Monday, February 27, 2012

Duplicity at its Worst

Today's reading assignment is from Elliott Abrams, writing at National He reminds us of a rather curious double-standard, now being applied to the Syrian opposition. While the Obama Administration was an early supporter of the Egyptian uprising (which overthrew Hosni Mubarak), and went along with NATO's military campaign (that helped Libyan rebels topple Mommar Qadhafi), the White House won't lift a finger in support of Syrian insurgents. As Mr. Abrams observes:

Can there be a group anywhere in the world today more disappointed in United States foreign policy than those fighting the Syrian regime?

On Sunday, just after the international conference on Syria held in Tunis, Secretary Clinton delivered her view of the current situation in a series of television interviews, conducted even as Assad’s regiments shelled Homs and added to the civilian death toll. Clinton used the occasion of Assad’s slaughters to smear the Syrian opposition, explain why they should not be armed — and then amazingly add the demand that Syrians step up their opposition to Assad if they are to be worthy of our help.

First comes the smear. To the BBC, she said, “We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and those who are on our terrorist list, to be sure, supporting — claiming to support the opposition . . .” With CBS, she went further: “And to whom are you delivering [arms]? We know al-Qaeda. Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?”

Second is the explanation of why it is futile. To the BBC, she said “I think that there’s every possibility of a civil war. Outside intervention would not prevent that; it would probably expedite it.” For CBS, she explained that “the problem for everyone is you have a ruthless regime using heavy artillery and tanks that are war weapons of the greatest impact against defenseless people. So there will be — and I’ve said this before — there will be those who are going to find ways to arm these Syrians who are under attack. But even if they are given automatic weapons against tanks, against heavy artillery, the slaughter will go on.”

Third was the complaint that Syrians — who have been dying by the thousands over the last year, refusing to stop their protests in the face of machine guns and tanks — are too timid. Clinton told CNN that “I think that the Syrian people themselves need to start acting on behalf of their fellow Syrians. Where are the people inside Syria who are going to demand that men, women, and children cannot be assaulted and left to die, given no medical care, no food, no water?”

Ah, where to begin? As for those "dangerous actors"--the ones who might inadvertently benefit from U.S. arms delivered to the Syrian opposition--Mrs. Clinton's concern is selective at best. Very early in the Libyan revolt, various media outlets noted that elements of the opposition had clear ties to Al Qaida, but NATO's air campaign quickly swung into high gear (or what passed for "maximum effort") in that conflict. In fact, some wags suggested that U.S., British and French jets were providing "close air support" for AQ, but such fears were summarily dismissed at NATO Headquarters, Foggy Bottom and the White House. And, the same folks had no problem with the long terrorist history of the Muslim Brotherhood, which helped engineer the Egyptian revolution.

We're also amused by her comments about western intervention "expediting" a civil war. As we recall, Mrs. Clinton's husband championed a foreign policy that placed a no-fly zone over a civil war in the Balkans. Until the mid-1990s, allied air operations did little to deter the slaughter on the ground, thanks (in large part) to restrictive rules-of-engagement that limited strikes against the warring factions (read: Serbs).

In fact, the infamous slaughter of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, Gorazde and other locations occurred as NATO jets orbited overhead, forbidden to interfere with the genocide below. Indeed, historians will record that the civil war finally ended when allied air power was finally applied with sufficient persistence and strength to force regime change in Belgrade. So, you could argue that Secretary Clinton has it completely backwards--western military power could stop the slaughter (and with it, Assad's government) if Washington and its allies have the courage to act. But after a decade of war, there is no stomach for a new conflict in the Levant, leaving the Syrian opposition largely on their own.

As for the "Syrians" who refuse to stand up for their heroic countrymen, Mrs. Clinton's remarks are nothing short of fatuous. The reason more Syrian citizens aren't in the streets is because of what's happening in places like Homs. It's rather tough to battle a modern police state with little more than light arms looted from military armories, or taken from the bodies of dead soldiers. And, there's even less reason to join the resistance when the Secretary of State of the world's leading superpower is dismissing the idea of providing support.

This isn't the first time we've noted the administration's double-standard on Syria. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, various officials expressed home that Bashir Assad would prove a reformer, and even implement some democratic reforms. Three years later, the Syrian tyrant has proved that he is every bit his father's son, willing to slaughter his people by the thousands to maintain his regime. Yet, the administration refuses to take concrete measures that might hasten the dictator's downfall, and end the Syrian bloodshed, once and for all.

A rather obvious question is: why? Syria has become Iran's most important ally, and with it, contributor to various operations that have killed scores of American soldiers, in Iraq and elsewhere. Yet, Washington looks the other way while Iran pumps billions into Assad's security apparatus and proxies from the Quds Force and Hizballah murder Syrian civilians in the street.

And there's the real rub. For whatever reason, the Obama foreign policy team, including Mrs. Clinton, seems deathly afraid of challenging Iran. If we go too far, the thinking goes, we'll lose any chance to talk with Tehran on even more pressing issues, like the nuclear program.

Memo to the striped-pants set: Iran is prepared to do whatever it takes to preserve its nuclear program and its most important regional partner. Acknowledging those facts would be the first steps towards a rational policy on Syria (and Iran), based on the reality that regime change in Damascus could lead to similar events in Iran. Does this approach present risks? Obviously. With their backs against the wall, Tehran and/or Damascus might lash out at Israel, provoking a regional conflict that could go nuclear.

But our current policies present similar dangers. America's unwillingness to confront Iran is being interpreted (correctly) as a sign of weakness, further emboldening Tehran and forcing other regional players to examine other security options, such as obtaining their own nuclear weapons.

To be sure, there are few good choices in the Middle East right now. But getting behind the Syrian opposition is far from the worst. In fact, a properly-executed strategy could be a game-changer in a dangerous region, putting Iran squarely on the defensive and weakening its ability to dictate events in places like Syria and Lebanon.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Today's Reading Assignment

"...Inside Free Syria," by Jonathan Spyer of The Weekly Standard. He is one of the few western journalists who has managed to visit an area no longer dominated by the Assad regime. Spyer writes of a conversation with a former Army officer who has joined the insurgency--one of hundreds now fighting Assad's forces, despite long odds:

I spoke with Kurdi in a rundown office in an apartment. A native of Hama, the 30-year-old former signals officer in a Syrian antiaircraft unit described to me how he came to the insurgency.

.He was stationed near Daraa, a town close to the Jordanian border and the birthplace of the uprising, in mid-2011. He recalled his shock at witnessing the use of anti-aircraft munitions against civilian demonstrators in the area, as the Assad regime sought to murder the revolt in its cradle.

The use of these munitions was intended as a tool of terror. Their bullets kill people no more or less than regular ordnance. But from the regime’s point of view, they had the additional attraction of setting the bodies of those they hit on fire, turning the corpse into a symbol of deterrence to all who would challenge Assad’s rule. What they also did was to make Ayham al-Kurdi and others reassess their view of the government. Kurdi made his decision to desert, and help set up the beginnings of armed resistance to Assad.

Other defectors write of "non-Arabic speaking" volunteers who are aiding the regime. The volunteers are, of course, Iranian. As we've observed in previous posts, Tehran understands what's at stake in Syria. The toppling of Assad would represent a strategic setback for Iran and its regional ambitions. No wonder Tehran has given Assad upwards of $6 billion in aid, and sent proxies from its Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah to the fight in Syria. Meanwhile, the rebels are battling with a combination of light weapons and sheer determination. So far, they have fought Assad to a draw.

While no one is talking seriously about western military intervention in Syria, there is much we can do. For starters, the rebels need better weapons, communications gear and medical supplies. It would also be helpful to stir things up in Iran, forcing the mullahs to look inward and devote resources to their domestic situation. Tehran is already using a similar tactic in Bahrain, re-igniting a Shiite insurgency against the pro-western (and Sunni-dominated) ruling family.

We've missed golden opportunities during previous uprisings in Iran, most recently in 2009. It would be tragic if we allow Tehran to rescue their most important ally, and consolidate their power in the Levant.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Some Guys Don't Get It

Navy Rear Admiral Michael Tillotson is one of them.

Tillotson, Commander of the service's Expeditionary Combat Command, recently directed the military's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) school, run by the Navy, to remove a potentially offensive motto from the walls of a Florida classroom, where new EOD techs are trained.

The motto: "Initial Success or Total Failure."

Admiral Tillotson, who is qualified as an EOD officer, is concerned the motto (which has been on the wall for years) is offensive to the dozens of EOD techs who have died on the job over the years. As we've noted in the past, EOD duty is perhaps the most dangerous in the military. EOD techs have been at the forefront of ground operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some have made the ultimate sacrifice. Each year, the EOD school remembers its fallen heroes with a moving ceremony at Eglin AFB, Florida, where additional names are added to its memorial. This year, 17 more names will join those already listed on the memorial, which is located at Eglin AFB.

As an EOD officer, Tillotson has a right to his opinion. But he seems to be ignoring the views of other techs, who believe the blunt motto summarizes their profession. As one former EOD troop told the Associated Press:

"...when you are dealing with an explosive device you generally get one shot to render it safe,” Will Pratt, a former Army EOD technician, wrote in an email to the Northwest Florida Daily News newspaper of Fort Walton Beach.


The admiral’s mandate was not popular with some current and former EOD members. A Facebook page has been dedicated to keeping the motto. They wrote on the Facebook page that the motto reminds them of the life or death consequences of their jobs.

If the EOD community isn't offended by the motto--created by one of their own--that's good enough for us. It will be interesting to see what kind of reception Admiral Tillotson gets at Eglin, if he attends this year's ceremony.

Not Working

Regarding our policies towards Iran, a new buzz-word has recently emerged: time.

According to Obama Administration officials, the U.S. and its allies still have a window to force concessions on Tehran's nuclear program. In recent testimony before Congress, senior intelligence officers suggested that Iran won't be able to produce a nuclear weapon until 2013 or 2014 at the earliest, providing time for new sanctions to take effect, and the execution of additional covert measures against Tehran.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a different perspective. Speaking with reporters during today's historic visit to Cyprus (the first-ever by an Israeli leader), Mr. Netanyahu suggested that sanctions aren't having their desired effect:

Iran is the most irresponsible force in the world, he said, claiming the sactions imposed on the Islamic Republic have not had an effect so far. According to Netanyahu, the regime in Tehran violates every resolution and has no respect for international norms.

He added that Iran's race towards nuclear weapons should concern the US and every other country. Nuclear arms in the hands of the Iranian regime is a cause for great concern to the US and Israel, he said.

Netanyahu's comments affirm that Israel has little confidence in the diplomatic approach and may be moving closer to a decision on military action against Tehran. Some analysts have suggested that an Israeli attack could come as early as this summer, before Iranian facilities become so dispersed (and extensively hardened) that a strike would not significantly affect Tehran's program.

While the White House remains firmly committed to sanctions and diplomacy, there are some signs that even Washington is hedging its bets. The Air Force began taking delivery of its 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator last fall, and the weapon's primary contractor (Boeing) recently received a new contract to develop even more powerful bombs. Just in case.

Meanwhile, Iran has been anything but idle. Along with its nuclear work, Tehran is maintaining a "robust" missile development program, according to the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess said that Iran has a missile arsenal "capable of reaching targets throughout the Middle East and into eastern Europe. That latter comment appears to be a reference to the Iranian BM-25 program. The missile, based on a retired Russian SLBM, was acquired by Iran several years ago; Burgesses' comments are the first to suggest the system may be operational or will soon achieve IOC.

Given Iran's continued progress in these areas, it's little wonder that Israel has its doubts about the effectivness of sanctions and diplomacy. But with "time" being the new mantra in Washington, Israel has equally grave doubts about our willingness to to strike Iran, even with more "bunker busters" in the inventory.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Achilles' Heel

As former Mossad director Efraim Halevy reminds us in today's edition of The New York Times, there is a viable option for reducing Iran's regional influence; limiting ties to its proxies, and denying access to a key hub neighboring its greatest foe.

And, this option does not require cyber-strikes (or direct military action) against Tehran's nuclear facilities, or the assassination of key personnel in Iran. Indeed, the actions Mr. Halevy describes would be focused on an ally that is rapidly becoming one of Iran's greatest liabilities--the failing Syrian regime of President Bashir al-Asad.

From Halevy's op-ed:

THE public debate in America and Israel these days is focused obsessively on whether to attack Iran in order to halt its nuclear weapons ambitions; hardly any attention is being paid to how events in Syria could result in a strategic debacle for the Iranian government. Iran’s foothold in Syria enables the mullahs in Tehran to pursue their reckless and violent regional policies — and its presence there must be ended.

Ensuring that Iran is evicted from its regional hub in Damascus would cut off Iran’s access to its proxies (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza) and visibly dent its domestic and international prestige, possibly forcing a hemorrhaging regime in Tehran to suspend its nuclear policies. This would be a safer and more rewarding option than the military one.

As the former Israeli spymaster observes, Asad's eventual collapse seems all but assured. But that leads to the inevitable question of what comes after the dictator departs (voluntarily or involuntarily), and whether Iranian influence in Syria and neighboring Lebanon survives his regime.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little consensus in Israel (or the west) for hastening Assad's departure. He believes the only solution is a united effort involving Israel, the United States, Russia and the Arab Gulf States that recently withdrew their ambassadors and diplomatic observers from Syria. Working together (and making certain guarantees to interested parties), Halevy believes this loose coalition could force Asad from power and deliver a serious blow to Iran's regional ambitions:

Any workable outcome in Syria will have to involve the United States, Russia and Arab countries. America must offer Russia incentives to stop protecting the Assad regime, which will likely fall the moment Moscow withdraws its support. A force with a mandate from the Arab League should then ensure stability until a new Syrian government can take over.

The current standoff in Syria presents a rare chance to rid the world of the Iranian menace to international security and well-being. And ending Iran’s presence there poses less of a risk to international commerce and security than harsher sanctions or war.

Russia and China, both of which vetoed a United Nations resolution last week calling on Mr. Assad to step down, should realize that his downfall could serve their interests, too. After all, Iranian interventionism could wreak havoc in Muslim-majority areas to Russia’s south and China’s west. And a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a serious potential threat on Russia’s southern border.

While this scenario seems tantalizing, it is not without problems. First, both Moscow and Beijing are well aware of the wider regional implications from Asad's fall and so far, they won't support actions that would give a Tehran a black eye. For starters, there's too much money on the table; Iran is a key customer for both Russian and Chinese military hardware, and Tehran has valuable (and vital) energy contracts with Beijing. Secondly, Russia and China have little interest in handing a strategic victory to the U.S. at a time when our influence in the Middle East is perceived to be waning.

Additionally, don't believe all the diplomatic talk about the Gulf States insisting that Asad must go. Pulling their diplomats and observers from Damascus was the correct step (from a foreign policy and public relations standpoint), but readers will note than none of the Gulf nations seem prepared to take additional measures, such as providing support for opposition forces, or imposing more draconian economic sanctions. There is genuine concern about what might follow Asad, and the rulers in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE don't want an islamist government in Damascus, fearing that similar movements would re-ignite in their countries.

As for the U.S. and Israel, we're in a similar boat. Everyone agrees that Asad should leave, but no one is willing to do anything beyond diplomatic consultations and carefully-worded communiques. In fairness, the Syrian uprising has lasted much longer (and grown on a scale) that was inconceivable just a few months ago. Conventional wisdom held that Asad's Army was still strong enough to ensure regime survival, and he would muddle through, after a bloody crackdown.

But that calculus has clearly changed. Over the weekend, a high-ranking Syrian military officer predicted that the Army will collapse within the next month or so, as more soldiers join the opposition, or lack the resources to carry on the fight. The defector estimates the Army has current mission capability rates of 35-40% for personnel and similar levels for equipment. That posture is well below what is required to sustain combat operations against the rebels.

To be sure, Asad's end in Syria will be extraordinarily violent and bloody, and the die has been cast. It's up to Israel, the U.S. and other interested parties to determne some sort of way to influence the situation, realizing our impact may be minimal at best. The only other option is to let events in Syria spin totally out of control, raising the scenario of a possible regional conflict.

As we've written before, the battle for Syria represents the future of the Middle East. Iran has already invested heavily in trying to prop up Asad and the U.S. (and its partners) need to develop their own plans. There is simply too much at stake, including the opportunity to strike a telling blow against Tehran, through its failing ally in Damascus.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Little Lady Speaks

We're guessing Gisele Bundchen won't win any popularity contests with anyone in the New England Patriots' organization; her husband's teammates, or other player's wives. Not after her little post-game tirade in Indianapolis.

Ms. Bundchen, the supermodel wife of Pats QB Tom Brady, ripped into his receiver corps after a series of costly drops in the final moments of last night's Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. As reported by the New York Post:

Fans can be heard yelling "Eli rules!" and "Eli owns your husband" as she made her way through Lucas Oil Stadium following the Patriots' 21-17 defeat, the second time Giants quarterback Eli Manning has bettered three-time winner Brady on the Super Bowl stage.

The comments riled Bundchen, judging by video obtained by online gossip site "The Insider," with the model making it quite clear to those around her who she thought was to blame for Brady's failure to land the win.

"You [need] to catch the ball when you're supposed to catch the ball," she is heard saying. "My husband cannot [expletive] throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time. I can't believe they dropped the ball so many times."

Although Bundchen mentioned no names, she almost certainly was referring to wide receiver Wes Welker, who was judged to have made the costliest fourth-quarter drop, along with a missed catch by tight end Aaron Hernandez.

Of course, Mrs. Brady is entitled to her opinion. But there's also a certain unwritten code of conduct among NFL Player's wives. Near the top of the list is "Don't criticize the men who play with your husband."

Obviously, Welker and Hernandez had a pair of costly drops. But they don't need Bundchen to pile on, particularly after her recent e-mail plea for everyone to pray "positive energy" for her husband in the Super Bowl. Not only was her comment silly, it implied that Tom would need all the help he could muster to beat the Giants.

Speaking as a life-long Giants fan, I have nothing but respect for the Patriots and their players. Welker has been to the Pro Bowl four times, and Hernandez is one of the great young tight ends in the game. If the Pats ever decide to trade them, I'm sure Tom Coughlin wouldn't mind having them on his roster. And that's no slam against Mario Manningham, Victor Cruz, Jake Ballard, and the rest of the Giants receiver corps. But Welker and Hernandez are terrific players, who've been instrumental in the Patriots' success in recent years.

As for Mr. Brady, he remains both a great player and a class act. In his post-game comments, he refused to criticize his teammates, because he knows how the game is played. On the greatest stage in sports, even the great ones make mistakes. The Pats lost to a determined and talented Giants squad that got healthy and hot in time for the post-season. They simply refused to lose against the league's best, repeating a run that was remarkably similar to 2008, when they last won the Super Bowl, beating the Patriots in an equally-memorable game.

Still, Ms. Bundchen may have stumbled upon a new career opportunity, once her modeling days are done. Someone ought to send a copy of her comments to the folks at Fox, who've spent weeks telling us the G-men wouldn't make the post-season, let alone the Super Bowl. With her attitude, she'd be a perfect fit in the booth, next to the snarky Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, or sitting alongside Terry Bradshaw on the pre-game show. All she needs to do is perfect her spiel on why Eli Manning isn't a great QB.

Friday, February 03, 2012

The Incredible, Shrinking Workforce

It's a historical fact: since World War II, no American President has ever been re-elected with an unemployment rate above eight percent.

So, how does Barack Obama (and his bureaucratic helpers) plan to push that number down to an "electable" range?

Easy, just shrink the work force.

If you don't believe us, look at today's unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The gang over at was the first to warn us; earlier this week, they predicted there would be something fishy about today's figures. And sure enough, they were right--sort of. Zerohedge predicted the BLS would sneak in a much higher total for the number of jobs lost last year. Instead, the feds went one better--they "down-sized" the work force by a staggering number:

A month ago, we joked when we said that for Obama to get the unemployment rate to negative by election time, all he has to do is to crush the labor force participation rate to about 55%. Looks like the good folks at the BLS heard us: it appears that the people not in the labor force exploded by anunprecedented record 1.2 million. No, that's not a typo: 1.2 million people dropped out of the labor force in one month! So as the labor force increased from 153.9 million to 154.4 million, the non institutional population increased by 242.3 million meaning, those not in the labor force surged from 86.7 million to 87.9 million. Which means that the civilian labor force tumbled to a fresh 30 year low of 63.7% as the BLS is seriously planning on eliminating nearly half of the available labor pool from the unemployment calculation. As for the quality of jobs, as withholding taxes roll over Year over year, it can only mean that the US is replacing high paying FIRE jobs with low paying construction and manufacturing. So much for the improvement.

Of course, the stat grabbing most of the headlines is the monthly unemployment rate, which dropped to 8.3%, the lowest level in more than three years. But it wasn't all champagne and roses; there are signs the recovery is slowing in places in Germany and France (where unemployment surged last month); the Euro debt crisis is far from resolved (ditto for the U.S.) and there are concerns about a potential conflict with Iran. And did we mention that $4 a gallon gasoline is just around the corner--even if there isn't a conflict in the Gulf? Any--or all--of those factors could deflate whatever "recovery" is underway in the U.S.

But give the Obama team credit. When you need to lower the unemployment rate, just crush the labor force participation rate, even if the numbers make no sense. After all, this is an election year.