Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk

 

A friend and I have an ongoing debate about the reasons for the plague of partisan rancor now afflicting Washington in general and arms control in particular. For my friend, the passage of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) was the Rubicon. Before Obamacare, he points out that important domestic legislation received bipartisan support. These numbers back up his argument:

Social Security Act of 1935
Senate:
60 Democrats yes; 16 Republicans yes
1 Democrats no; 5 Republicans no
House:
284 Democrats yes; 81 Republicans yes
15 Democrats no; 15 Republicans no

Civil Rights Act of 1964
Senate:
46 Democrats yes; 27 Republicans yes
21 Democrats no; 6 Republicans no
House:
152 Democrats yes; 138 Republicans yes
96 Democrats no; 34 Republicans no

Affordable Care Act
Senate:
58 Democrats yes; 2 Independents yes; 0 Republicans yes
0 Democrats no; 39 Republicans no
House:
219 Democrats yes; 0 Republicans yes
34 Democrats no; 178 Republicans no

After the White House and the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill rammed through Obamacare, my friend believes that Republican Members of Congress resolved not to work with President Obama. In my view, the absence of bipartisanship predates the battles over health care, reflecting quarter-century-long trends within the Republican Party and deepening divisions within the country at large.

Here’s my reasoning: Trends toward assured incumbency, reinforced by two decades of redistricting and gerrymandering prior to Obamacare, have led to sharper partisanship. When seats are assured to one party or the other, the locus of competition shifts from general elections to primaries, and cross-over voting on Capitol Hill becomes rarer. Bipartisan votes were a regular occurrence on motherhood-and-apple-pie issues. They are now restricted to apple pie. The “do nothing” Congress that Harry S Truman used as a foil to win the presidency in 1948 passed 906 bills. Compare that with what passes for legislating at present.

Much political commentary dwells on the defeat of Tea Party candidates as an indicator of the supremacy of Main Street Republicanism, even though every serious challenge from the Right – regardless of the outcome — reinforces the Tea Party agenda on Capitol Hill. The most dramatic Tea Party upset win — the defeat of Minority Leader Eric Cantor, who was traveling the country playing out ambitions to become Speaker instead of stumping his district — was attributed to his openness to immigration reform legislation. Immigration legislation is now dead for the foreseeable future. An analysis in the New York Times of genial, low-key Senator Thad Cochran’s narrow Senate primary victory over a Tea Party challenger in Mississippi offered a cautionary note to Republicans: “It is no longer enough to quietly represent your constituents. You have to join the partisan fray.”

This kind of partisanship doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. The internationally-minded wing of the Republican Party in the Senate has been decimated since the George H.W. Bush administration negotiated two strategic arms reduction treaties with Russia. Its remaining spokespersons, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, lost their standing by championing wars prosecuted by the George W. Bush administration that were poorly conceived and badly executed.

If the reluctant Jeb Bush declines to run for President in 2016, the current crop of Republican contenders will be headlined by (1) Ted Cruz, whose principal achievements in the Senate to date are temporarily closing down the government and blocking ratification of a Treaty recognizing the rights of the disabled; (2) Rand Paul, the Republican analog to George McGovern; and (3) Marco Rubio, whose impact on the Senate has been felt mostly by placing holds on the Obama administration’s nominees. What they have in common, besides opposition to arms-control treaties as an infringement of U.S. sovereignty and military capabilities, is the resolute pursuit of deficit reduction at a time of declining U.S. influence in the world.

The biggest Democratic makeover during the past quarter-century was when Bill Clinton moved his Party toward the center. The Republican Party’s biggest makeover has been to move away from the political center. Self-professed Reagan Republicans like Cruz actually have little in common with Reagan’s record of legislation in Sacramento and Washington. One example: Reagan wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons. Republicans on Capitol Hill now want to stop dismantling empty missile silos.

When did the Republican Party lose its moorings? Barack Obama’s presidency and his pursuit of the Affordable Care Act were certainly accentuating factors, but the shift away from the legacies of Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush started earlier.

In retrospect, the pivot point might have been George H.W. Bush’s defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992. Four years later, Fox News was launched, broadcasting its daily dose of fear and loathing. Then came the Clinton impeachment circus in 1998. What clearer indicator can there be of going off-kilter than to elevate a sexual indiscretion to the level of impeachment proceedings? Whitewater has been followed by Benghazi, with stops in between during every news cycle. There’s more to come, as Hillary gears up for another presidential run.

What does all this mean for arms control? The first rule of pursuing treaty ratification is to avoid partisanship. Democrats in the Oval Office will have a harder time doing this than Republicans, but it’s unclear when the next Republican President will be sworn in, since the Republican Party has adopted political agendas that work far better in safe Congressional districts than nationally. Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill are chipping away at the treaties Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush once championed. What mainstream Republicans used to consider agreements that advanced U.S. national security are now considered infringements on America’s freedom of action.

 
 

We at the Stimson Center are celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary this year. A quarter-century ago, the Cold War was receding at a rapid pace and the Soviet Union was in its last stages of decomposition. Washington and Moscow were on course to reduce their nuclear arsenals by previously unthinkable percentages. It was, in other words, a perfect time to start a think tank. Co-founder Barry Blechman and I were steeped in the practices of strategic arms control. What would we – and the Stimson Center – do now?

After huddling with funders, two new programming initiatives took shape. Barry would convene wise veterans of the Cold War to revive the notion of seeking the complete elimination of nuclear weapons; I would carry the “toolbox” of confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measures that helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot to troubled regions. My game plan was to offer countries wishing to avoid dangerous nuclear competitions a menu of choices that could be suitably adapted to fit regional circumstances.

Initially, Stimson convened workshops on CBMs in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, India and Pakistan. The need for Stimson programming to promote nuclear-related CBMs in the Southern Cone melted away with the advent of civilian governments. And back in the early 1990s, Stimson was stretched too thin to sustain CBM programming in the Middle East.

In contrast, it was easy to establish comparative programming advantage in South Asia. Very few foreign NGOs were active in the region, and none were involved in programming that addressed the dangers inherent in covert Pakistani and Indian nuclear programs. My early field trips were spent listening, learning, and rebutting arguments that CBMs weren’t needed. Back then, the counter-arguments were that these measures were a Western imposition and that India and Pakistan were too sensible to engage in a nuclear arms competition. The Line of Control dividing Kashmir was a long way away from the Fulda Gap.

Over time, positions softened. One reason was that Stimson hosted over 70 visiting fellows from India and Pakistan — professors, researchers, journalists, policy entrepreneurs at NGO start-ups, and military officers – to delve into the theory and practice of CBMs. A second reason was that Stimson’s analytical products turned out to be prescient. All of the nuclear choices facing India and Pakistan were previously conceived in the West, and some constructs, such as the stability/instability paradox (i.e., possessing nuclear weapon capabilities could actually embolden risk-taking behavior below the nuclear threshold) proved applicable to South Asia.

New Delhi was risk-averse in a pre- and post-nuclear environment, but Rawalpindi wasn’t. With each crisis on the subcontinent, the need for CBMs and nuclear risk-reduction measures became more apparent. Stimson developed a new product line – case studies of crisis dynamics and crisis management. These case studies have been widely read, and have helped the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations develop and update diplomatic playbooks. The current focus of our in-house research and commissioned essays is deterrence stability and escalation control on the subcontinent.

Every one of the measures that the governments of India and Pakistan have agreed to – e.g., the use of hotlines between leaders and senior military officers, prior notifications of certain military exercises and flights, as well as notifications of nuclear accidents – were midwifed in Stimson Center workshops, Track II meetings, and publications. We have helped identify and promote many other measures with obvious utility — an Incidents at Sea agreement, the verifiable withdrawal of troops from the Siachen Glacier, a cruise missile flight test pre-notification agreement, and many others — but finalizing these accords has not been a priority Indian and Pakistani leaders.

Nuclear dangers have grown on the subcontinent. The nuclear arms competition continues to pick up speed while Pakistan’s governance and internal cohesion continue to decline. The advent of a muscular government in India could impart a new impetus to improved relations, but it’s unclear at present whether this will be a priority and, if so, whether the usual blocking moves in Pakistan will again result in stasis – or worse.

I hear a sense of worrisome complacency from colleagues in India who confidently predict that the Modi government will strike back after another spectacular act of terrorism that is traced back to Pakistan. Don’t worry, they say, because responsible parties will prevent unwanted escalation. With Rawalpindi’s track record, there will be a presumption of guilt – at least by association – in the event of another crisis-triggering event, and Washington is in no position to offer advice against the targeted killing of extremist groups.

The Obama administration, preoccupied with Iran, Syria, Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian relations, and Ukraine, is very poorly organized to engage in crisis management in South Asia. The State Department’s regional bureau is bifurcated with an Assistant Secretary focused on India and a Special Representative (in the process of retiring) who does Pakistan. Likewise, in the Department of Defense, PACOM handles India while CENTCOM does Pakistan. These structural oddities can be overcome by strong interlocutors, but regional expertise on South Asia at the top rungs is typically thin, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns is retiring, and Washington doesn’t have an Ambassador to India. The administration is just finding its footing with the new Indian government, and relations with Pakistan, while improved, are not yet on solid ground.

Whoever gets tapped to be the principal US crisis manager won’t be able to rely on the gambit used to defuse previous crises. Promises extracted from Pakistani leaders to clamp down on those behind the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament building, and again in 2008 after the carnage in Mumbai, were hollow. They worked to defuse crises because Indian leaders were reluctant to take military action. The next time around, cost/benefit calculations may be different.

 
 

Horse cavalry gave way mechanized warfare, and tank armies are giving way to drone warfare. Drones flourish where national sovereignty is weak and international borders are extremely permeable. Since it’s not a good idea for Washington to set precedents it does not want others to follow, greater care relating to US drone strikes is warranted. Two studies on this subject were released last week. Their recommendations clarify the value of trying to devise international standards on the use of drone warfare and the difficulty of doing so.

The two reports have many common threads and policy recommendations. The report written by Micah Zenko and Susan Kreps of the Council on Foreign Relations states the dilemmas of being a precedent-setter plainly:

The actions of the United States would serve as a benchmark against which others are judged, and therefore provide legitimacy for and reduce the political and diplomatic costs of other countries emulating U.S. practices.

My colleague at the Stimson Center, Rachel Stohl, convened a task force of heavy hitters from the U.S. intelligence community and the Departments of Defense, State, and Commerce to issue a report on drone warfare. The Task Force was co-chaired by former CENTCOM Commander General John P. Abizaid and former Counselor to the Undersecretary of Defense Rosa Brooks. The recommendations of Stimson’s report include:

  • Conducting a rigorous strategic review and cost-benefit analysis of the role of lethal drones in targeted counterterrorism strikes.
  • Improving transparency through the release of a detailed report from the administration explaining the legal basis for US conduct of targeted killings; the approximate number, location and organizational affiliations of those killed by drone strikes; the identities of civilians killed as well as the number of strikes carried out by the military versus the CIA.
  • Transferring general responsibility for carrying out lethal drone strikes from the Central Intelligence Agency to the military.
  • Developing robust oversight and accountability mechanisms, including an independent commission to review drone policy and past strikes.
  • Fostering the development of appropriate international norms for the use of lethal force outside traditional battlefields.
  • Assessing drone-related technological developments and likely future trends and creating an interagency research and development strategy.
  • Reviewing and reforming drone-related export control rules and Federal Aviation Administration rules.


The report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations calls on the Obama administration to “pursue a strategy that places clear limits on its own sale and use of armed drones lest these weapons proliferate and their use becomes widespread,” and to actively promote these guidelines abroad. The CFR report’s recommendations include:

  • Tasking the intelligence community to publish an unclassified survey of the current and future trends of unmanned military technologies—including ground, sea, and autonomous systems—as they do for ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
  • Commissioning an unclassified study by a federally funded research institution to assess how unmanned aerial systems have been employed in destabilizing settings and identify the most likely potential future missions of drones that run counter to U.S. interests.
  • Directing administration officials to testify—for the first time—before Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees hearings on the principles and criteria that should guide armed and unarmed drone exports.
  • Appointing a high-level panel of outside experts to review U.S. government policies on targeting decisions and their transparency and potential effect on emerging proliferators, and propose reforms based on the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies.


It’s easy to fulminate about drone strikes, and hard to stop them when U.S. policy makers don’t have diplomatic and economic leverage and when other military options appear even worse. The fundamental policy question — whether drone strikes do more good than harm – has been answered affirmatively by Presidents as dissimilar as George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Their cost/benefit calculus is cloudy, since those targeted in the field are replaceable and since the efficacy of targeted killing in disrupting plots can’t be quantified. Washington can, however, count dead bodies and can measure the length of time between attacks by terrorists on the U.S. homeland. Also quantifiable, as much as possible through the limits of public opinion polling in weak states wracked by domestic violence, is a direct correlation between U.S. drone strikes and U.S. unpopularity.

I follow this issue mostly through the lens of Pakistan, where a standard defense mechanism is to blame outsiders – now led by the United States – for the ills affecting the state. The Obama administration suspended drone strikes while Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sought to forge a domestic consensus on military action by first talking to representatives of the Pakistani Taliban. This pause had the practical effect of nullifying the domestic argument that Washington was to blame for explosions regularly carried out by one or another group affiliated with the TTP.

Drone strikes have resumed after attacks on Karachi’s international airport, alongside the long-delayed, intensified military activity by Pakistan’s armed forces in North Waziristan. The first strike after this hiatus, on June 11, was reportedly against Uzbek fighters linked in unspecified ways to the airport attacks. It elicited the standard public demarche by Foreign Ministry spokespersons about the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Any goodwill with the Pakistani military for targeting Uzbek fighters may have been negated the very next day by a drone strike reportedly against members of the Haqqani network, which has notably been unaffected by this military campaign.

More drone strikes are in store as more countries acquire armed drones. Pakistan seeks this capability and China, worried about violent Uyghur extremists that use Pakistan for training purposes, may well oblige. The current military offensive, like previous ones, was preceded with long forewarning, allowing noncombatants and militants alike to get out of harm’s way. Rawalpindi will now have to deal with safe havens for extremists across the Durand Line, a problem with which the Pentagon is quite familiar. Looking not too far into the future, both states might conduct drone strikes on Afghan territory.

The coordination of drone strikes between the United States and Pakistan would be one way to address common concerns. If cooperation is publicly acknowledged and framed by Islamabad as a way to regain the writ of the state, bilateral relations could improve markedly. One of Nawaz’s interlocutors with the TTP, Rustam Shah Mohmand, forthrightly told Dawn, a Pakistani daily, that “Drones are more precise in targeting militants than the jets the [Pakistan] air force is using, which cause heavy collateral damage. The government should have formed a strategy in collaboration with the US to carry out strikes using drones.”

This stunning suggestion seems unlikely to be acted upon. It would take a great deal of a political courage on Nawaz Sharif’s part and, besides, U.S. and Pakistani target lists diverge. Still, there is enough of an overlap of national interests to cooperate tacitly, at least some of the time.

 
 

The Nonproliferation Review will be publishing my book review of Ken Adelman’s Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours that Ended the Cold War. (Where would we be without publishing license and hyperbolic subtitles?) In the meantime, here are some quotes from the book, which tells a story that is endlessly fascinating:

“Reykjavik changed each man, changed their relationship and thus that of the superpowers.”

“SDI was little more than pie in the colorful sky of Ronald Reagan’s imagination.”

Reagan to Gorbachev from verbatim notes: “[SDI] is exactly the same with offensive strategic weapons. We need a gas mask here.”

“Reagan knew enough about arms control to make his arguments adeptly.”

“Each [Reagan and Gorbachev] was genuinely dumbfounded by what the other believed.”

“Although Reagan was always clear in his views and intentions, he was seldom clear in his instructions. Just as Horace Walpole once said of Prime Minister William Pitt, Reagan kept aloof from all details, drew magnificent plans, and left others to find magnificent means.”

“Iran-Contra showed Reagan at his worst – all instinct with little thinking; all improv with little formal decision making; all emotion with little logic.”

“SDI never worked as Reagan wished. It worked better.”

“Gorbachev wanted to reform the Soviet Union in the worst way possible. And that’s pretty much how he did it.”

“We know the things Reagan did but do not know how he was able to do them.”

And back to that subtitle: “Reykjavik alone did not end the Cold War. Only the uninformed and or the sensationalistic could claim that it did.”

 
 

Events on the subcontinent are moving quickly, with uncertain outcomes. In short order, Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a resounding mandate. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended his oath-taking, a savvy symbolic gesture of potential import. One faction of the Pakistani Taliban carried out a brazen attack on Karachi’s international airport, after which Pakistan’s armed forces launched a “comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists” in North Waziristan.

After a year of hesitation, Nawaz’s government has finally joined the fight. But it’s unclear whether the Army has a plan to succeed. It’s hard enough to fight shadows, sleeper cells, hardened Taliban fighters and what euphemistically used to be known as “guest militants,” like the Uzbeks reportedly involved in the airport attack. It’s harder when civil and military leaders spar over punishing Pervez Musharraf for suspending regular order to extend his rule, and when Pakistan’s military and intelligence services treat media outlets and journalists who broadcast unwanted messages as enemies. Whatever plans are unfurled in the weeks ahead will prompt even more explosions. The only question is where.

Many scenarios are in play, ranging from positive to catastrophic. A big boost in direct trade between India and Pakistan can improve Pakistan’s economic prospects, but this won’t be easy for Nawaz. Blocking maneuvers in Pakistan are underway, even Operation Zarb-e-Azb ramps up.

Op-ed pages carried trenchant criticism of Nawaz’s performance in Delhi. Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the United States and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, took him to task for failing to defend Pakistan’s diplomatic priorities and concerns, to object to Delhi’s narrative about terrorism, and to take up the Kashmir cause in a public way.

Maleeha’s most significant complaint was that Nawaz’s oddly cobbled-together team – he has yet to appoint a Foreign Minister – is presumed to be open to India’s desire to restructure the “composite dialogue,” which dates back to 1997. This on-and-off-again format – eight baskets of issues including trade, terrorism, nuclear matters, water, Kashmir and lesser territorial disputes – was designed to allow both countries to raise priority concerns and, in theory, to facilitate trades. In reality, few deals have been consummated because priorities differ. In Maleeha’s view,

To so cavalierly abandon Pakistan’s longstanding position – without any sense of what might replace this structure or what India would agree to – is beyond comprehension…

The risks of abandoning a well-established multi-tiered process and recasting the terms of the future dialogue are obvious. India might seek to narrow the bandwidth of talks by cherry picking issues of its priority…

The greatest risk lies in a ‘new architecture’ that might relegate Kashmir to the back channel and take it out of the formal peace process. This will erode its international and bilateral status as a dispute and send an unmistakably negative signal to the Kashmiris.

Other critics seek more muscular remedies. Shamshad Ahmad, Pakistan’s hard-line Foreign Secretary during Nawaz’s previous tenure, urged him to stay home and then hammered him for going, resurrecting rhetoric on Kashmir that was shelved during Musharraf’s tenure:

“What must be clear to [Nawaz] is that peace in South Asia will remain elusive as long as Kashmir remains under Indian occupation. There can be no compromise on this issue.

There is only one fair, just, legal and moral solution to Kashmir, which was provided by the United Nations, and which both India and Pakistan mutually accepted in UN Security Council resolutions.

Translation: The future of Kashmir is fundamental to the future of Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan is justified to turn up the heat across the Kashmir divide, just like in the 1990s when the ISI shifted assets and tactics there from Afghanistan.

Shahzad Chaudry, a columnist, retired Air Vice Marshal, had this to say:

Terror is a two-way concern. And let me add, as long as Kashmir doesn’t resolve… terror will continue to be the only tool that the repressed there will use to assert their voice against the state’s repressiveness. Terror in Kashmir is rooted in Kashmir and is only augmented by regional imports, just as Pakistan faces a conglomerate of threats coalesced under the banner of ideological support to a brand that works against Pakistan.

There are way too many moving parts on the subcontinent at present. A decision to boost direct trade without the usual haggles would produce more winners than losers, but Modi, a far more formidable and less predictable leader than Manmohan Singh, is not trusted. US-Pakistan relations are uncertain, and as US troops leave Afghanistan, the TTP will find safe havens across the Afghan border, an ironic twist. On top of all this, internal security concerns are growing along with the tempo of military operations.

Nawaz Sharif has not used his electoral mandate to good effect, the ISI is defending its prerogatives, and civil-military relations are frayed. The only thing missing from this combustible mix is increased friction along the Kashmir divide. Sure enough, Pakistani media outlets reported on June 13th that Indian troops initiated indiscriminate firing along the Kashmir divide, prompting Pakistani troops to retaliate. Indian media outlets reported that Pakistani troops initiated the firing, which is far more likely. Why elevate the Kashmir issue now, after such a long hiatus? What good can come from doing so?

One possible reason would be to put India on the defensive — but this strategy has consistently produced more pain than gain for Pakistanis and Kashmiris. A second possibility is to block the prospect of improved India-Pakistan relations. Elevating concerns about Indian misrule in Kashmir and support for separatists in Balochistan could also serve as a prelude or justification for upping the ante across the Kashmir divide – or worse, another attack originating in Pakistan on an Indian city. Praveen Swami, who writes must-read pieces in The Hindu, surmises that, “for Pakistan’s Army, mired in a losing war against the jihadists it once nurtured, hostilities with India offer the sole hope of repairing its relationship with the jihadists.”

Raising the Kashmir cause at this juncture might reflect internal maneuvering between Pakistan’s power centers. Or perhaps this is merely shadow play to prompt the Modi government to recommit to the composite dialogue and to lay off changes in Kashmir’s status — or some combination of the above.

Many scenarios are in play, ranging from positive to catastrophic. Bilateral relations could improve markedly by fast-tracking a significant increase in direct trade. The Modi government could cut Pakistan considerable slack during Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Alternatively, if Rawalpindi raises the stakes on its losing hand in Kashmir, the new Indian government seeks to change the status quo in Kashmir, or if surrogates are not kept in check, trying times lie ahead. The most dangerous scenario is another major crisis sparked by a spectacular act of terror in India carried out by groups that are either unencumbered or aided by Pakistan’s intelligence services.

Bottom line: Buckle your seat belts.

 
 

The Republican Party in the United States has adopted positions on social issues and the environment that are at odds with those of the majority of the voting public. Their signature opposition to “Obamacare” is losing ground. Both parties gerrymander and receive large sums from major donors, but Republican legislators benefit more from laws reaffirmed or struck down by a one-vote margin on the Supreme Court. Gerrymandered Congressional districts drawn up by gerrymandered state legislatures have tipped the scales toward the Grand Old Party in the House of Representatives. Republican legislators are betting that they do not have to make deals with the Obama administration to retain control of the House and perhaps win the Senate in November. They cannot win the presidency on domestic issues, but the Obama administration is one damaging foreign policy and national security crisis away from handing the keys to the White House over to the Republican Party in 2016.

Over time, Ukraine may become a signal success for the West, if Kiev has competent leadership and receives sufficient economic and military assistance to deal with domestic challenges and to reorient the country toward Europe. In the short run, however, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the tentative, circumscribed nature of U.S. and NATO responses have undermined President Obama’s standing on the world stage. Those around him provide insufficient help for trials of this magnitude.

The daily drumbeat of media opposition to the Obama administration from the echo chamber of Fox News and right-wing radio do not sway the voting public – they reinforce grievances of those already convinced. Foreign and national security crises affect broader audiences. Once a president’s perceived standing to represent U.S. interests abroad begins to slip, it’s easier to slide further downhill than to reverse course. If another damaging crisis accompanies the continued decline in defense spending, a strong Republican presidential candidate can buck demographic trends and move into the White House. Reconsidering deficit reduction is good politics and good for national security.

Three foreign crises could be looming. The first is with China over offshore islands that U.S. friends and allies claim. The second is with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel, which is seething over the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran and its response to the formation of a new Palestinian coalition government that includes Hamas. Localized Israeli military action would not come as a surprise, prompted by casualties taken at home. The third is the growing possibility of another confrontation between India and Pakistan in which Washington’s standard crisis-management playbook proves insufficient. The next attack on a major airport could be in India instead of Pakistan.

It’s possible that all three of these crises can be avoided over the remainder of the Obama presidency. China’s leadership is focusing on economic growth, corruption and social cohesion. Palestinian leaders might reason that this is not a good time to carry out attacks against Israelis. President Obama and his partners might succeed in negotiating an outcome with Iran that is far more protective of Israeli interests than the cartoon depiction of the nuclear threat used by Netanyahu to instruct the UN General Assembly in September 2012. And perhaps India and Pakistan will finally improve relations by engineering a substantial growth in direct trade – a deal that will not be interrupted by yet another spectacular act of terrorism in India by the usual suspects in Pakistan, either unencumbered or assisted by Pakistan’s intelligence services. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are, after all, facing severe internal security threats, and have good reason to avoid another confrontation with India.

Realistically speaking, the odds of avoiding every one of these crises are less than the odds of something going badly wrong. The focus of my next post will be on signs of trouble ahead in South Asia.

 
 

My mother never threw out a shoebox at the back of my closet floor with the complete set of Topps baseball cards for the 1958 season inside – a treasured collection that our son will inherit. Later in life, I resumed the habit of filling shoeboxes – this time with 4×6 file cards to help me organize my thoughts for writing projects. These cards have gained value over time as my memory has become spotty. What’s the point of reading so much if you forget most of it later? These 4×6 cards also helped launch my career as a blogger on ArmsControlWonk.com.

I have again pulled together my weekly posts for 2013 into an e-book. Another year, another 40,000 words. Perfect for mass transit. And to remind me of forecasts gone awry. You can find this e-book at Amazon.com.

This collection is a bit different from prior years — there’s more opinion and less delving into the file cards for quotes. With the onset of social security checks, I’m either getting more opinionated or less interested in pedagogy.

This collection has a somber tone. The very first post, “Portents of a Difficult Year,” regrettably proved to be correct. There was a very brief moment of optimism with President Obama’s speech about deeper nuclear reductions in Berlin mid-year, but Vladimir Putin squelched that in a matter of days. Several of these posts explored the possibility of a future of improvisation and informal nuclear constraints, rather than new treaties – as a matter of necessity rather than preference. Nor was I very upbeat about nuclear trend lines on the subcontinent, the region where I focus on the most. Ambition and hope waned over the course of the year. A new Indian Prime Minister offers a new start for improved relations with Pakistan, but this can be short-circuited quickly by another spectacular act of terrorism or lesser squabbles.

As troubling as 2013 was, it was merely the prelude to more bad news in 2014 – but more of that later in volume four.

 
 

President Obama has delivered another thoughtful, balanced speech, this time at West Point. His commencement address lent structure to his foreign and national-security policy decisions. It was long overdue, and essential after an exasperated, revealing response last month in Manila to a press question about America’s retrenchment in the world. As reported in the New York Times,

“The president’s frustration flared during the first news conference of his trip, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. He was asked if, by declaring that the United States would protect disputed islands in the East China Sea under its security treaty with Japan, he risked drawing another ‘red line,’ like the one in Syria over chemical weapons.” Here are some quotes from the President’s response:

The implication of the question I think is, is that each and every time a country violates one of those norms the United States should go to war, or stand prepared to engage militarily, and if it doesn’t then somehow we’re not serious about those norms. Well, that’s not the case.

Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian Army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?

That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows, but it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world. Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force, after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?

At West Point, the President’s habitual guard and balanced demeanor were back in place. The White House’s summary of what might become known as the Obama Doctrine reads as follows:

The President spent most of his speech outlining his vision for how the United States, and our military, should lead in the years to come. The four elements of American leadership included:

1. Using military force when our core interests are at stake or our people are threatened

2. Shifting our counter-terrorism strategy by more effectively partnering with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold

3. Continuing to strengthen and enforce international order through evolving our institutions, such as NATO and the United Nations

4. Supporting democracy and human rights around the globe, not only as a matter of idealism, but one of national security.

The most striking passages of the President’s speech, to my mind, were the following:

The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come… The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead but how we will lead…

I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative; it also helps keep us safe… But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.

I am haunted by those deaths [of American servicemen and women in Afghanistan]. I am haunted by those wounds. And I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.

U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.

America’s friends and allies are unlikely to find the President’s speech reassuring. Nor will the increasingly wide spectrum of the President’s domestic critics be mollified. The New York Times editorialized that “The address did not match the hype, was largely uninspiring, lacked strategic sweep and is unlikely to quiet his detractors, on the right or the left.” The Washington Post‘s editorial carried the headline “At West Point, President Obama binds America’s hands on foreign affairs.” Its most seasoned columnist on international affairs, David Ignatius, wrote that “the speech also showed that he hasn’t digested some of the crucial lessons of his presidency… Obama still wants to time-limit America’s commitment to security and stability.” The Wall Street Journal editorialized, in typical caustic fashion, that “listening to Mr. Obama trying to assemble a coherent foreign policy agenda from the record of the past five years was like watching Tom Hanks trying to survive in ‘Cast Away’: Whatever’s left from the wreckage will have to do.”

The Obama Doctrine is a response to two long, poorly conceived wars which will show little in return for the expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure. A course correction from the ambitious follies of the George W. Bush administration was obligatory. There’s nothing wrong with hitting singles and doubles, and a home run remains possible in nuclear negotiations with Iran (which critics will score as a terrible error). But President Obama has overcorrected, and his framing of policy objectives in a rare moment of public candor is problematic. Even if ground realities are unremittingly and obstinately limiting – as they are — US foreign and national security policies will not be persuasive at home or abroad if they can be caricatured as those of a singles hitter seeking to avoid big errors in the field.

The Obama presidency is in danger of being hemmed in by its domestic critics and foreign nightmares. Thoughtful speeches do not help to get out of this predicament. Thoughtful speeches do not frame terms of debate or have lasting resonance — even if the President’s choices stand the test of time. What resonates and matters are wise choices and putting adversaries on the defensive.

Timothy Geithner’s book Stress Test, about Team Obama’s unsatisfying, but essentially wise decisions to avoid the collapse of the financial markets, recounts the administration’s inability to frame public debate about its successful economic recovery program. Geithner writes, “Sometimes I thought he wore his frustration too openly. He harbored the overly optimistic belief that since his motives and values were good, since his team was thoughtful and well-intentioned, we deserved to be perceived that way.” He concludes that the inability to communicate effectively and to explain economic plans in real time meant that “we lost the country” even though the administration succeeded is rescuing the financial markets and laying the basis for sustained economic growth. The same critique might be applied to health care, as well as to foreign and national security policy.

One major source of public frustration is how little has been gained by trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The President’s decisions reflect conclusions that significant, longer-term investments in both countries cannot meaningfully affect outcomes. These conclusions reflect those of the public at large, but don’t shield him from criticism that has widely become visceral in nature.

This President delivers thoughtful speeches and makes mostly sound decisions despite being behind in the count – operating in a period of psychological retrenchment, severe partisan division, the absence of traditional Republican internationalism, and a slavish devotion to deficit reduction.

My sense is that we are displacing way too many frustrations on Barack Obama, who has no one around him or on Capitol Hill to deflect these slings and arrows. I believe the President hasn’t tried to hit enough home runs, but that he is right on Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Iran. Syria is his Achilles heel, the open wound of his presidency that infects all other challenges to U.S. international standing. Caution about new US military engagements is essential after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But when caution extends even to the provision of U.S. military assistance in complex circumstances, the administration invites a more consequential, defining setback – one that no speech, no matter how well-reasoned, can re-frame.

 
 

Pakistan has been failing for a long time. There have been periods of economic growth, backed up by foreign patrons – mostly the United States and increasingly China — but for the most part, Pakistan’s economy and internal security continue to slide. Successive military and civilian leaders have sidestepped inherited problems or made them worse. Predictions of failure, however, have been wrong, or at least premature. The Pakistani state has demonstrated great resiliency. There have been many opportunities for course corrections that haven’t been taken. Another lies ahead.

Here is a short sampler of predictions and characterizations of state failure in Pakistan:

“An impossible dream that failed.” — James Michener, “A Lament for Pakistan,” New York Times, (1972)

Pakistan “resolutely fails to fail.” — John Keay, Midnight’s Descendants (2014)

“Pakistan is not coming apart at the seams. It is not a failing state. In playing out our acquired habits of thought and action, we are succeeding only too well. No, this is not a failing state, just an irrational state, one that just refuses to abide by the laws of normality.” Columnist Ayaz Amir in The News, December 21, 2012

“Each time Pakistan has been declared ‘failed state’ it has come back from the grave – albeit with a weakened economy, a more fragmented political order, less security in relation to its powerful neighbor, and disturbing demographic and educational trends.” — Stephen Philip Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan, 2005.

“Barring a cataclysmic event or a conjunction of major crises such as a military defeat, a serious economic crisis, and extended political turmoil, the failure of Pakistan as a state can be ruled out. However, failure can still take place slowly or in parts. Pakistan may be unable to maintain minimal standards of ‘stateness.’” – Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan, 2005

“Pakistan is more fragmented than ever before, and the economy is unable to develop enough resources internally to sustain the state system. If these trends continue, Pakistan may lose efficacy and become a nonperforming state in most sectors of society.” Hasan Askari Rizvi in Cohen, The Future of Pakistan (2011)

“In a climate of continuing domestic turmoil, the central government’s control probably will be reduced to the Punjabi heartland and the economic hub of Karachi.” – National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2015 (2000).

Pakistan is likely to “muddle through or slightly worse. Absent a major unexpected shock, it is not destined to become a ‘failed state.’” – Jonathan Paris, Prospects for Pakistan (2010)

The dynamics of decline have accelerated since President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf stepped aside. Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari was elected in 2008 with room to maneuver on domestic issues, but he succeeded mostly by staying in office. Nawaz Sharif became Prime Minister for the third time in 2013. He was also elected by a healthy margin, but has started out badly. Civil-military relations are once again frayed. Internal security threats grow as Musharraf is on trial for treason, even as Nawaz’s government seeks to accommodate violent groups with treasonable agendas.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The Army and intelligence services still do not appear to be on the same page with the government in seeking more normal ties with India. Every firing incident along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir reminds Nawaz that he must reckon with his military when trying to improve ties with India. Pakistan’s diplomatic corps is not known for risk-taking. Distinguished veterans of diplomatic skirmishes with India offer cautionary notes in the press about allowing trade to proceed if other contentious issues languish.

India and Pakistan have agreed to a “composite dialogue” where they discuss trade, strategic, water and humanitarian issues. Many agreements have been drafted but have been gathering dust, including nuclear risk-reduction agreements and military confidence-building measures that could demonstrate responsible nuclear stewardship. None have been concluded since the brazen 2008 siege of Mumbai luxury hotels, a train station, and a Jewish center by militants who took direction from their Pakistani handlers.

The most important agreements, by far, would permit a significant increase in trade across the Punjab and Kashmir, along with seaborne commerce between Karachi and Mumbai. Trade is the lifeline Pakistan needs for economic growth to outpace population growth. For Pakistan to demand progress on multiple fronts before trade deals can be settled would constitute yet another self-inflicted wound.

The time has long since passed when Pakistan has been able to force terms of engagement with India. The campaign by Pakistan’s intelligence services to destabilize the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir was supposed to provide such leverage while pinning down and punishing Indian troops. In reality, India took the punishment while Pakistan lost international standing and suffered blow-back. Pakistan’s standing diminished further after the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and the 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Pakistan effectively lost these engagements without New Delhi having to fire a shot in retaliation.

A powerful, new Indian government may be ready to propose significant new trade initiatives with Pakistan which may, in turn, prompt spoilers to carry out mass-casualty attacks against more iconic Indian targets. A decision by New Delhi to shelve a major trade initiative in the event of another big explosion that can be traced back to Pakistan would impose a heavy mortgage on Pakistan’s future. The new Indian government might think that this severe punishment is insufficient. Political parties that are in the wilderness for eight or ten years tend to overreach once they regain power. We do not yet know the ways that Narendra Modi’s government will overreach. He might choose to focus hard on economic growth while being dismissive of Pakistan. Or he might not pull his punches after another embarrassing attack.

The arrival of a highly motivated Indian government offers a new chance to improve bilateral relations and avoid another nuclear-tinged crisis on the subcontinent. While the pivot for doing so would be trade, practical results can be accomplished on nuclear risk reduction, easing cross-border travel restrictions, helping Pakistan with its power shortages, and in many other ways – if Pakistan works hard to prevent another spectacular act of terrorism. If Pakistani authorities work hard and fail, they might be granted a free pass. If they stay the course, Pakistan’s decline will accelerate.

As India breaks free from family-based leadership and stale, backward-looking policies, Pakistan has yet to demonstrate that it can dispense with bad military habits, diplomatic clichés, and an absentee ownership-oriented political class. In my view, Pakistan is not a failed state. But it is a failing state – a state whose leaders consistently fail to meet public desires for competent governance. Many other countries fit this mold, but Pakistan is an especially hard case.

Pakistan survives by the forbearance or resignation of its citizens, while muddling through predictions of failure. Changing this narrative would require civilian and military leaders that are on the same page to improve internal security, relations with India, and prospects for economic growth.

 
 

A dedicated band of anti-arms controllers, led by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, sought to foil President Ronald Reagan’s pursuit of nuclear arms reduction treaties with Moscow. One tactic was to publish charge sheets of Soviet treaty violations. For example, the Kremlin constructed a large phased array radar in the interior, instead of the periphery of the Soviet Union, where it belonged under the ABM Treaty. Threat inflation turned this radar and Soviet air defense programs into a comprehensive, game-changing, master plan to build national missile defenses. This didn’t happen when the Treaty was in force, and it hasn’t happened since its demise. The Soviet Union also blatantly disregarded the provisions of the Biological Weapons Convention. Other perceived violations relating to nuclear testing were subsequently disproven by intrusive monitoring. The largest category of transgressions related to treaty provisions that Washington sought but that the Kremlin cunningly refused to accept.

Critics of arms control rallied around these reports. One was finalized just prior to President Reagan’s first summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva. On November 18, 1985, while Reagan was en route to the summit, the Washington Post ran a front page story written by Walter Pincus headlined “Weinberger Urges Buildup over Soviet Violations.” The story cited a private letter from Weinberger to Reagan, accompanied by an eleven-page summary of the latest compendium of Soviet treaty violations, warning that “current and future Soviet violations pose real risks to our security and to the process of arms control itself.” The letter’s purpose was to dissuade Reagan from seeking new treaties by reminding him of the Kremlin’s premeditated, systemic “policy of treaty violations.”

Some concluded that Weinberger, who didn’t accompany Reagan in Geneva, or someone else in the Pentagon, leaked this material to sabotage the summit. Anti-arms controllers might well have wanted these documents — which were not only unclassified, but also lacked “for official use only” markings — in the public domain. But they didn’t leak them. I did. They were sent to me by someone who didn’t work at the Pentagon, and I passed them along to Pincus.

Reagan couldn’t have been pleased about the timing of this leak, but he was on Weinberger’s wavelength – at least with respect to treaty violations. In his very first presidential press conference, Reagan characterized Soviet leaders as having “openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat.” Even so, Weinberger and Perle were unsuccessful in steering Reagan away from pursuing ambitious nuclear arms reduction treaties.

These ambitions are now in short supply. No-one mistakes Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. New treaties seem unlikely any time soon, but this hasn’t stopped the usual suspects from taking blocking actions and gnawing away at useful cooperative practices with Moscow. True, the Kremlin is back to its old tricks, unhappy with the treaty negotiated by Reagan and Gorbachev. Missile flight tests that either circumvent or violate the INF Treaty’s provisions warrant tweaks in Pentagon programs; Putin’s annexation of Crimea warrants more than tweaks.

In my view, Putin’s actions provide more than sufficient reason to cast off the fixed pursuit of deficit reduction in the United States. US friends and allies have always taken cues about Washington’s resolve by looking to the Pentagon’s budget, and continued shrinkage invites more trouble abroad. Reversing this trend in applicable, non-pork barrel, and non-nuclear ways would send useful signals. This would require making new deals on Capitol Hill over defense and domestic spending, reassessing political orthodoxy, and having the White House do some heavy lifting. If these requirements continue to be in short supply after this fall’s election, they would provide further evidence, if more were needed, of Washington’s deep dysfunction.

What punishments make the most sense in response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea? How about a one percent reduction in Russia’s economic growth? Capital flight? A lowering of ratings to near-junk bond status? A weakened currency? The drying up of foreign direct investment? Economics is not my strong suit, but these seem like these meaningful measures, and more economic penalties appear likely. Putting in motion and implementing a five-to-ten year plan to substitute US for Russian natural gas exports to Europe seems like a no-brainer.

What punishments don’t make sense? Messing with cooperative US-Russian practices that continue to serve US national security interests. Cooperative aerial overflights under the Open Skies Treaty, as discussed here previously, certainly fall into this category. Messing with collaborative efforts on nuclear security is another.

The Nunn-Lugar CTR authority has ended, and continued cooperation with Russia’s Ministry of Defense will be hard to resuscitate. The United States has made significant investments in upgrading security at Russian nuclear weapons storage sites. It would be wise to seek collaborative sustainment of these upgrades, which were given impetus by President George W. Bush and Putin at the Bratislava summit in 2005. Work on these security upgrades managed to survive Russia’s military action in Georgia.

In 2003, the Bush administration also negotiated a new, fifteen-year framework agreement to allow for security upgrades at Rosatom facilities. Some on Capitol Hill now wish to predicate their continuance on reversing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Trickle-down security upgrades at Rosatom facilities are as uneven and unreliable as trickle-down economics in the United States. US assistance with physical security and material accounting in the past have undeniably improved Russian efforts to prevent acts of nuclear terrorism. There is no evidence that nuclear security initiatives in Russia would be maintained, let alone improved, if Congressional opponents had their way, and considerable reason to conclude otherwise. Much of this work is done by the US nuclear labs, which would be penalized by their supporters on Capitol Hill if nuclear security programs with Russia were stopped.

Why take aim at collaborative steps to reduce nuclear dangers and cross-border tensions, especially when bilateral relations are deteriorating? Caspar Weinberger’s arguments were not convincing to President Reagan. Will they now be convincing to Reagan Republicans?