009 on what their Italian contacts described as an extraordinarily close relationship between Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian prime minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and business magnate, including “lavish gifts,” lucrative energy contracts and a “shadowy” Russian-speaking Italian go-between. They wrote that Mr. Berlusconi “appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin” in Europe. The diplomats also noted that while Mr. Putin enjoys supremacy over all other public figures in Russia, he is undermined by an unmanageable bureaucracy that often ignores his edicts.

And once again, the only figure escaping the Wikileaks revelations seemingly unscathed is Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who cables refer to as “elegant and charming,” though untrustworthy. That seems about right.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

WikiLeaks III: Documents May Alienate Yemen From Its Neighbors

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the third in the series.

The WikiLeaks drop of documents concerning ongoing US operations in Yemen offers a fascinating read. In particular, they shed light on interactions between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and General David Petraeus.

The report doesn’t get off to a particularly exciting start, detailing the haggling between the two men over the details of cooperation between Washington and Sanaa.

Saleh agreed to General Patraeus’ proposal to dedicate USD 45 million of 2010 security assistance funds to help establish and train a YSOF aviation regiment, allowing YSOF to focus on al-Qaeda targets and leaving Sa’ada air operations to the Yemeni Air Force. Without giving much detail, Saleh also requested that the U.S. equip and train three new Republican Guard brigades, totaling 9,000 soldiers. “Equipping these brigades would reflect upon our true partnership,” Saleh said. The General urged Saleh to focus first on the YSOF aviation regiment.

Ho-hum.

But things begin to get interesting shortly thereafter. Discussing airstrikes against al-Qaeda elements in his Yemen, Saleh

praised the December 17 and 24 strikes against AQAP but said that “mistakes were made” in the killing of civilians in Abyan. The General responded that the only civilians killed were the wife and two children of an AQAP operative at the site, prompting Saleh to plunge into a lengthy and confusing aside with Deputy Prime Minister Alimi and Minister of Defense Ali regarding the number of terrorists versus civilians killed in the strike. (Comment: Saleh’s conversation on the civilian casualties suggests he has not been well briefed by his advisors on the strike in Abyan, a site that the ROYG has been unable to access to determine with any certainty the level of collateral damage. End Comment.)

They really get going a paragraph later as Saleh promises to cover up American attacks in Yemen by claiming responsibility for the violence himself, and then laughing about it.

President Obama has approved providing U.S. intelligence in support of ROYG ground operations against AQAP targets, General Petraeus informed Saleh. Saleh reacted coolly, however, to the General’s proposal to place USG personnel inside the area of operations armed with real-time, direct feed intelligence from U.S. ISR platforms overhead. “You cannot enter the operations area and you must stay in the joint operations center,” Saleh responded. Any U.S. casualties in strikes against AQAP would harm future efforts, Saleh asserted. Saleh did not have any objection, however, to General Petraeus’ proposal to move away from the use of cruise missiles and instead have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory, “out of sight,” and engage AQAP targets when actionable intelligence became available. Saleh lamented the use of cruise missiles that are “not very accurate” and welcomed the use of aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs instead. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just “lied” by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG.

And that’s only the beginning.

Pointing to the ROYG’s problems in combating rampant drug and arms smuggling, Saleh told General Petraeus that U.S. maritime security assistance was insufficient to cover Yemen’s nearly 2,000 km of coastline. “Why not have Italy, Germany, Holland, Japan, Saudi, and the UAE each provide two patrol boats?” Saleh suggested. The General told Saleh that two fully-equipped 87-foot patrol boats destined for the Yemeni Coast Guard were under construction and would arrive in Yemen within a year. Saleh singled out smuggling from Djibouti as particularly troublesome, claiming that the ROYG had recently intercepted four containers of Djibouti-origin TNT. “Tell (Djiboutian President) Ismail Guelleh that I don’t care if he smuggles whiskey into Yemen — provided it’s good whiskey ) but not drugs or weapons,” Saleh joked. Saleh said that smugglers of all stripes are bribing both Saudi and Yemeni border officials.

The WikiLeaks document will not exactly do wonders for Yemen’s relationship with its regional neighbors. Discussing prospects for multilateral cooperation between its Middle Eastern allies, the United States and the European Union (EU),

Saleh told the General that he welcomed PM Gordon Brown’s announcement of the London conference and said that the cooperation on Yemen between the U.S., EU, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE would be benefitial [sp.]. Qatar should not be involved, however, because “they work with Iran.” In this regard, Saleh also identified Qatar as one of those nations working “against Yemen,” along with Iran, Libya, and Eritrea.

All this provides more evidence in support of Issandr El Amrani’s claim that the WikiLeaks scandal is more significant for the Arab world than it is for us here in the United States.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

WikiLeaks II: Saudi Arabia on Iran — “Cut off the head of the snake”

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the second in the series.

There’s already been quite a bit of response to WikiLeaks documents suggesting that Arab regimes tend to view the Iranian administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as nothing less than evil incarnate. This is nothing surprising, I suppose, though the degree to which initial reports of Saudi Arabia’s pressuring of Washington to bomb, bomb, bomb Iran have proved accurate is disheartening in the extreme.

The Los Angeles Times reports that

King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia and King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa of Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, were among the Arab leaders lobbying the U.S. for an attack on Iran. One Saudi official reminded Americans that the king had repeatedly asked them to “cut off the head of the snake” before it was too late.

“That program must be stopped,” one Nov. 4, 2009, cable quotes Khalifa as telling Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command. “The danger of letting it go is greater than the danger of stopping it.”

While this sort of thing probably plays well with Sarah Palin and her ideological ilk, it’s discouraging just how far Arab leaders have gone to cheer on the burgeoning movement within the United States to take on Tehran.

In a May 2005 meeting, Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed, deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates armed forces, urged a U.S. general to use “ground forces” against Iran even though, another cable notes, the federation did not abide by U.S. requests to interdict suspicious shipments transiting from its shores to Iran. A February 2010 document attributes Bin Zayed’s “near-obsessive” arms buildup to his fears about Iran.

“I believe this guy is going to take us to war,” Mohamed bin Zayed told a U.S. delegation in April 2006 of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “It’s a matter of time. Personally, I cannot risk it with a guy like Ahmadinejad. He is young and aggressive.”

In December 2009, the crown prince told a U.S. official: “We know your priority is Al Qaeda, but don’t forget Iran. Al Qaeda is not going to get a nuclear bomb.”

It’s certainly true that these are hardly revelatory insights into Middle Eastern regional affairs, but the Times seems correct to note that what is surprising is the depth of Arab fear of Iranian intentions.

And it’s not just Arab leaders that are worried. Ahmadinejad has also squandered what had been a decent amount of support from Arab moderates throughout the region, but who increasingly “view Ahmadinejad’s administration as oppressive, unpopular, and undemocratic, much as they criticize many Arab governments.”

Interestingly, this same leaked cable observes that

all of the Arab media figures we spoke to emphasized that Arab criticism of Ahmadinejad has not necessarily led to increased support for US policy in the region. On the contrary, closer analysis suggests that Ahmadinejad’s eroding popularity in the Arab world has created a scenario in which any U.S. effort to engage the current Iranian government will be perceived by a wide spectrum of Arabs as accommodation with Ahmadinejad.

Moreover,

All of the Arab commentators and news media figures we spoke to agreed that the U.S. “played it right” throughout the post-election crisis by staying away from detailed public comments that could be perceived as interventionist. However, the Arab commentators were quick to distinguish between criticism of Ahmadinejad in the Arab street and support for U.S. policies. The Syrian media consultant said that the heated debates before the election, in which the three challengers — Mousavi, Karroubi, and Reza’i — publicly criticized Ahmadinejad for corruption and economic mismanagement, made it clear to Arabs that this election was about Iran, not the U.S. This distinction, coupled with the U.S.’ restraint in commenting on the election, provided an unprecedented window for Arab commentators to criticize Ahmadinejad without appearing to side with the U.S.

Still, the cable ends on a depressing note by highlighting the fact that dealing responsibly with Iran will only strain Washington’s relationship with the Arab Middle East.

Once the dust settles on Iran’s post-election crisis, Arabs will look to see if the U.S. deals with Ahmadinejad as it pursues its nuclear nonproliferation agenda despite the lingering questions over the legitimacy of his election. If the U.S. enters negotiations with Ahmadinejad’s government, moderate Arab observers may argue that the U.S., for the sake of its own national interest, has cut a deal at the expense of pro-democracy advocates — just as many in the Arab street believe the U.S. has done with a number of Arab regimes. Those Arabs who continue to support Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, may perceive negotiations as a personal victory for a humble leader who brought the U.S. to its knees through steadfast resistance. Thus, Ahmadinejad’s “fall from grace” in the Arab world may have created yet another obstacle to improved Arab perceptions of the U.S. — in which engagement with an Ahmadinejad-led government is now a potentially lose-lose scenario in which Arabs at both ends of the pro- and anti-Ahmadinejad spectrum will consider negotiations with Teheran an accommodation with the Iranian president.

Lose-lose indeed.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

WikiLeaks I: Turkey-Iran

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the first in the series.

Forget textbooks! Everything you need to teach that International Relations 101 course next semester can be found in the latest stash of documents dropped by WikiLeaks.

Case in point: the notion of national interest as it plays out in considerations of international security. It’s clear that preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability is a top priority of the US State Department. And from what we’ve seen so far, this is an objective shared by the region’s Arab governments.

But for Turkey, it seems, Iran’s nuclear ambitions take a back seat to what Anakara views as the more important threat to regional stability—more American military action in the Middle East. According to one of the recently leaked cables,

Turkish contacts, and indeed even MFA interlocutors, have acknowledged in the recent past that Turkey sees a military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities as the worst possible outcome on the Iran issue. Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability would only be the second worst outcome. This hints at the depth of Turkey’s anxiety about the dangers to regional stability, including Turkey’s, of the unintended consequences of any further military action in the region, and explains Turkey’s commitment at almost any cost to continued western diplomatic engagement with Iran. As one contact explained, “After the traumatic violence in Iraq, and fearful that some countries still think military action is an option with Iran, Turkey will do anything to prevent armed conflict.” The GoT’s approach on this score enjoys some public support: Turkish public opinion also considers an attack against Iran as more dangerous to Turkey than Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, almost a third of Turks polled do not consider a nuclear-armed Iran to be a threat, believing that Iran would never attack a fellow Muslim country.

Of course, security isn’t defined exclusively by the shadow of war.

Strengthening a long-term energy and commercial relationship: Turkey does not hide the fact that its own growing energy security needs compel it to look to all available sources, including Iran, for energy. In response, we have underscored that the USG supports the diversification of Turkish gas supplies, while cautioning that Iran has proven to be an unreliable partner in the past and reaffirming USG concern over new energy deals with Iran. Turkey is also actively seeking to expand trade ties with Iran: Both Turkish and Iranian officials have publicly called for bilateral trade volume, which was $10 billion in 2008, to reach $20 billion by 2012 — a goal most trade experts say is wildly unrealistic. Furthermore, Turkey is taking steps to protect and expand financial ties with Iran, for example by continuing to allow Iran’s Bank Mellat (sanctioned by the USG under E.O. 13382) to operate branches in Istanbul and Ankara, and agreeing to conduct bilateral trade in Turkish Lira or Iranian Rials rather than dollars and Euros to avoid having to clear the payments through US or European banks.

In case you might be worried that Turkey’s approach to the Iranian issue tends to be heavily realist in its predilections, Ankara displays a faith in liberal institutions and multilateral cooperation as well:

As long as Davutoglu controls Turkish foreign policy, our Turkish contacts predict that Ankara will seek multiple avenues for bilateral and multilateral engagement with Iran, deepening bilateral cultural and economic ties, and working with regional organizations like the D-8 (ref D), the Economic Cooperation Organization (ref E) and the OIC to maximize engagement. Indeed, Davutoglu’s MFA sees regional IOs like these as much more useful tools for engaging Iran, and thus committing Iran incrementally to pursue regionally cooperative policies, than previous FMs did, according to contacts.

On the question of the degree to which multinationals influence the decision-making of states in their international relations, another cable demonstrates that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is as much the representative of the American government as he is of American corporations.

We much appreciate SecDef’s help in advocating for U.S. firms competing for key projects in Turkey, and hope he can raise both Sikorsky’s and Raytheon’s cases in person. Sikorsky’s “International Blackhawk” proposal holds remarkable benefits. This deal represents a new level of industrial partnership; Sikorsky guarantees that it would build in Turkey — for sale outside of Turkey — one Blackhawk for each one the GOT builds and buys for itself; this is a boon of hundreds of millions of dollars for the Turkish economy. On Air Defense, Raytheon’s PAC-3 is competing in a tender for Turkey’s air defense. Raytheon also seeks to take advantage of Turkish industry’s ability to co-produce complex systems with us and would produce systems for sale in the UAE and elsewhere. The benefit to Turkey’s economy from such co-production would likely exceed USD 1 billion. Technically and operationally, there is no system which can compete with the PAC-3, but Turkey’s Defense Ministry seeks to broaden competition to include lower-cost options from Russia and even from European producers. Raytheon often asks us to remind the Turks that a decision on requests for support on Missile Defense should not necessarily affect a decision on PAC-3.

But US firms aren’t the only ones in on the action. Turkey’s firms, much to the displeasure and worry of US officials, were likely doing their own business, though not exclusively with the West.

The U.S. has information about several transactions involving Turkish firms planning to export and import from Iran arms and related material controlled by the Wassenaar Arrangement. Specifically, Iran is interested in procuring Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) .38 caliber and wadcutter bullets; 40 mm automatic grenade launchers; 5.56 mm composite magazines (for M16 assault rifles), and 7.62 X 39 mm and 7.62 X 51 mm composite magazines from Turkey. In addition, we understand that a Turkish firm may also be pursuing a deal to import plastic explosives and nitrocellulose from Iran.

The U.S. wants to provide this information to Turkish officials, request that they investigate this activity and use all available means to prevent these firms from exporting and importing such arms to and from Iran. In addition to any domestic Turkish authorities that may apply, these activities may also be in violation of both United Nations Security Resolution (UNSCR) 1747 and U.S. domestic authorities.

The United States also worried that exports to Iran may have originated in the United States. How embarrassing!

According to Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) records, Turkey received 181 MK-19 40 mm grenade launchers from the United States in 1995. However, we do not know definitively if any of these are among the 40 mm grenade launchers contemplated as part of the sale to Iran. We note, however, that if any U.S.-origin defense equipment (including technical data) is re-transferred to Iran, that would violate Section 3 of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). As a consequence, Turkey could lose its country eligibility under the AECA to purchase or lease defense articles, including Patriot or Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, or services, or to receive credits or guarantees relating to any purchase or lease.

The result? An action request that American diplomats dealing with Turkey underscore the fact that “this is not the time for business as usual with Iran.”

But perhaps the scariest lesson in all this is that governments do in fact base aspects of their foreign policy on the recommendations of well-connected eggheads in the Ivory Tower. Discussing possible reasons why Turkey might want to draw closer to Tehran:

Turkey is pursuing closer relations with Iran for several mutually-reinforcing reasons. First, the underlying principle: According to a Turkish university professor who informally advises FM Davutoglu on Middle East issues (ref C), Turkey’s pursuit of close relations with Iran is a direct reflection of Davutoglu’s academic philosophy and influential 2000 book, “Strategic Depth,” in which he first articulated a policy of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbors. Another Istanbul-based professor told us that Turkey’s Iran policy represents “a triumph of real-politik,” with Turkey’s national and regional interests trumping any discomfort that Turkey, as a multi-ethnic, pluralistic democracy, might feel about the Iranian regime’s harsh domestic authoritarianism. This contact described Davutoglu as “Turkey’s Kissinger.”

Zero problems, eh? Hardly.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

The Front Lines of Disarmament: Blocking a Nuclear Facility Six Times the Cost of the Manhattan Project

That is, six times the cost of the division of the Manhattan Project (to develop nuclear weapons during World War II) that was based in New Mexico. The heart of it — what later became known as Los Alamos National Laboratory. Odds are, with the Cold War consigned to history, you couldn’t have imagined that a nuclear weapons facility of such immensity was still on the table.

Greg Mello is the executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG), which, since 1989, has been spearheading nuclear disarmament in New Mexico, and, consequently, the nation. Since 1999, it has concentrated on halting or, failing that, downsizing a building project at Los Alamos called the Chemical and Metallurgical Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR). The intended function of this facility is to increase the capacity to produce new plutonium pits. The actual site of the nuclear fission, they’re the beating heart of the warhead.

The CMRR, writes Greg Mello in a press release, “was marketed to Congress as a $350 million building [but] has grown to an estimated $4.3 billion.” The “per square foot of useful space has grown to more than 100 times what [Los Alamos's] existing plutonium facility cost in 1978, in constant dollars [adjusted for inflation].”

How, you’re probably wondering, in these economic times, could we be embarking on an endeavor more vast than the Manhattan Project? If we were, shouldn’t it be, instead of weapons, a flagship form of alternative energy?

Cognitive dissonance on our part aside, over the years, LASG devised a plan with the help of a law firm. Under the National Environmental Policy Act they filed suit to stop all funding for and work on the CMRR until a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was prepared. Nor is this just a legal maneuver: a new EIS is sorely needed.

“The Los Alamos Study Group,” reads the the original suit for an EIS (apologies for yet more abbreviations), “alleges that the DOE [Department of Energy] and NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] have violated the National Environmental Protection Act [NEPA] by preparing to construct [the CMRR] without an applicable [EIS]. . . . NNSA wrote an EIS for an earlier version of the facility in 2003. At that time the facility was to cost one-tenth as much, use one-fiftieth as much concrete, take one-fourth the time to build, and entail far fewer environmental impacts.

In fact:

Many of the project’s difficulties can be traced to just a few major causes. . . . Changes . . . helped drive the proposed facility underground [not figuratively, literally] — into a thick stratum of loose volcanic ash which cannot support it. [Especially since the] magnitude and frequency of earthquakes expected at the site has increased dramatically, requiring much heavier construction.

Said construction would entail (emphasis added):

  • A new excavated depth of 125 feet . . . and replacement of an entire geologic stratum beneath the building with 225,000 cubic yards of concrete and grout;
  • . . . 29-fold increases . . . in structural concrete and steel;
  • Greatly increased total acreage, sprawling over many technical areas at LANL;
  • Anywhere from 20,000 to 110,000 heavy truck trips to and from Los Alamos County;
  • A decade-long construction schedule, up from less than 3 years

Bear in mind that the United States already has “approximately 24,000 . . . tested, stockpiled pits for each delivery system” and “these pits last essentially forever.” LASG “believes there are many simpler, cheaper, faster, less risky, and less environmentally damaging alternatives to [the CMRR, which] let alone any other . . . is poorly justified from the nuclear deterrence perspective.”

Has LASG’s strategy proven effective? On November 15 Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor reported (emphasis added):

The National Nuclear Security Administration has suspended all procurements related to the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility while the agency updates the environmental analysis of the multi-billion-dollar facility. . . . The move . . . could jeopardize the laboratory’s plans to complete work . . . for the project in 2011. . . .

Spurred in part by a push from New Mexico nuclear watchdogs including an ongoing lawsuit by the Los Alamo Study Group — the NNSA announced in September that it was preparing a Supplemental [EIS] for the CMRR. [Said Supplemental] hasn’t satisfied the Los Alamos Study Group, which is still pursuing its lawsuit and pushing for the NNSA to redo the EIS rather than simply update it. . . . But the [NNSA] study will also include an examination of the alternative of not building the project at all, but rather modifying the existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building.

The first highlighted phrase shows the effect that LASG is having on the NNSA. The second shows how pragmatic LASG’s tactics are. Although total disarmament is its ultimate goal, it keeps its eye on the first line of defense: curbing expansion and waste at Los Alamos.

“The simple hallmark of good policy, is to spend less money”

I contacted Greg Mello and asked him to expand on LASG’s strategy. To begin with, he states in one of his press releases:

CMRR . . . should not be desirable to weapons administrators because there are much better, less managerially risky, cheaper, and safer facility options for preserving U.S. nuclear weapons. [And we] have already developed a set of reasonable alternatives to this facility and anticipate working productively with the review team and with Congress.

I just wanted to hear Mello confirm in his own words that the underlying strategy behind the above statements is to walk the world back toward disarmament by working with the nuclear-industrial complex one step at a time. His reply, with my annotation and emphases, follows. Excuse the prejudicial statement, but let’s hope that you find it as brimming with insight as I did.

Consider the matter from two perspectives: a) values, or timelessness, or eternity if you want to put it that way, or an ideal; and b) historical process, management reality, political decisions today, or realpolitik. [Most of our work] addresses both. We have to.

If we express only absolutist “positions” . . . we will play into the hands of the “antinuclear nuclearists,”* which is a militarist strategy designed in part to emphasize, or capitalize upon, an absence of realpolitik. We will be easily manipulated.

*Anti-nuclear nuclearism, as LASG defines it, is “a foreign and military policy that relies upon overwhelming U.S. power, including the nuclear arsenal, but makes rhetorical and even some substantive commitments to disarmament, however vaguely defined.” Mello continues.

I think we must try to place ourselves in the position of those in government who make real decisions, and offer steps . . . to embody our values. . . . . We are not more pure than they are. . . . . They have a job to do and we have to help them or we are not doing our job. . . .

At present, effective steps toward disarmament and effective steps toward more effective management of the nuclear enterprise can be the same. How? . . . NNSA believes it must modernize the arsenal, replace old weapons with newly-designed ones, and provide the capability for large-scale manufacturing. It is these goals which drive about one-third to half the existing budget, and all the budget increases proposed by Obama and demanded by Republicans. Wiping out these goals would wipe about about 60% of Los Alamos and most of Livermore. Sandia would be affected much less, and the plants much less still.

Wiping out all this spending would bring us toward rationality overall and within NNSA. We would [still] be dealing with an abusive, violent relative, to be sure, but he would not also be drunk.

Mello provides more little-known insights into the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Officially, NNSA has a goal of nuclear disarmament, since the [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] was signed and entered into force. . . . It also has a goal of nuclear weapons sustainment. [Significantly, though, it] does not yet quite have a goal of modernization, but is sidling there. NNSA ignores the disarmament side of its mission. It could decrease the dissonance by construing its [supposed] deterrence goal [even] in a conservative manner. That would help disarmament a lot.

We find that all parties who want to understand us (as opposed to those who seek to harm us, which are unreachable anyway), from the hard-core abolitionists, of which we are one, to active weapons managers, understand all this pretty well and respect our attempt to reconcile God and man as it were.

The golden road right now, the simple hallmark of good policy, is to spend less money. This is almost an absolute good, as I see it. Money spent equals the value of nuclear weapons in society, mas o minus. The chief distinguishing characteristic of the co-opted is that they want to build up in order to build down. They want to build up the [Nevada Test site] budget or the Pantex [nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly plant] budget in order to increase the rate of dismantlement, for example.

Wrong. Dismantlement eats into [life extension programs], at present, which is just fine. That’s how it should be. It’s a real tradeoff. Why decrease the pressure on NNSA to choose? They want to build new factories in New Mexico, increasing the budget “in the short run,” while there are perfectly good facilities elsewhere. Wrong. The Weapons Activities budget is far too big and should decrease monotonically. . . .

What is real is effectively symbolic. What is merely symbolic is not real. (A dictum of ours this year.)

So who is the audience, you will ask? That has to sort itself out. The masses are powerless, uninterested, and disengaged, so — not them.

Politically, I think we must all recognize that we cannot push what we ourselves need to do onto some posited others who will not ever act politically in any meaningful way, just a sort of “pretend” activity aimed at the next foundation grant, etc. There is a huge difference between reaching to others politically, for actual, effective political action, and reaching to others for mere legitimization of an elite perspective, career, or institution.

Which, in the end, is why LASG has demonstrated proven effectiveness — as opposed to impotence on the part of certain disarmament organizations to which he alludes in the preceding paragraph.

In LASG’s November 23 press release, Mello describes the cost and scale of the CMRR as “a bellwether for our society. At those unprecedented prices something — our society or the project — has to break. . . . That’s part of the point. The folks planning this thing at LANL know perfectly well the sorry state of federal finance. Nevertheless they are bending every effort to make sure the federal government is fully vested in this project before the full crisis hits. Their primary consideration is to make sure they, and the rest of nation’s nuclear establishment, end up on top. Social needs, renewable energy, avoiding climate catastrophe, and in final analysis human survival — all these are expendable goals, just like they have always been in the nuclear bomb business.”

Joint U.S.-South Korean Military Exercises in Yellow Sea Raise the Ante

Yeonpyeong IslandThe recent exchange of artillery fire in Korea is, for many commentators at least, as readily explainable as any other outbreak of hostilities on the peninsula. The North is manufacturing a crisis in advance of Kim Jong-eun’s succession to power. Or else it’s attempting to shock the region into resuming multilateral negotiations where it might extract needed economic concessions.

There is always enough circumstantial evidence to bolster these speculations. “Guerrilla polling” in at least one Northern province has suggested a reverberant (if imprecise) public skepticism about the country’s leadership transition. And Beijing and Moscow have been quick to urge a return to six-party talks in the region in light of the recent violence.

It is also easier to graft these potential motives onto the most recent attacks than it should have been when the same speculation swirled around the Cheonan incident. Importantly, rather than deny complicity, both the North and the South have acknowledged a mutual exchange of fire. They differ only in their attribution of culpability. North Korea has alleged that it was responding to a South Korean shell that landed in Northern waters during a military exercise, while South Korea has insisted its ships were firing away from the disputed border. The North’s acknowledgment of the incident (and attempts to justify its behavior) feeds the speculation that it was acting purposively.

It has been widely reported that the South’s military exercises were planned months in advance, which suggests that the North may have premeditated the attack. The same is true of the joint US-Korean exercises slated to occur in the Yellow Sea, the continuation of which can only now be seen as an escalation of the new tensions.

Washington’s reaction, however, has had little to do with Pyongyang and everything to do with Beijing. Contrary to its decision in July, when the United States moved its joint exercises with South Korea out of the Yellow Sea in response to Chinese protests, the U.S. is holding steadfastly to its chosen location for the exercises. “It’s really important that Beijing lead here,” Admiral Mike Mullen told Fareed Zarakia, suggesting that the Chinese should confront North Korea in more open terms.

But Admiral Mullen’s plea for the Chinese to “lead” may have less to do with leadership than the remark implies. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has already spoken out against “provocative military acts” on the peninsula. It’s a bit of a hedge so far as North Korea’s critics are concerned, but it also allows for the rather obvious conclusion that staging military exercises immediately across a disputed border or in a sensitive economic zone is something of a provocation itself — a fact that has been puzzlingly overlooked in the remarks of our own indignant commentators. “Call it a message,” the Washington Post quotes one senior U.S. military officer, “but we believe in freedom of navigation.” China’s far more piqued public statements on the issue of military exercises in the Yellow Sea indicate that it has not missed the point.

I don’t know why North Korea shelled a small South Korean island. But Chinese cooperation in containing the incident, at least on American terms, is unlikely to be forthcoming so long as the United States’ ulterior motive in asserting its other regional prerogatives is so readily discernible.

Pressing China on this issue is tantamount to rejecting its call for a quick return to six-party talks. So what now? War? More sanctions? As the North made clear in a recent exhibition of its “stunning” new uranium enrichment facilities, sanctions have done little to curb its nuclearization. If anything, they have only provided the country with new concessions to seek by allegedly manufacturing new crises like this one. Following a stern electoral rebuke of his party’s post-Cheonan hard line toward the North, South Korean President Myung-bak Lee may have been slowly warming to the virtues of a more engagement-oriented approach. He should shut out the voices that would decry “rewarding bad behavior” or “appeasing North Korea” by seeking further engagement now. If the North is indeed seeking economic concessions, then its actions are reflective of a power structure in which the South and the United States ultimately hold the upper hand. Hapless sanctions and power struggles with China can only prevent the United States and South Korea from wielding this upper hand constructively.

Peter Certo is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus as well as the Institute of Policy Studies Balkans Project.

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