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Why Conservatives Can Get Behind an Iran Deal

Over at Rare, I try to lay out some reasons that conservatives should be open to negotiations with Iran:

No nuclear deal will be perfect, and it would certainly be preferable for Iran to have no centrifuges and to come clean about all its past nuclear activities. But conservatives have always taken special pride in their emphasis on what is possible, not what is ideal. We do not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Conservative presidents from Eisenhower to the elder Bush made prudence the lodestar of their foreign policies. An Iran deal is in their tradition: a practical, restrained compromise that conservatives can embrace.

Read the rest here. As always, most of my writing can be found at The National Interest.

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What place should past nuclear research have in the Iran talks?

With the Iran talks extended yesterday evening for another four months (to the one year anniversary of the Joint Plan being signed, but conveniently also a few weeks after America’s midterm elections), I weighed in at the Huffington Post on how we should think of one of the key remaining issues: unresolved questions about Iran’s past nuclear-weapons research. The allegations are disturbing, the IAEA believes the evidence is credible, and Iran has not only not been fully forthcoming, it’s engaged in apparent coverups. But, I argue, a strong verification program centered around the enrichment phase of the nuclear process will be the core of the deal, and we can toughen our line there to hedge against what weaponization progress we think Iran’s made. After all, no highly enriched uranium, no bomb.

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Two recent essays

As always, you can still find most of my new work at The National Interest. (Make sure to check out my defense of the Iran deal in the April/May issue.) I’m also active most days on my Twitter. But for those looking, I’ve had two recent essays appear in other venues. 

Over at The Diplomat on April 16, I looked at Russia’s threats to invade Ukraine. A Swedish defense study, I pointed out, suggests that the Russians would be overextending themselves if they did go in. They’d have less flexibility in other areas, including the Chinese frontier. There are real dangers associated with that – for example, the Swedes suggest Moscow might lean more on its nuclear deterrent. However, it could present an opportunity for America to play Russia and China off one another if Russia’s principal anxieties are once again in the East. It’s not clear we’re strategically positioned to take advantage of such an opportunity, however.

At Real Clear World on April 25, I tried to establish an upper bound for the role of experts in the U.S. foreign-policy process. “Just do what the country experts think” is actually not the best option, because a) expert communities do not agree, and indeed are prone to many of the same failings policymakers are and b) leaning on country experts for policy risks failing to incorporate a policy’s impacts on other countries or to adjust for its domestic elements. (Daniel Larison replied to the piece here.)  I also offered some more detail on the dynamics of expert communities in this series of tweets.

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The Hidden Risks of S.Res.574

Over at The National Interest‘s Buzz blog, I discuss the implications of a newly-introduced piece of legislation that would call for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be indicted for inciting genocide. While Ahmadinejad certainly deserves scorn and isolation (and I expect his speech tomorrow at the General Assembly to remind us of that, although perhaps less than in prior years), all moves against Iran are not automatically smart moves. S.Res.574 is among the less-smart moves. There are issues beyond the ones I discuss in the Buzz post that I’d like to elaborate on more here.

Within Iran, the principlist faction (more or less Iran’s neoconservatives) won rhetorical battles with the reformist camp by arguing that reformist diplomatic initiatives had given the West concessions but yielded nothing–the Khatami Administration, for instance, offered the U.S. some cooperation in Afghanistan, voluntarily stopped elements of the nuclear program, and attempted to start a “dialogue between civilizations,” yet left office having been branded a member of the axis of evil and facing increased risk of international sanctions. If this is how the international community responds to concessions, say the principlists, why make them? Why negotiate when the conclusions of negotiation are predetermined and unfavorable? A key element of this rhetoric of late has been the “injustice” of the international system (Iranian leaders are eager to point out that the Security Council is structured on power, not democratic principles) and Iran as a primary victim of international injustice. Indicting Ahmadinejad would confirm this narrative and strengthen the hand of the most anti-diplomatic camps of the principlists; it would not help the reformists much, as many already regard Ahmadinejad as a criminal.

There is a second troubling matter–taking legal action against a foreign head of state. This is morally satisfying, but the world is full of unpleasant leaders, and sometimes America must work with them. Our dirtier allies will not appreciate a sudden American friendliness with international judicial regimes; dirty leaders on the fence about relations with America may see a moralistic foreign policy as a sign that they would be better off with American rivals like Russia or China that are more committed to a mind-your-own-business Westphalian international system.

Of course, as I suggest at TNI, S.Res.574 is not likely to have any serious impact–among other things, the Senate has not ratified the Rome Statute, which founded the same International Criminal Court that the Senate is calling on to try Ahmadinejad. The international community is likely to pay little attention to a nonbinding resolution in the Senate, which the same day began processing a resolution “congratulating the Nunaka Valley Little League Junior girls softball team on winning the 2012 Little League Junior Softball World Series” and two days later to congratulate itself for “the 50th anniversary of the signing of Public Law 87-788, an Act commonly known as the McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Act.” S.Res.574 is little more than election year pablum.

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Nuclear Security and the Relationship with Pakistan

Over at The Diplomat, I have a piece on the important argument made by former Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqan that the U.S. and Pakistan should end their “marriage” for mutual benefit. A key American objection to this is nuclear security–namely, shouldn’t the U.S. cultivate relations with Pakistan so it can increase the likelihood that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will fall into the wrong hands.

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Saudi Economic Woe

Much can be said of Saudi Arabia’s economic problems–the inequity, particularly affecting the Shia and women, the dependence on imported labor, the existence of widespread poverty in a land of enormous prosperity, etc. In a piece for the National InterestI examine the broader problem–the way massive oil revenues and a massive bureaucracy combine to create severe distortions and stifle private economic activity. Despite its enormous resources, the Kingdom has developed a weak and fragile economy. It’s not clear that there’s a solution to this, as the economy of the state and the politics of the state are intrinsically linked (for a much deeper and more technical treatment than I could hope to provide, check out  Steffen Hertog’s Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats). By shaping this economy and leaving the education system in the hands of the clerics, the House of Saud has made itself necessary. It has made–probably in part by accident–a society too conservative, too contradictory, and too economically feeble to replace them without creating severe instability.

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Morsi in Tehran

Over at the National Interest’s media critique blog, the Buzz, I argue that Tom Friedman was wrong to say that Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi should be ashamed of himself for his four hour visit to Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement summit. (I don’t want to be accused of piling on, so I will note that I thought Friedman was wrong before Morsi ripped Iran’s support of Assad). While Morsi’s trip, and the associated attempt to form a new Syria contact group composed of regional states, will likely have little real impact, it’s an important signal that Egypt is back in the Arab world’s political scene. 

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Throw Gasoline on the Fire: The Rush to Arm Syria’s Fragmented Rebels

With Russia and China blocking serious international action on Syria, numerous states have begun seeking ways to intervene indirectly. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are reportedly already giving weapons to the Syrian rebellion. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has suggested that this is among the options on the table in the long run for the U.S., and in today’s New York Times, Roger Cohen argues that the time to start sending in weapons is now. Cohen:

In short, Syria is dangerous. But that not a reason for passivity or incoherence. As the Bosnian war showed, the basis for any settlement must be a rough equality of forces. So I say step up the efforts, already quietly ongoing, to get weapons to the Free Syrian Army.

Cohen extends the argument in that vein–that a stronger FSA will be a viable opposition, forcing Assad to negotiate and ushering in a new era of stability. Failing to arm the Syrian rebels ensures that the present bloody stalemate will continue. Shipping weapons, training rebel forces, and creating humanitarian enclaves will bring the conflict to a resolution, or at least to a ceasefire. In return for some modicum of authority, the FSA will be expected to guarantee the rights of minorities, assuaging Alawite and Christian fears of Sunni vengeance.

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How would a Syrian civil war affect American interests?

The Russian-Chinese veto of a rather weak Security Council resolution that would have increased the international pressure on Syria has brought the international search for a diplomatic solution to an impasse. Moscow and Beijing have signaled that they have no interest in lending international legitimacy to a campaign for the end of Assad’s rule, so further actions will risk their fury. It’s likely that the next step will be stronger moves from the Arab League and the Arab Spring’s new great power, little Qatar. However, the end of the U.N. process has provoked a gush of violence around Syria that will certainly yield more calls for physical action. Calls for international support for the Free Syrian Army rebel group are becoming more common. This is an aggressive step that could lead to an all-out civil war. If the rebels win, there could be great opportunity for a regional transformation–Iranian influence in the Levant would be strangled, and a new government might change Syria’s decades-old rejection of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Lebanon might become more stable. However, a rebel victory is hardly certain. Several constituencies within Syria still want Bashar in power, and he’s being fed a steady supply of Russian arms. Providing the rebels access to similar volumes of weaponry might yield a long and bloody war. How would this affect America’s interest in the region?

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Free Syrian Army: We’re buying guns from Assad’s militia

An anonymous Free Syrian Army officer, speaking to London’s Asharq al-Awsat, said that the militia is buying weapons from a number of sources, including the Assad-sympathetizing shabiha militia. This shows the danger that Assad has put himself in with his many unsavory bedfellows. The Shabiha got their start as (to borrow a phrase from Assad’s lexicon) armed gangs that made their money through smuggling that the regime tolerated as long as they remained loyal. Now, while they help Assad wipe out his unarmed opponents by day, they aid his armed opponents by night. That’s the cost of doing business with these types.

This might be a foretaste of a future Iranian revolution, should one occur. The IRGC, like the Shabiha, is not loyal to the regime alone–they have growing interests in the economy, including in the black market. If the Islamic Republic starts to fall apart, elements of the Pasdaran might start playing both sides in much the same fashion.

This is not the only unsettling news about semi-official forces moving weapons. There have been reports in the Israeli media that Hezbollah has taken possession of some of Syria’s formidable arsenal of chemical weapons. If they can integrate these into their array of rockets, Israel will be at a new level of vulnerability. Reports indicate that perhaps 40% of the Israeli population does not have gas masks. An all-out Hezbollah rocket attack would be a disaster for Israel; a chemical attack would be even worse. This prospect could shape Israel’s strategic calculations toward Hezbollah and its allies Syria and Iran.

 

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