Focal Points Blog

Netanyahu Squandering Israel’s “Rationality” Advantage Over Iran

Widespread in Washington is an assumption as implicit as it is unexamined that the possession of nuclear weapons by Israel, even though it hasn’t signed the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), is acceptable because:

1. It’s an ally.
2. It’s “rational.”

Bear in mind that Iran is a signatory to the NPT and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors prowl Iran 24/7 365 days a year.*

But Israel, or to be more exact, Prime Minister Netanyahu, seems to be doing everything within his power to disabuse us of the notion that Israel is either an ally or rational. Netanyahu, constantly monitoring his personal tachometer of war, keeps watching for the needle to approach the red line. His latest impolitic outburst occurred on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sunday, July 16. Among other things he said:

Some have even said that Iran with nuclear weapons would stabilize the Middle East, stabilize the Middle East. I think the people who say this have set a new standard for human stupidity.

Of course, proliferation is never a good idea. But Netanyahu’s language became more and more un-prime-minister-like as the show proceeded. Speaking of Iran’s leadership, he said:

They put their zealotry above their survival. They have suicide bombers all over the place. I wouldn’t rely on their rationality, you know, you– since the advent of nuclear weapons, you had countries that had access to nuclear weapons who always made a careful calculation of cost and benefit. But Iran is guided by a leadership with an unbelievable fanaticism. It’s the same fanaticism that you see storming your embassies today. You want these fanatics to have nuclear weapons?

Netanyahu is propagating two myths:

1. Netanyahu is implying that any belief in the return of the Mahdi on the part of Iran’s leadership means that, like Christian millennialists, it courts the Apocalypse.
2. That those attacking American embassies — Sunni extremists at their worst, as in Benghazi — have much in common with Shiite Iran.

Meanwhile, Washington, too, seems incapable of putting itself in Tehran’s shoes. How, Tehran no doubt wonders, does a state like Israel get away with not only not refusing to sign the NPT, but enlisting the help of the entire West in upholding the pretense that it’s not in possession of a nuclear-weapons program?

The jury may still be out on whether disarmament initiatives by states with nuclear-weapons spurs states that aspire to a nuclear-weapons program to give up that dream. But, in a just world, Israel needs to give the world the opportunity to learn what the impact of signing the NPT and allowing IAEA inspectors into its own country would have on Iran before considering an attack. Of course, the evidence that Iran is developing nuclear-weapons or the capability to manufacture is little more — if that — than circumstantial thus far. But nuclear transparency on the part of Israel would likely induce concessions on enrichment from Iran. Of perforce, the temperature of Netanyahu’s war fever would be lowered and the dial on his war tachometer would recede safely into the black.

*Which, incidentally, place them in harm’s way in the event of an attack by Israel. Alternately, if pulled out, Iran knows an attack is forthcoming and Israel loses the element of surprise.

With Friends Like Morris Sadek, Copts Don’t Need Enemies

The dynamic duo: Morris Sadek and Pastor Terry Jones.

The dynamic duo: Morris Sadek and Pastor Terry Jones.

Pastor Terry Jones — the man who gained infamy for threatening to burn the Koran — promised to promote Innocence of Muslims, the film that’s setting off sparks and lighting brush fires across the Middle East. But Morris Sadek is the man who, Daniel Burke at Religion News Service reports, “translated it into Arabic, sent it to Egyptian journalists, promoted it on his website and posted it on social media.” Sadek is “an obscure Egyptian-born Coptic Christian who lives near Washington and proudly touts his ties to Jones.” In other words, Sadek was the catalyst to a conflagration, Jones the catalyst for the catalyst. Burke again (emphasid added):

Morris Sadek describes himself as a human rights attorney and president of a small group called the National American Coptic Assembly, based in Chantilly, Va. … But fellow Copts depict Sadek as a fringe figure and publicity hound whose Islamophobic invectives disrupt Copts’ quest for equal rights in Egypt.

… Sadek “has done a lot of harmful things for Copts in Egypt,” said Cynthia Farahat, Coptic Solidarity’s director of advocacy. “Every single thing he says is used by Islamists to justify terrorism against Copts.”

And that’s the last thing Copts need. At WND, Aaron Klein writes about the persecution to which they were subjected even before this latest episode.

While Copts were targeted by Islamists during Mubarak’s regime, such persecution has increased exponentially since Mubarak’s ouster.

Just weeks after Mubarak was booted, Muslim villagers in March 2011 reportedly set fire to a Coptic church while attacking Christians on the street.

Since last year, two other churches were set on fire in the Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo and in Edfu in the south of the country. Coptic Christian families were also reportedly evicted from their homes in Alexandria.

Some reports say more than 200,000 Copts already have fled their homes.

When Copts attempted to protest last October, security forces reportedly fired at the protesters, killing 24 and wounding more than 300 people.

Maggie Michael of the Associated Press reports on Copt persecution since the film.

“We are afraid the anger will engulf us,” said Monier Hanna, 58, a Coptic government employee who says he saw two unveiled Christian women being harassed over the movie by Muslim men in his middle-class district of Helwan on Thursday.

… Mira Girgis, a 23-year-old Copt and recent college graduate, said she feels insecure.

“I can’t go to church alone; my brother must be with me. I can’t go out at night. When I return from work, a male — either my father or brother — must be waiting for me at the subway station,” she said. “Being a Christian … is hard in Egypt in these conditions.”

A Christian journalist, Caroline Kamel, wrote in the Shorouk daily Friday that she and her family came under attack at a bus terminal in Cairo and another city over the film.

“Am I supposed to … apologize for stupidities of others just for the mere fact that we share the same religion?” she said.

By way of distancing themselves from the film, Copts

… gathered Friday in front of a Cairo cathedral holding signs denouncing a film that mocked the Prophet Muhammad amid fears that Muslims will take out their anger on Egypt’s minority community.

The Coptic Christian Church has issued a statement denouncing the film and rejecting “defamation” of the Muslim faith, and church officials have pledged that Christians will join their “brotherly Muslims” in sit-ins against the movie.

“This is part of a wicked campaign against religions, aimed at causing discord among people, especially Egyptians,” read the statement, issued Wednesday by the Sacred Congregation of the Coptic Church.

Morris Sadek is not only no friend to Middle-Eastern Christians, but, by providing them with a ready-made pretext to incite the public, he’s shown that he’s a friend to Islamic extremists.

Dogwhistling Past Libya

Cross-posted from IPS Special Project Right Web‘s Militarist Monitor.

The deadly attack on U.S. diplomatic personnel in Libya raises a host of uncomfortable questions about the long-term ramifications of U.S. overseas interventions, the impact of Islamophobic media on U.S. international relations, and the ability of the United States to defend its diplomats in unstable or hostile environs.

It also calls into the question the efficacy of the NATO intervention in Libya, which left behind a weak central state and a fractious, violent political order susceptible to penetration by radical groups like the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, the al-Qaeda-aligned Libyan organization suspected of using protests at the U.S. mission as a pretext for carrying out the attacks.

The Mitt Romney campaign, however, has raised none of these issues. Instead—in language reportedly approved by the candidate himself—Romney fumed that it was “disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” Despite withering bipartisan criticism of both the timing and the substance of the statement, the Romney campaign has refused to disavow it.

The remark was an apparent reference to a statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo, where boisterous crowds had gathered to protest a bizarre anti-Islamic U.S. film that had been leaked to the Egyptian media. In language not vetted by Washington, the embassy staff condemned efforts to “hurt the religious feelings” of Muslims, which the Romney campaign construed as “an apology for our values.” Not only was the statement made in Cairo—not Benghazi, where the actual violence occurred amid similar protests—but it was issued hours before the U.S. personnel in Libya had been attacked.

Although some Republicans condemned the Romney campaign’s response as “craven” and “irresponsible,” a number of campaign surrogates and supporters took to the airwaves to double down. After repeatedly dodging a reporter’s questions about the timeline of the events (how could the administration be faulted, after all, for a statement issued before the violence had occurred?), Romney adviser Richard Williamson mused inanely that the occasion called for the president to “stand up for our values and [be] willing to lead from the front.” On Twitter, Donald Rumsfeld attributed the attacks to “perceived American weakness,” although presumably Twitter’s 140-character format left him no space to address the 12 embassy attacks that occurred during the last Bush administration.

But beyond a sordid new occasion for old “no apology” talking points, some observers have read baser motives into the Republican response. Romney’s remarks, wrote Adam Serwer, “don’t merely assign responsibility for the incident to, say, poor leadership or a failed foreign policy. Instead, Romney’s remarks suggest that Obama has very specific personal motivations: When violent religious radicals slaughter Americans, Obama is on the side of the radicals.” Serwer lumped the implications in with “a very well-developed narrative, popular on the fever swamps of the right where questions about Obama’s citizenship or faith linger” and likened them to attacks leveled by the conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza.

But if Romney kept such implications to a dog whistle, other Republicans raised them to a fever pitch. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, for example, tweeted that it was “sad and pathetic” that “Obama sympathizes with [the] attackers in Egypt.” Todd Akin, the Missouri Republican notorious for his insistence that women can’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” concluded simply that President Obama was “just apologizing because he doesn’t like America.” And after Obama called Libyan president Yusuf al-Magariaf to thank him for the Libyan government’s assistance in tracking down the perpetrators of the attack, FoxNews.com ran a story headlined “Obama Calls Libyan President to Thank Him after U.S. Ambassador Murdered.”

Amid the Beltway chatter, a new group of Libyans assembled outside the U.S. consulate in Benghazi holding signs condemning extremism and expressing remorse for the previous day’s violence. In an episode fraught with missed opportunities and debased rhetoric, they may be the only ones actually apologizing.



U.S.-Israeli Differences Not Likely Lost on Iran

At the Daily Beast, Ali Gharib quotes from a letter that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) addressed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

I am stunned by the remarks that you made this week regarding U.S. support for Israel. Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel? Are you saying that Israel, under President Obama, has not received more in annual security assistance from the United States than at any time in its history, including for the Iron Dome Missile Defense System.

As other Israelis have said, it appears that you have injected politics into one of the most profound security challenges of our time—Iran’s illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Yet, writing about prospective Iranian retaliation by means of terrorism to an Israeli attack, should it occur, Daniel Byman at Foreign Policy suggests that Iran still sees little difference between the policies toward it of Israel and the United States.

Even if the most provocative measures against Iran’s nuclear program are taken by Israel alone, the United States should expect to find itself the target of attacks, particularly abroad. Although the two countries do not march in lockstep, the subtle distinctions in Iran policy that divide Washington and Jerusalem are often lost in Tehran. U.S. support for aggressive sanctions and Israel’s covert campaign are considered part of a shared effort to undermine the Islamic Republic, and reportedly joint operations like the computer virus that targeted Iran’s nuclear program further blur differences.

Though, as the Guardian reported, at the end of August about Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey:

Distancing himself from any Israeli plan to bomb Iran, Dempsey said such an attack would “clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran’s nuclear programme”.

He added: “I don’t want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it.”

As if to highlight those distinctions, the Wilson Center just issued a report titled Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran signed and endorsed by many American national security figures such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Sam Nunn, William Fallon, Chuck Hagel, and Anthony Zinni. The Associated Press summed it up:

U.S. military strikes on Iran would shake the regime’s political control and damage its ability to launch counterstrikes, but the Iranians probably would manage to retaliate, directly and through surrogates, in ways that risked igniting all-out war in the Middle East, according to an assessment of an attack’s costs and benefits. … It says achieving more than a temporary setback in Iran’s nuclear program would require a military operation — including a land occupation — more taxing than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

Suggesting that Tehran doesn’t draw much distinction between the policies towards it of the United States and Israel doesn’t give Tehran much credit. At Haaretz, Daniel Kurtzer (behind a pay wall) maintains that it’s time to, in essence, blur those distinctions again.

The United States and Israel do many things well together. … The one thing we are not doing well together these days is quiet diplomacy. … Put bluntly, there’s too much noise about critical security issues. … The language used by officials – again, primarily Israeli, but sometimes American – is highly charged and quite unusual in the discourse between allies.

In fact, writes Kurtzer:

It is actually a crisis of significant dimensions, for the hyperbolic accusations, chatter, leaks, and distortions that increasingly mark our public discourse toward each other actually undermine our mutual security and undercut the possibility of accomplishing important national security objectives.

You can be sure that Tehran not only gets it, but is no doubt watching the all-too-public diplomacy between the United States and Israel with some amusement.

Separated at Birth: Salafi Extremists and Pastor Terry Jones

The cold, dead hand of Salafi extremism was once again on display in Benghazi.

According to Robert Worth of the New York Times, “the attack on the American Embassy in Cairo — unlike the one that killed [Ambassador to Libya Christopher] Stevens — appears to have been spontaneous, led by Egyptians genuinely angered by news of the film clip, distributed on YouTube, which portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a confused, bloodthirsty pedophile of uncertain parentage.”

As for the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, it

… might have less to do with any intrinsic Muslim intolerance than with the ideological chaos that reigns in the Arab world, where extremists routinely exploit popular anger and invoke Islam to draw attention to fundamentally political and even internecine goals. … Bernard Haykel, a professor of Middle East studies at Princeton University, said, “It’s true that there are sanctions against insulting the Prophet, but this is really about political or symbolic opportunists, who use religious symbols to advance their own power or prestige against other groups.”

In other words, Salafi extremists exploit Middle-Eastern anger against the United States just like Pastor Terry Jones, thanks to whom the offending film went viral, exploits American anger against Islam.

Meanwhile, from the Department of Silver Linings

… there were outpourings of rage across Libya on Wednesday against the killers and against the Salafis more generally. In addition to demonstrations in Tripoli and Benghazi, Twitter was inundated with pro-American messages by young Libyans; several of them pleaded for the United States Marines to come and crush the Salafis.

Likewise, it behooves Americans to remember that Salafism, especially at its most extreme, such as al Qaeda, does not define Islam.

Deaths of Amb. Stevens and Staff Stretch Meaning of Free Speech to the Breaking Point

The death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three staff persons, apparently by a grenade launcher attack, came hot on the heels of an attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The Daily Beast reports:

At least 2,000 demonstrators, enraged over Innocence of Muslims, a little-known film produced in the United States that allegedly insults the Prophet Muhammad, shouted, “We will sacrifice ourselves for you, Allah’s messenger!” A group of men managed to mount the embassy’s walls.

… Al-Azhar [University in Cairo], one of the Arab world’s most elite centers for higher Islamic learning, reportedly condemned the film on Tuesday, citing a scene in which a character based on the Prophet Muhammad goes on trial. The Wall Street Journal reported that Innocence of Muslims’ writer, editor, and producer is a 52-year-old American, Sam Bacile. [Pastor Terry] Jones is promoting the film, whose new 14-minute Arabic-dubbed trailer on YouTube depicts the Prophet as a deranged womanizer calling for massacres.

You may remember Jones, the pastor of a Gainesville, Florida congregation called the Dove World Outreach Center, from his threat to burn the Koran in 2010. It resulted in the deaths of five protesters and seven UN employees in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan and nine in Kandahar.

Rev. Jones has also been active in spreading the myth to gullible Americans that the Islamic world seeks to impose shariah law in the United States. (Under the category of FWIW, Jones was a member of the same high-school graduating class in Missouri as Rush Limbaugh.) As for Al-Azhar University — founded in the tenth century! — one could argue that it should know better than to treat Jones as representative of Americans. In fact, though, many Americans share Jones’s belief and the Al-Azhar administration, no doubt aware of that, can hardly be blamed for defending Islam.

Meanwhile AlJazeera reports:

Abdel Moneim al-Yasser, a member of the interim committee monitoring security in Libya, told Al Jazeera: “A handful of renegades of people who are attacking the national interests of Libya are behind this issue. We are still investigating on their identity [...] we will track them and bring them to justice.”

… Two other staff were injured, El-Dressi reported. The deaths were confirmed by Wanis al-Sharif, the Libyan deputy interior minister, to the AFP news agency.

Addressing a press conference, Sharif blamed loyalists of former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi for the attack, while stressing that the US should have removed its personnel from the country when news of the film’s release broke.

In other words, it’s possible that, it wasn’t Islamist extremists, but Gaddafi supporters who may have taken advantage over outrage over the film to engender hostility in Washington towards the new Libyan government. In any event, were it not for Jones, it’s safe to say that Ambassador Stevens and his staff would still be alive.

Like the threats to burn the Quran, Jones once again pushes the boundaries of free speech just short — or past — inciting a riot. After the 2010 incidents, Brad Knickerbocker of the Christian Science Monitor wrote:

The controversial Westboro Baptist Church [in Topeka, Kansas, is] best known for its anti-gay protests, often held at the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. While such activities held by the Westboro Baptist Church and the Dove World Outreach Center may be highly offensive to most Americans – and may, in fact, incite others to violence – they are generally protected as free speech.

[In March, 2010] the US Supreme Court upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to hold its protests at military funerals.

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and – as it did here – inflict great pain,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion for a case brought by the father of a Marine killed in Iraq. “On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”

That provides scant solace to the families of Ambassador Stevens and his staff or the protesters who were killed in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, if U.S. law protects those who make wild allegations against Islam, it’s easy to understand why some Muslims assume it’s up to them to protect their religion.

You’ve Heard of Friendly Fire, Now Meet Friendly Deterrence

Yesterday we posted about the little brother of The Bomb (strategic nuclear weapons): tactical, or lower yield, nukes. We cited a number of reasons that tactical pose as much of a threat as strategic. Among them are the exorbitant cost — modernizing the B61 tactical nukes in the U.S. stockpile will cost $10 billion. Another: they blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons, as can be seen in the instance of Pakistan, which may be developing them for use against India.

On August 27, at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Kingston Reif outlined issues that tactical nukes raise with extended or umbrella deterrence (stationing nuclear weapons on the soil of our allies, ostensibly to provide them with the same deterrence that Americans “enjoy”).

… the 2009 final report of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States … highlighted the importance of nonstrategic (or “tactical”) nuclear weapons. … It noted that the continued deployment of approximately 200 US nonstrategic B61 gravity bombs in Europe and the maintenance of nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles … in the Pacific are essential to extending deterrence on behalf [of] US partners in Eastern Europe and East Asia. Without these capabilities, the commission hinted, some US allies might just choose to develop their own nuclear weapons.

In other words extended deterrence, intended to protects our allies from enemies, also deters those allies from seeking nuclear weapons of their own — friendly deterrence, if you will.

As far as the United States protecting our allies, Reif concludes:

The real lifeblood of extended deterrence lies in an ally’s confidence in the strength of its political relationship with the United States. If relations fray, then extended deterrence will be perceived to be weak — no matter how many or what kinds of nuclear weapons the United States possesses.

Or, as Reif wrote in a postscript to the article at Nukes of Hazard, the blog of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (for which he serves as Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation):

The more US interests are intertwined with allies, the more likely the United States is to come to their defense.

Smaller Nukes May Present the Larger Risk

When we think of a nuclear weapon, we picture a city wiped out — in the plural, the entire world. But nuclear weapons come in different shapes and sizes. The larger versions are called “strategic,” apparently because the overarching strategy of a war is fashioned around their use. Those smaller in yield are called “tactical.” That is, using them is a tactic in a war smaller than all-out nuclear. Also, while both can be delivered by bombers, strategic are delivered, as well, by long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles while tactical are confined to short-range missiles or bombers.

The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though of a yield that would count them as tactical today, were considered strategic because they were intended to wipe out entire cities, which tactical aren’t. Nor have tactical, to the best of our knowledge, been used. But they constitute as much of a nuclear threat as strategic.

Tactical weapons tend to blur the distinctions between nuclear and conventional weapons, thus acting — overused-term alert! — as a gateway drug to strategic nukes.. In addition, they’re expensive, and they’re a sticking point between the United States and Europe, and between the United States and Russia.

Regarding the expense, in a Foreign Policy piece titled A Steal at $10 Billion, Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies writes about the aircraft-delivered tactical weapon the B-61.

There is now a furious debate about whether the United States needs to modernize the B61, which dates to Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, making it the oldest design left in the stockpile. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, recently revealed that the cost of the program to extend the bomb’s life has more than doubled: Modernizing the approximately 400 B61 gravity bombs in the stockpile will cost $10 billion. That is billions with a “B.”

Regarding the divisiveness they incur between the United State and Europe, he writes:

Look, America’s European allies don’t value U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. Yes, some of them, especially in a few defense ministries, say they do, but actions speak louder than words. The United States’ NATO allies value nuclear weapons so much that they aren’t willing to properly fund the mission. [On their security] No matter what some European officials say, the actions of European hosts say they don’t care.

As for abolishing them, in May of this year Amy F. Woolf of the Congressional Research Service wrote:

In contrast with the longer-range “strategic” nuclear weapons, these weapons had a lower profile in policy debates and arms control negotiations, possibly because they did not pose a direct threat to the continental United States. … In 1991, both the United States and Soviet Union announced that they would withdraw from deployment most and eliminate from their arsenals many of their nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

The United States now has approximately 1,100 nonstrategic nuclear weapons … but experts believe Russia still has between 2,000 and 6,000 warheads for nonstrategic nuclear weapons in its arsenal. … Many analysts argue that the United States and Russia should, at a minimum, provide each other with information about their numbers of nonstrategic nuclear weapons and the status. … Russia, in particular, has seemed unwilling to provide even basic information about its stockpile of nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Some in the United States have resisted as well, arguing, in particular, that public discussions about the numbers and locations of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe could increase pressure on the United States to withdraw these weapons.

Worse, other states, such as Pakistan, have developed tactical nukes, too. Also at Foreign Policy, in a piece titled Race to the End Tom Hundley writes:

This April, Pakistan tested a short-range ballistic missile, the Hatf IX, a so-called “shoot and scoot” battlefield nuclear weapon aimed at deterring an invasion by India’s conventional forces. This development carries two disturbing implications. First, Pakistan now has the know-how to build nuclear warheads compact enough to fit on the tip of a small missile or inside a suitcase (handy for terrorists). Second, Pakistan has adopted a war-fighting doctrine that does not preclude nuking its own territory in the event of an Indian incursion — a dubious first in the annals of deterrence theory.

Dodd-Frank’s Cardin-Lugar Amendment Undermined by Weak SEC

Two years after becoming law, Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank bill, also known as the Cardin-Lugar Amendment, will finally come into effect. The Amendment, hailed as a transformative step towards establishing transparency in developing countries by groups such as the State Department, Oxfam and Jubilee USA, requires that companies listed on the American stock exchange involved in extractive industries “disclose payments they make at the country and project level to the United States and foreign governments.” Over 1,000 companies involved in oil, gas, and mining will be covered under this bill, including an estimated 90% of internationally operating oil companies. Senator Ben Cardin (R-MD), for whom the Amendment is partially named, has billed it as a necessary step to end the abuse of power rampant in developing countries with significant oil, mineral, and natural gas deposits. Cardin has stated that the implementation of the Amendment will allow the European Union to adopt complementary measures.

Given the positive response the Amendment received within the governmental and non-profit spheres and the gravity of the situation in many resource-rich developing countries, one wonders why the Securities and Exchange Commission issued the final rules for the implementation of the Cardin-Lugar Amendment 16 months behind schedule. Even more distressing is the fact that Oxfam felt compelled to file suit against the SEC after the Commission missed its original April 2011 deadlines for issuing rules. Unfortunately, the agency that is entrusted with the responsibility of reviewing the companies’ reports and investigating any discrepancies is the very agency that has delayed the implementation of the Cardin-Lugar Amendment.

This failure raises the question of whether or not the SEC is capable of overseeing such crucial legislation. Questions about the agency’s competency have been rampant since the Bernie Madoff scandal was brought to light. Though Congress and the Project on Government Oversight have called for the SEC to implement reforms to reduce errors and outright corruption in the agency, there has yet to be significant, systematic reform in the agency. The Project on Government Oversight reported that two years after the Senate released a statement calling for reforms, the SEC had made no progress on 27 of the 52 reforms recommended by the Inspector General. It has become ever more obvious that the SEC is unable to fulfill its role as an adversarial regulator; unfortunately, this incompetency means that the importance of the Cardin-Lugar Amendment has been squandered on an agency that cannot fulfill its mandate.

While the Cardin-Lugar Amendment has the potential to reduce corruption in both resource-rich countries and powerful international corporations, without an enthusiastic and competent regulatory body enforcing its tenets it will represent nothing more than the formalization of good intentions.

Hilary Matfess is an Institute for Policy Studies intern and a Johns Hopkins University student.

The Futility of Seeking “Strategic Clarity” on Iran

"Gulp." (Netanyahu gets word that attack on Iran is underway.)

“Gulp.” (Netanyahu gets word that attack on Iran is underway.)

Three recent reports highlight the appeal (and folly) of demanding greater clarity in the case of Iran’s nuclear capabilities in the hopes that an equally obvious US/Israeli policy response can be devised. Seeking such clarity in inherently ambiguous situations has a tremendous emotional and political appeal. Decision-makers contemplating foreign policies ranging from negotiations to war instinctively strive to uncover the final bit of conclusive evidence that will demonstrate a clear opportunity or threat requiring an equally firm and compelling policy response.

However, the real-world ambiguities and uncertainties of policy and strategy rarely accommodate this understandable desire. George Tenet’s assertive claim to President George W. Bush preceding 2003 American invasion of Iraq that Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was a ‘slam-dunk’ case did not make it necessarily so. The CIA director’s confident assertions were conclusively proven wrong. In hindsight, this false sense of certainty rested on a flimsy case of largely circumstantial evidence underpinned by the unquestioned logic that Saddam had to be guilty of developing WMD because he hadn’t proven himself innocent through total unconditional cooperation with international inspectors.

The parallels with present-day Iran are striking. The international community is essentially requiring Iran to prove the negative case that it doesn’t have a covert nuclear weapons program. As I’ve suggested elsewhere (here and here), no international inspection regime can guarantee success although a rigorous regime can be an effective deterrent to developing a nuclear weapons capability.

The most recent IAEA report does not definitively clarify the status of Iran’s nuclear program, although it largely confirms the assessment of the US intelligence community that Iran has not yet made a decision to go forward with a nuclear weapons program. For instance, the report notes that “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities…declared by Iran.” This is a clear statement that there is no concrete evidence indicating Iran is diverting its nuclear fuels for military purposes. This conclusion is consistent with repeated claims by Iranian political and religious leaders that Iran has no intent of producing nuclear weapons. Indeed the highest religious authority in Iran – a country whose identity is grounded in Shi’a Islamic theology — has declared the pursuit of nuclear weapons a ‘big and unforgiveable sin’. Eternal damnation can be a powerful incentive for good behavior.

However, the IAEA report goes on to say in the very same summary concluding paragraph that without unrestricted cooperation with the IAEA (something no sovereign government would tolerate from an outside international body), “the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.” In other words, Iran – like Saddam – has to prove its innocence. Clearly, this latest IAEA assessment on Iran falls far short of George Tenet’s ‘slam dunk’ standard of proof for Iraq. Nonetheless, there remains sufficient ambiguity in the report’s language providing alarmists both here and in Israel with sufficient fodder to protest about the continued possibility that Iran could have a covert nuclear weapons program hidden from view of international inspectors. The likelihood is that future IAEA reports will continue to offer similarly ambiguous and qualified assessments. Thus informational clarity will continue to elude policymakers as the IAEA hedges its bets.

Of course, some policymakers will strive to compensate for this inherent ambiguity by creating a sense of policy certainty. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is only the most recent example as he pushes the international community (read the United States) to remove any uncertainty in Iranian calculations by setting a “clear red line” for military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. This demand for clarity is especially ironic given Israel’s long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity regarding its own nuclear weapons capabilities. Apparently, it is uncertainty and ambiguity in the case of Israel’s nuclear capabilities that has its apparent strategic advantages.

PM Netanyahu’s essential argument is that the chances of Iranian miscalculation are reduced if leaders in Tehran are convinced that overwhelming military action will be taken if certain ‘red lines’ are crossed. The problem, however, is in determining where the appropriate ‘red line’ is to be drawn. PM Netanyahu, as well as some American politicians, would seek to make the mere possession of a “nuclear-weapons capability” by Iran a red line; others suggest drawing the line before Iran has reached a suspected ‘zone of immunity’ – a point at which when military action becomes ineffective at eliminating an Iranian nuclear weapons program. However, these are themselves ambiguous thresholds that defy clear definition. Is this line crossed when Iran has produced sufficient nuclear fuel for a bomb? When Iranian underground enrichment facilities are in theory capable of producing highly enriched uranium? When Iran actually produces weapons-grade fuel? When Iran has acquired the scientific knowledge needed to design a nuclear weapon; to actually produce a nuclear weapon? When Iran has successfully tested a nuclear weapon? When Iran has successfully mated a nuclear warhead to a missile capable of hitting targets in Tel Aviv, Madrid, or New York? And the list goes on. The search for clearly identifiable ‘red lines’ in Iran’s case is illusory.

Moreover, there is also the alternative prospect that strategic clarity itself could be counterproductive — especially if the goal is to reach a diplomatic resolution of this problem. Most analysts recognize that the minimum acceptable deal from an Iranian perspective is an agreement that will allow some level of domestic nuclear fuel enrichment by Iran in exchange for intrusive inspections that verify the non-diversion of technologies and fuels to military purposes. Such an agreement would be consistent with the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which confers on Iran (as with any signatory to the treaty) the “inalienable right…to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” However, permitting these activities would necessarily enhance Iranian nuclear know-how, expand Tehran’s access to advanced nuclear technologies (even if only civilian), and thus likely shorten the timeline to nuclear weaponization if that were the intent of leaders in Tehran. In this case, the strategic ‘clarity’ demanded by PM Netanyahu could well undermine the achievement of his basic strategic objectives – limiting Iran’s access to nuclear technologies in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state. Of course, this is exactly why the ‘red lines’ envisaged by Prime Minister Netanyahu are likely to abridge the basic rights entailed within the NPT (to which Israel is not a signatory) and thus serve to simultaneously undermine prospects for a diplomatic resolution – raising an entirely different set of strategic complications and challenges for decision-makers in Washington and Tel Aviv.

Finally, the Christian Science Monitor recently echoed these calls for certainty by making an empty plea for “more information, not less…for decisions of peace and war”; by critiquing President Obama for not having a clear “red line” for military action; and by calling for the President to ‘clarify’ his position at the upcoming Democratic National Convention. As we’ve already discussed, the latest IAEA report is evidence enough that no definitive evidence in Iran’s case is likely to be forthcoming. Moreover, echoing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire for specific triggers for military action also has its practical downsides, as we’ve already explored. Additionally, clear ‘red lines’ now would obligate the actors – whether the international community, the United States, or Israel — to specific actions down the road. Those ‘red lines’ made explicit now will necessarily narrow the future flexibility of the decision-makers at a time when nuance and sophistication may be required to avert a crisis. These ‘red lines’ could also limit the ability of policymakers to adopt a more favorable course of action that is not readily apparent in the present. Unfortunately, President Obama has already unwisely fallen victim to this trap by publicly dismissing the viability of a strategy of containment in his AIPAC speech earlier this year. Finally, these premature pledges to action ultimately risk the credibility of these actors should they fail to make good on these commitments whatever the subsequent justification.

The nature of the strategic environment is one of volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity (VUCA). To be successful, policies and strategies must admit to these realities. To pretend there is certainty where there is none, to create a false sense of assurances about the present or future actions of states, or to overly simplify a complex problem is to court disaster.

Christopher J. Bolan, Ph.D., Col. (R), U.S. Army, is a Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. government.

Page 51 of 169« First...102030...4950515253...607080...Last »