Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

Missile Defenses in the Middle East

February 1, 2010

Administration and military officials have announced that the US is deploying additional missile defense systems in the Middle East/Persian Gulf.  The deployments include Patriot missile batteries in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain (similar batteries have long been stationed in Israel and Saudi Arabia), as well as Aegis cruisers armed with missile interceptors that are positioned in the Persian Gulf.  The moves are intended to counter the threat posed by Iran’s short -range and medium-range missiles; Western leaders fear that the Islamic Republic is developing nuclear warheads (Iranian leaders deny that they seek to acquire the Bomb) that could be launched by the aforementioned delivery vehicles against other countries in the region or America’s military forces. 

The US wants to prevent Iran, which is viewed as a hostile nation, from joining the nuclear club.  The administration has tried to resolve the crisis through diplomacy and threats of economic sanctions if the Iranian regime does not agree to take steps that would make it difficult for its scientists to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.  In December of last year, Tehran accepted a deal to ship its unprocessed uranium abroad but backed out before it was finalized.

According to administration officials, the US is deploying the missile defense systems for the following reasons:

1. To reassure its Arab allies and dissuade them from building their own nuclear arsenals for deterrence purposes.

2. To deter Iran from developing the Bomb or using it against American interests in the region.

3. To persuade Israel not to launch a preemptive military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.

It is doubtful if the deployments will have much of an effect on the situation.  They might provide a modicum of psychological comfort to Arab leaders, but American security guarantees (i.e., promises to come to the defense of its friends and allies in the event of an Iranian attack) would better achieve that purpose.  The US has already suggested that it would retaliate against Iran if the Islamic Republic launched a nuclear strike, and that threat should be sufficient unless Arab governments do not consider it to be credible.

When it comes to deterring Iran from creating an atomic arsenal, missile defense systems will not likely change the decision calculus of Iranian leaders, who understandably fear that America will invade their nation and almost certainly want nuclear weapons to protect themselves from perceived external threats; such weapons would be a good deterrent because no country would want to invade a nuclear Iran and risk suffering an atomic counterattack even if the invading forces, or its allies, possessed missile defense systems that could lower the chances that a nuclear-armed missile would get through.  As far as dissuading Iran from launching a first strike, the threat of nuclear retaliation alone would be enough to deter the Islamic Republic, so Patriot missiles are superfluous in this regard.

Israel already had Patriot missiles before the US put more in the region, and putting interceptors in Arab countries and the Persian Gulf would not substantially change Israel’s security status because Israel is not very close to the Gulf and Patriots are terminal-phase defense systems (meaning they are designed to destroy incoming warheads shortly before they detonate in the target area), so basing them in Arab states would not protect Israel.  Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, but if the Jewish state still feels like that is not enough to deter Iran from hitting Tel Aviv with atomic weapons the mere presence of more Patriot missiles and Aegis cruisers will not stop Israeli leaders from bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Nuclear weapons would not be the greatest threat to American interests emanating from the Islamic Republic if Iran becomes a nuclear power.  The country’s ability to use terrorist groups (such as Hamas and Hezbollah) as proxies, foment instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and close down the Straits of Hormuz, through which a large percentage of the world’s oil supply transits, are much more plausible methods that Iran could employ against the US and its partners in the region. 

However, theater missile defense systems are not without purpose.  They could be useful in knocking down Iranian missiles armed with conventional warheads in the event of a conflict.  Although the odds that Iranian leaders would launch a nuclear first strike are extremely low (unless their country were invaded), there is a significant probability that they would use regular missiles to attack American military bases, large ground formations or the cities of US allies if a war involving the Islamic Republic broke out in the Middle East.

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Containing a Nuclear Iran

January 19, 2010

Last Friday, ForeignPolicy.com published an op-ed piece by Michael Singh in which he discusses the implications of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.  Mr. Singh makes the following arguments:

1. There is no possibility of a rapprochement between the US and Iran similar to the one President Richard Nixon achieved when he went to China in the early 1970s.

2. Iranian leaders might use nuclear weapons because their rationality is open to question.

3. There is a significant chance that Iran would give atomic bombs to terrorist allies like Hezbollah or Hamas.

4. Iran becoming a nuclear power would fundamentally change the security situation in the Middle East.

5. Arab states would respond to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by building their own.

6. The US could not contain a nuclear-armed Iran.

It appears that Mr. Singh is correct in asserting that a major diplomatic breakthrough between the US and the Islamic Republic is unlikely at the present time.  Hardliners in Tehran remain vehemently anti-American and they continue to view the US, which has surrounded their country with its military forces and expressed sympathy for Iranian dissidents who are calling for democratic reforms, as a threat to their regime.  Moreover, they face no strategic threat from a third party that would compel them to seek an alliance with the US for counterbalancing purposes.

Mr. Singh’s suggestion that Iran might launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel or other nations is absurd.  He observes that the certainty of massive retaliation would probably dissuade them from doing so, but he says that the possibility should not be discounted because Iranian leaders might be irrational.  Although some political elites in Iran have railed against Israel and leveled threats against it, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.  The West should not react hysterically to their rhetoric; after all, Nikita Khrushchev said his country would “bury” the US, but neither he nor other Soviet leaders intended to attack the US with nuclear weapons unless they were attacked first.

A similar counterargument can be used to discredit his warnings that Iran might give the Bomb to terrorist groups.  If groups like Hezbollah or Hamas detonated a nuclear device in Israel, Israeli policymakers would assume that Iran was behind the assault and they would respond by destroying Tehran and other sites with their atomic arsenal.  Once again, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.

Whether Iran “going nuclear” would fundamentally change the security situation in the region is highly questionable.  Mr. Singh says that Iran would act more aggressively and give more weapons to militant groups, but they are already doing that in Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Iraq, and they do not need nuclear weapons to do such things without suffering serious consequences.  Arab states like Egyt and Saudi Arabia would certainly be very concerned about their Persian rivals having the Bomb, but they would not necessarily create their own arsenals if the US extended a nuclear umbrella over them; America promised to protect Japan and Germany from their nuclear-armed adversaries and successfully prevented proliferation in those two countries. 

They idea that Iran could no longer be contained if it joins the nuclear club is unfounded.  The US has the capability to thwart a conventional attack against is allies in the region and prevent Iranian naval forces from closing the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period of time.   Nuclear deterrence still works for reasons mentioned above, and Iran would not have a greater ability to aid terrorist groups because atomic bombs are not the type of weapons that a state would want to pass on to extremists.  Despite what Mr. Singh claims, America and its partners could still contain a nuclear Iran and protect their interests much like they contained Russia during the Cold War.

Overwhelmed By Drone Videos

January 11, 2010

In an article published today in the New York Times, Christopher Drew discusses America’s use of drone aircraft to gather intelligence data.  Last year, Predator and Reaper drones recorded 210,240 hours of video feed.  In the coming years, the number of drones in operation is expected to increase dramatically, as are the number of cameras mounted on each platform; as a result, the amount of video footage that intelligence analysts must sift through will skyrocket, which might make it more difficult for the Air Force and other organizations to exploit the information that they receive for operational and strategic purposes.  The military and the CIA have reportedly had success in using live video to combat terrorists and insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but intelligence agencies have done little in terms of analyzing prerecorded video for useful information, largely because there is so much of it and too few personnel to examine it.

Ironically, the US government must worry about having too much intelligence.  Those monitoring video footage could be overwhelmed by the inflow of data and miss critical feeds that they might have otherwise seen.  If analysts can only focus on a small percentage of what is gathered, they must ignore most of it, which means they have to figure out a way to select which data is most important before they can see it with their own eyes.  The NSA faces a similiar issue with regard to communications intercepts, and it has been widely reported that they use computers to scan conversations for keywords that might signify a threat.  Perhaps the intelligence community will be able to harness technology to mitigate the problem posed by the exponential rise in video recordings, but they will not be able to solve it.  Intelligence officials and procurement officers must weigh the pros and cons of having more intelligence data but less ability to examine the bulk of it before they develop and deploy more drones.

Kristof on Costa Rica

January 8, 2010

Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in which he discusses the relative “happiness” of countries around the world, focusing primarily on Costa Rica, which ranks number one according to various indeces.  The World Happiness Index ranks the US 20th, with Togo and Tanzania coming in last; another study ranks America 19th and puts Zimbabwe at the bottom of the list.

Mr. Kristof argues that the main reason that Costa Ricans are so happy is that they have low levels of military spending (the country has no armed forces) and they invest a relatively large amount in education per capita, which in turn has led to political stability.  He also credits the nation’s environmental conservation efforts as a contributor to public contentment.  Based on this assumption, he argues that the US should spend less on defense (including foreign military assistance) and more on social programs like education.  He also suggests that America should do more to protect the environment.

I respect Mr. Kristof for his efforts to highlight humanitarian disasters and violations of human rights, particularly in Darfur, but his latest article is highly flawed.  Comparing the US with Costa Rica when it comes to military expenditures is nonsensical.  Costa Rica faces no serious internal or external threats, whereas America is responsible for underwriting international security and protecting the world’s oil supply, on which the global economy is dependent.  Partly as a consequence of America’s foreign policy commitments and interventions, terrorists and insurgents are determined to attack the US and its interests overseas, and policymakers have found it necessary to provide materiel and financial assistance to governments battling anti-American militants in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  Withholding such aid could have disastrous consequences, and reducing the size and capability of the American military would undermine the liberal international order that Mr. Kristof claims to support.

Another weak point in his argument is his assertion that “happiness” is based on social spending.  He mentions that Mexico and Colombia rank higher than the US on happiness indeces, but both nations spend less on education and medical care than America, and they are also plagued by higher levels of drug-related violence.  He himself acknowledges that a “cultural emphasis on family and friends” might be responsible for the disparity in contentment; although such things are difficult to measure and his claim that Latin Americans value family and friends more than Americans is certainly disputable.  One thing that Mr. Kristof fails to note is that Latin Americans generally work fewer hours per week than Americans do (as do Europeans, who are reportedly “happier” than people in the US), which could be an important factor when it comes to reported personal satisfaction.

I am not suggesting that education and other forms of social spending are not important, or that federal and state governments in the US should not spend more in these areas (I believe they should).  I am merely saying that Mr. Kristof’s prescriptions for increasing “happiness” in America may not have the intended results  in light of geopolitical and social conditions. 

On a separate note, Mr. Kristof’s insistense that the US reduce military spending reinforces public perceptions that liberals are weak on national defense, which inhibits the electoral success of liberal candidates and inhibits their ability to promote the political causes that Mr. Kristof supports.

On War: The Onion

December 16, 2009

Every once in a while this blog takes a lighter tone and publishes something humorous about international affairs, which is why we want to draw attention to a hilarious article about war as a method of conflict resolution that recently appeared on TheOnion.com.  The piece is titled “New ‘War’ Enables Mankind To Resolve Disagreements.”  I highly recommend it for those who like dark humor.