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Monday, June 30, 2008

Short-Term Gains, Strategic Disasters

Serious talk is mounting of a possible Israeli attack on Iran this summer. Shabtai Shavit, a former head of Mossad, told "The Sunday Telegraph" that Israel has one year to destroy Iran's nuclear program or risk coming under nuclear attack. This timeline might need to be accelerated, he hinted, if Barack Obama is elected president. Shavit's comments are only the latest coming from an Israeli security community that is taking an increasingly hard line. Israeli warplanes have recently been training for long-range airstrikes. Is this a bluff? Many analysts don't think so. Unfortunately, while the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is frightening, an Israeli attack on Iran this summer is even more frightening. In recent years, both Israel and the United States have repeatedly pursued short-term goals that have had had catastrophic strategic consequences. An attack on Iran would only be the latest example. It would further destabilize the Middle East, fuel resentment against Israel and the West, and incite more terrorism. Most importantly, airstrikes are not likely to prevent Iran from obtaining the bomb--only delay it. Israel would be trading one threat for an even worse threat in the future.

Israel faces a hard dilemma, but it should carefully reflect on two of its most recent mistakes: the isolation of Hamas after it swept elections in the Palestinian territories, and its ill-conceived war against Hizballah in Lebanon. In both cases, Israel (with the US standing behind it) took strong, aggressive measures to safeguard its security. In both cases, these measures failed. Not only did Israel fail to achieve its short-term objectives, it destabilized the region and created disastrous strategic outcomes.

The election of Hamas to power in the Palestinian territories was a frightening development, but isolating Hamas did not force Hamas to moderate its positions; instead, it hardened anti-Israeli attitudes, caused the Palestinian Authority to tear itself apart in a bloody conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and dragged Israeli-Palestinian relations to their lowest point in years. Furthermore, the ostracization of Hamas undermined the American commitment to democracy and added to charges of Western hypocrisy. However much one dislikes Hamas, its isolation was a pragmatic disaster. It precipitated a slide into violence that worsened Israel's overall security situation.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 was similar. Israel had rightly grown weary of Hizballah's cross-border rocket attacks and kidnappings, but when it finally retaliated, it was with a massive campaign designed to destroy Hizballah once and for all. The campaign failed miserably. Around the world, rightly or wrongly, the media largely portrayed the war as an unjust and disproportionate assault on innocent Lebanese people. Initially the Lebanese were furious with Hizballah for provoking the war, but as the weeks dragged by, Hizballah gained popular sympathy as a legitimate resistance group to Israeli aggression. When the war finally ended--with none of Israel's short-term goals achieved--Hizballah was stonger and more popular than ever. The conflict set back years of reconstruction and development since the Lebanese civil war, put Hizballah on the Lebanese political scene as a major political actor, and precipitated the breakdown of the Lebanese government. Lebanon very nearly descended into a second civil war. Such an outcome is still possible. However justified Israel's war on Hizballah might have been, it was a strategic failure. Israel's security situation was worse afterwards.

Israel should think carefully on these mistakes before bombing Iran. Granted, the stakes are much higher than ever before. A single nuclear weapon would devastate Israel, and history has taught the Israelis to take such existential threats seriously. But Israel must ask the hard pragmatic questions: will attacks on Iran work? Will they increase Israel's security? Will the short-term gain amount to a strategic success in the long run?

Most experts on the region believe the answer to these questions is no. The Iranians have learned from Israel's attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility in 1981. They have distributed their nuclear facilities across the entire country. Many of these are hardened and underground. It is unlikely that airstrikes alone will be sufficient to destroy the Iranian nuclear program; at best, they will delay it. Attacks now are also likely to provoke conventional retaliation. The head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard recently announced that Iran would respond to Israeli airstrikes by launching cruise missiles into Israel and shutting down oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz. The conflict spiral could worsen from there.

Hawks will respond that Israel has a simple choice between two evils: launch airstrikes and risk major conventional conflict now, or face nuclear annihilation. Given such a choice, the right policy decision is obvious. But this is a false dichotomy. More diplomatic and economic tools exist to pressure Iran into giving up its nucleaer weapons program; these should be tried. Even if Iran does obtain the bomb, it is not a foregone conclusion that Iran will use it. As frightening and anti-Semitic as Iran's president is, the Iranian foreign policy establishment is more pragmatic. Firing a nuclear warhead into Israel would invite retaliation that I don't want to imagine.

These are hard choices. I don't envy the Israeli leaders who must wrangle with them. But Israel should think carefully and realistically about what attacks on Iran would actually achieve. Its recent track record with hawkish policy decisions warrants caution.

Further Reading:
Iran: It's Later Than You Think

Israel has a year to stop Iran bomb, warns ex-spy

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Albright on Intervention

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote an op-end in The New York Times today called The End of Intervention. According to Albright, the international response to the cyclone in Burma/Myanbar illustrates three new dynamics: (1) "the survival of totalitarian government in an age of global communications and democratic progress" (2) "their neighbors are reluctant to pressure them to change" and (3) "the concept of national sovereignty as an inviolable and overriding principle of global law is once again gaining ground."

In other words, the international community has stopped intervening to defend innocents from the world's most brutal dictators. It has forsaken its responsibility to protect.

The tragedy, according to Madeline Albright, is that the US invasion of Iraq is largely to blame for this mindset shift. Iraq has obviously presented its own internal problems to the United States; but it has also sent cascading shocks throughout the international system. Unintended consequences abound. The death of intervention is one of the most tragic.

Responses to the Air Force Shakeup

Loren Thompson of The Lexington Institute released a scathing brief yesterday titled How the Air Force Fell So Far. He focuses not on the recent nuclear mistakes, but rather on the larger decline of airpower's political influence over recent years. He cites three main factors: (1) the Air Force's failure to "adapt to the changing demands of a transformed global security environment" (2) cultural insularity within the Air Force (3) the Air Force's failure to communicate with outsiders. Thompson seems to welcome reform.

On the other hand, as I predicted yesterday, the Air Force is not particularly happy with the leadership shakeup. During Secretary Gates' speeches at Langley AFB, Peterson AFB, and Scott AFB yesterday, nervous and uncomfortable pilots reportedly had many questions about the future of the F-22 and the direction of the Air Force.

As Loren Thompson writes in the brief cited above, "resistance to change is common in large, regimented institutions." Time will tell if Gates can succeed in reform.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Different Kind of Air Force

The forced resignation this week of the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff--the ranking civilian and military overseers of the United States Air Force--was shocking and unprecedented, but it is widely being applauded. These leaders presided over the Air Force during two major lapses in nuclear security. In an age when too few senior military and government leaders face responsibility for their failures, Defense Secretary Gates has sent a clear message that he demands accountability from his people. This is a remarkable event in its own right, and has generated plenty of op-eds in major papers this week.

But there's even more to the story, which has ramifications for how the US military will transform itself to meet the needs of our changing world.

For the past few years, the Air Force has been facing what I call a "crisis of relevance." By adhering to narrow doctrine for strategic air campaigns against conventional enemies, by relentlessly pushing for expensive air-to-air aircraft designed to fight China (i.e. the F-22), and by virtually ignoring counterinsurgency strategy and acquisitions, the Air Force has alienated both its sister services and Congress. The Air Force seems increasingly out-of-tune with the world we live in; it is commiting the dangerous sin of preparing for the wars it wants, and not the wars it will actually fight. Yes, the Air Force has a responsibility to prepare for the next war down the road, even as Iraq and Afghanistan rage on; but the Air Force is convinced the next war will be a conventional conflict in Iran or China. It is not preparing for the myriad other "small wars" that are likely to dominate the next decade, just as they have the past two. The Air Force's vision (or lack of vision, as the case may be) has put the service at odds with the Army, Marines, and Navy, and most importantly with its civilian overseers.

Yesterday, Secretary Gate sent a signal that he may be about to change all that. He recommended Gen. Norton A. Schwartz as the new Chief of Staff--a transport and Special Operations pilot, the first non-fighter or non-bomber pilot to hold the post since the Air Force's inception. The nomination is widely viewed as a way to break the intellectual monopoly the fighter community holds on the Air Force. Secretary Gates seems determined to transform the Air Force's direction; perhaps sacrificing its next-generation air-to-air capabilities by reducing F-22 production, but bolstering unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and airlift capabilities. In short, making the Air Force more relevant by equipping it to fight in the turbulent, human-centric battlefields that have defined warfare in the past twenty years.

This move will not go down well in the Air Force. The critics--and there will be many--will be hysterical. Already, there is a sense in the Air Force that the service is in its death throes. Maj. Gen.Paul Selva, the Air Force's Director of Strategic Planning, warned last year about our "geriatric Air Force." On another occassion, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne said that the Air Force would soon be "out of business" unless Congress appropriated more funds to recapitalize its aging fleet. Many airpower theorists will believe we are committing national suicide by not investing more in expensive technology designed to fight China. Someday, they argue, that will come back to haunt us. Still others will worry that Gates' transformation is one more step towards the Air Force being reduced to a "support service" for the Army--something the Air Force has fought for decades to break free from.

These concerns all have some legitimacy, but on the whole, Secretary Gates is right. America's Air Force needs a change of direction. It is still clinging to Desert Storm as the golden age of airpower, and still training to fight that same war all over again. The Air Force will have a crucial role to play in future wars, but its declining relevance and its stubborn adherence to narrow strategic airpower doctrine will only hamper the Air Force in those wars--not help it. Secretary Gates has demonstrated courage and vision by pushing transformation.

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