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The Realist and the Idealist: the Netanyahu-Obama Meeting May 18, 2009

Posted by SV in Iran, Israel, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On 18 May 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Barak Obama to discuss a wide range of issues, but in particular the progress of the Iranian nuclear program and the possibility of a separate Palestinian state (see story here).  The biggest agreement that came out of the meeting was the recognition that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be an existential threat to Israel and “profoundly destabilizing” to the world order.

There was, however, significant disagreement over the importance of working towards a Palestinian state.  President Obama indicated his belief that real progress towards such a goal, including the rollback of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, would garner broader Arab and world support in the effort to stop Iran’s nuclear program.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, recognized the reality that Israel faces.  Reflecting Israeli strategic culture, he knows that Israel’s survival is constantly at stake, it must maintain military superiority (including nuclear) in the region, and Israel will use any means necessary to ensure its defense and survival.  The issue of Palestinian statehood, therefore, can be left to the future when other preconditions of Israeli security are met.

The problem with President Obama’s approach – pushing for statehood as a prerequisite to attempting to court Arab support against Iran – is that it gives the Israelis little in return for a significant compromise to their security.  A combination of realism and strategic culture explain why Arab support will be forthcoming anyway.

First of all, Iran is a significant regional power in Southwest Asia.  It is a nation of 70+ million people, located astride of huge petroleum and natural gas reserves, and with a history of regional imperial domination (Persian and Parthian Empires).  If it does end up going nuclear, it will create anxieties among its influential neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirate Statse, and Turkey (Iraq being virtually under the U.S. umbrella).  Unless these countries go nuclear, they fear Iran will use its new threat capability to exploit Saudi Arabia’s (Shia minority) and Turkey’s (Kurdish minority) internal problems.  It’s sheer size and proximity will also allow it to more easily intimidate the Gulf states, perhaps convincing them to evict U.S. troops.  Furthermore, if Saudi Arabia acquires a nuclear capability, Egypt will likely follow suit, seeing itself as the preeminent leader of the Arab world.

Second of all, Iran is the predominant (and a revolutionary) Shiite country in the region.  As such, this will also create additional tensions with Saudi Arabia, which is the “holy land” of Sunni Islam.  Also Turkey, an avowedly secular nation (though trending differently recently), will feel threatened by a revolutionary Iran armed with nukes.  Which brings us to Israel, which as the only Jewish state in a sea of Muslim states, sees a nuclear armed Iran as an existential threat.  Fearing that one bomb would irreversibly devastate Israel, its leaders will do whatever it takes to prevent another holocaust.

Therefore the Netanyahu-Obama summit illustrated the disconnect between the two leaders.  Obama clearly hopes to build an international consensus on Iran by “solving” the Palestinian question.  Netanyahu recognizes that Arab support is already there and that Israel must first confront the immediate threat of Iran before solving the long-term conflict with the Palestinians.  With time dwindling before Iran assembles a nuclear device, there are few opportunities left to address this dire security threat.  The international non-proliferation effort depends on a concerted and strong response.

The Illogic of “Going to Zero” in Nuclear Weapons February 4, 2009

Posted by SV in China, Japan, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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President Obama has announced his intentions to cut the number of nuclear warheads by around 80%, bringing the total down from the approximately 5,000 in the inventory to about 1,000.  This intention flows from his hope in achieving a nuclear weapons-free world, a philosophy that is very attractive and has gained a lot of support, especially with the influential article “The Logic of Zero” by Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal.  There were indications that Sen. John McCain even supported this idea.  The reason for its broad support is clear.  Who wants to have nuclear weapons around anyway?  They are massively destructive, they are indiscriminate, they damage the environment, they haven’t been used in war in 64 years anyway, and the only reason states still have them is because of the massive US and Russian stockpiles.   It is an attractive argument, but in the next five points I’ll attempt to point out its inherent flaws and lack of foresight in this argument and in President Obama’s plans for deep reductions.

First, the American nuclear arsenal is growing more obsolete and unreliable by the day.  Since it has been several decades since the last US nuclear test (due in part to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), there is growing uncertainty over the reliability of the US nuclear arsenal.  The failure of the Congress to approve the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which would have updated US warheads to make them safer (for storage, maintenance) and more, well, reliable, has brought into question the credibility of Washington’s nuclear deterrent.  If a problem were discovered in one of our warhead designs, the US could lose up to one-third of its operational capability while the problem was being fixed.  The US is currently the only nuclear weapons state that is neither producing new weapons nor actively upgrading its existing ones.

Second, the arms race action-reaction cycle in which the US is the cause of other states building nukes has been disproved.  This was the logic behind much of the Cold War-era arms control negotiations, and the Logic of Zero debate, that holds that the rest of the world continues to pursue and build nuclear capabilities because the US, the most powerful state in the system, has them.  The fallacy of this should be evident immediately.  As President Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, stated (here) when talking about the US and Soviet Union arms races: “when we build, they build, and when we stop building, they continue building.”  Currently, notes Adam Hebert of Air Force Magazine, “despite 16 years of American cuts and testing moratoriums, rogue states such as Iran and North Korea have not slowed their own [nuclear] programs.”

Third, such a move will greatly disadvantage the US in terms of the balance of nuclear forces.  By going to 1,000 warheads, and assuming the Russians comply with their obligations to do likewise, the US will be in a vastly weaker situation in East Asia.  China currently has approximately 200 warheads, and is building more, so it is imaginable that by the time the US has reduced to 1,000 warheads, China will possess close to 250.  That would give the US a scant 4-1 advantage over Beijing (and some US nuclear forces will not even be in the Asian theater), compared to its more than 25-1 current advantage.  Such a drastic change will likely give the regime in Beijing the ability to exercise a freer hand in East Asia, particularly with regards to US allies like Japan and Taiwan.  North Korea, which currently faces over a 300-1 disadvantage, would find itself in about a 60-1 disadvantage, which could only help but make Pyongyang feel more secure.

Fourth, such deep cuts to the American inventory will actually cause nuclear proliferation to speed up.  Already, US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, doubtful of the strength of the diminished US nuclear umbrella in the face of a nuclear Iran, are making decisions to pursue the foundations of their own nuclear programs.  If the US brings its numbers so low that China will be close to achieving parity, allies such as Japan, South Korea, or even Taiwan may decide to go nuclear (For those who think a China with a 4-1 disadvantage would not be a threat, keep in mind the USSR had a 6 or 7-1 disadvantage with the US at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis).  Therefore the goal of reaching a nuclear weapons-free world will be self-defeated as more countries decide to pursue a nuclear capability.  The world is simply too dangerous a place for states to give up their nuclear weapons.

Fifth, and finally, eliminating (or drastically cutting) nuclear weapons will only make the world safe for conventional warfare.  For decades during the Cold War, America’s nuclear forces deterred aggression, reduced the risk of conventional attack in Europe and elsewhere, and held invulnerable enemy targets at risk.  The death toll of the 20th century before 1945 was tragic, with war deaths in the tens to a hundred million range.  After 1945, the death toll due to war was kept around 1 million a year, most of that due to low-intensity proxy wars or ethnic conflict.  The truth is, nuclear weapons have kept great powers from going to war, and this promise should be enough to continue to maintain them for an effective deterrent posture.  Conventional war is ugly, nuclear war may be uglier, but the existence of nuclear weapons produces a higher probability of preventing either from breaking out on a massive scale.

The Cold War may in fact be over, but the world is still a dangerous and far-from-perfect place.  As US Strategic Command commander Gen. Kevin Chilton has noted, the security environment today is different “purely [in] intent – not capability… intent can change overnight.”  As long as intent can change overnight, because nations cannot trust each other completely, then the US needs to maintain an effective, robust, and significant nuclear deterrent.  Nonsolutions to securing the strategic environment, like reducing nukes to zero, only will hurt the national security of the US, and lead to nuclear proliferation and the increased risk of war.

Room for One More: Obama Extends the US Nuclear Umbrella to Israel December 11, 2008

Posted by SV in Iran, Iraq, Israel, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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The following post is premised on the statements of unnamed sources in the Bush and incoming Obama Administrations.  The full story can be viewed either here, or as it originally appeared in an Israeli paper, here.

President-Elect Obama has allegedly extended the US  nuclear deterrent to Israel in the case of an Iranian WMD attack.  The security pact also reportedly includes the deployment of new and improved missile defenses to Israel.  While some have already lambasted this as a concession that Iran will develop a nuclear capability or that the US would now be drawn into a nuclear war in the Middle East, it is an excellent decision for many reasons.

First of all, it is almost entirely certain that Iran will eventually acquire a nuclear (peaceful or weaponized) capability.  Israeli air strikes and/or American air/ground attack, while setting back Iran’s program, would not destroy it altogether or damage it sufficiently to delay deployment by decades.  Such action would likely set development back a couple of years (short of a major occupation – unlikely to say the least).  Recognizing such realities, as unpleasant as they may be, it is essential that the US provide both a credible threat to Iran of retaliation and a credible assurance to Israel that the US will not sit idly by while a second Holocaust occurs.

A second major reason this is a good decision is that Israel has been one of the United States’ closest allies.  The United States has already extended nuclear deterrents to a host of other countries, some of which are not as hospitable to us as Israel, such as South Korea or Germany.  Israel, though a nuclear power, does not have the same delivery capability to threaten massive retaliation against the Iranian regime if it were to be attacked.  While it was generally assumed that the US would respond if Tehran launched an attack on Israel, this declaration (if it turns out to be official and accurate) provides a clear consequence to aggressive Iranian action.

It should be noted, also, that a critical reason the Obama Administration will be able to make such a guarantee is due to the eight years of work on missile defense the Bush Administration has conducted.  In fact, many of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems deployed in Israel were researched, funded, and built with US assistance.  Moreover, Tehran will unlikely be able to keep the US from intervening in a conflict on Israel’s behalf due to the work on missile defenses to protect the US homeland and deployed forces.  If the Third Site in Europe is constructed (dependent on a decision by the Obama Administration), the US will be well protected against an Iranian ballistic missile launched against the US.  Also, terminal-phase missile defenses like the PAC-3 and THAAD will be able to protect regional allies (like Saudi Arabia and Iraq) and US military forces.

Lastly, this decision will not result in the US being “dragged into” a nuclear war, as a senior Bush Administration source reportedly stated (their quote: “”Who will convince the citizen in Kansas that the U.S. needs to get mixed up in a nuclear war because Haifa was bombed? And what is the point of an American response, after Israel’s cities are destroyed in an Iranian nuclear strike?”).  Though it is within the realm of possibility that Iran may actually launch a nuclear missile at Israel, all will not “fade to black.”  Primarily, Israeli ABM-sytems have a great likelihood of striking an Iranian missile down.  Also, their civil defense system and recovery programs are capable and prepared to save a large portion of the population were such a missile to get through (they have, after all, faced this threat before).  Besides, though Israel may retaliate against population centers, the US would be more than capable of disarming any IRBM/ICBM capability Iran possessed within minutes after a strike, using either our air forces in the region or our own low-yield warheads, both of which would limit collateral damage.  Deploying increasing missile defense capabilities, the US can afford to come to the defense of Israel in a nuclear conflict.

That being said, it is possible all of this may be moot if sources were quoted wrong or if Obama does not follow through with this policy.  However, if he does, it will be an important strategic move that will reassure Israel and possibly prevent the IDF from launching a preemptive strike.  It will, however, require him to renege on his primary-era promise of cutting missile defense, as more of it will be needed to adequately defend against Iran.  If he is willing to rise to this challenge, his presidency may be off to a good start.

Saudi King Pledges to fight Al-Qaeda April 3, 2006

Posted by Adam Nowland in Saudi Arabia.
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This article indicates that King Abdullah, the leader of Saudi Arabia, has renewed his nation's pledge to fight terrorism, especially in the form of Osama bin Laden, who is himself Saudi.  It will be interesting to see whether the King's promise holds any weight, or whether it is just another attempt to keep American support for the regime fully behind the royal family.  It has been well publicized that 15 of the 19 September 11th hijackers were Saudi by birth, and over the last few years there have been many attacks against foreigners on Saudi soil.  So far it seems that the Saudi royal family has been doing its best to limit the power of terrorists, but there may be more than meets the eye.  In addition, the royal family has been known for its excesses in maintaining its hold on the country.  While it is important that the U.S. keep its (few) allies in the region, we first must be sure that they really ARE our allies, and also that they are not holding on to their power unjustly.  We'll see whether Abdullah backs his words up and clamps down on terrorist actions in his nation, or whether he turns a blind eye to the activity in Saudi Arabia.

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