Faulty North Korean Engineering or a Covert U.S. Offensive Plan

28 April 2017


America’s attention has quickly shifted from the Middle East to East Asia, where North Korea recently tested and launched an intercontinental ballistic missile. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has had several missile launches over the past few years, regardless of UN sanctions and pressure from the west. However, the most recent launch this April was unsuccessful. Failed missile tests for the North Korean regime are routine. According to the New York Times, “Eighty-eight percent of the launches of the North’s most threatening missiles have self-destructed since the covert American program [targeting DPRK’s strategic weapons research] was accelerated three years ago.” Notwithstanding these failed attempts, many analysts and observers are seeing signs of the North’s growing nuclear capabilities. In 2016, North Korea conducted several nuclear tests - which detonated more than twice the destructive force of the Hiroshima bomb during WWII. And the latest’s military showcase, honoring the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jung-un’s grandfather, is another marker of North Korea’s public military technology strength.

The goal of this showcase was to signal to the world - both allies and enemies - the North Korean military prowess and technological advancements. April’s missile launches had the chance to exemplify North Korea’s credible engineering and evolving technologies, similar to how the 2014 Sony cyber-attacks confirmed U.S. concern over North Korea’s cyber capabilities. Instead, this April’s failed missile launches reignited discussions on the U.S.’s cyber offensive capabilities and willingness to employ preemptive measures.

While the failed launch could simply be blamed on poor engineering or human error, the prospect of intentional efforts of intervention through cyber means to disrupt these tests is also a feasible notion. A U.S. offensive program within the U.S. Cyber Command and National Security Agency designed to degrade North Korea’s nuclear capabilities now seems more likely than ever before. Such precedent exists, for example, when the U.S. along with Israeli counterparts engineered the Stuxnet cyber weapon to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. If the U.S. is actively targeting Pyongyang’s nuclear program or disrupting one-off tests, then a combination of human intelligence, signals intelligence, and cyber tactics are undoubtedly necessary. Regardless of whether the possible U.S. interference last week was an isolated event or an indication of an attempt to cripple their nuclear the program, if an intentional effort was made to covertly thwart North Korea’s militaristic efforts, it would require a combination of the following factors:

  • Intimate knowledge of the programmable logic controls of their missile systems;
  • Vulnerabilities and points of failure within military computer networks;
  • Insight into the supply chain to manipulate, tamper, or corrupt hardware, firmware, or software before reaching the North;
  • A craft exploit to target missile launching capabilities;
  • Spies and strategic reconnaissance that have penetrated North Korea’s most elite offices and programs; and/or
  • Electronic warfare.

James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace assessed that use of cyber- attacks against North Korea are less likely to force Kim Jung-un into a “dangerous, immediate response”, though it “might set off dangerous longer-term consequences.” The longer-term consequences may include a steady cyber arms race, destructive attacks against U.S. critical infrastructure or commerce (e.g. Sony), or casting a cloud over a Cuban Missile Crisis 2.0, as David Sanger and William Broad have noted. However, the U.S. has vested interest in disrupting the nuclear program of a rogue state while concurrently signaling the sheer power of an active U.S. cyber program.

The potential strike or dedicated campaign against North Korea’s nuclear capabilities signals an erosion of President Trump’s “America First” approach of isolationism.  This change in policy can alter the Administration’s course of action, especially with key partners like China. As Vice President Pence alluded, the “era of strategic patience is over” between the two nations. The U.S. appears ready to act with military might, which certainly includes a strong cyber front, to ensure North Korea’s position in the region does not strengthen. Expanding economic sanctions and working multilaterally with the UN has proven futile; therefore, the U.S. may turn to a limited set of unilateral actions aimed at keeping Kim Jung-un in his place. Whether a clever political strategy or not, the U.S. has reawakened its standoffish relationship with one of the most secretive and erratic nations in the world. Public attention on North Korea and a presumed use of hard power to counter a rogue nation will certainly change the U.S. position with respect to China, Japan, and South Korea and, perhaps more importantly, the future cyberwarfare rules of engagement.

This article was originally published by The Diplomat on April 27, 2017, and is being posted with the author's permission.

Strategies, Diversions, and Trump's Smoke-Screen Policy

20% of the Administration's Strategy is Focused 80% on Cleaning their Image

18 April 2017


So far President Trump's foreign policy has been nearly impossible to predict.  As we saw this past week, some of the President's choices, particularly the decision to strike the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have created strange bedfellows among America's foreign policy watchers.  Traditional foreign policy thinkers on the right and left, the so-called "Establishment," publicly lauded the strikes, albeit for somewhat different reasons.  Meanwhile, Trump's core supporters, who rallied around his isolationist campaign promises, have been sharply denouncing the strikes as warmongering.  Everyone in Washington appears to have been caught off-guard by the President's decision to intervene in the world's most protracted conflict, while analysts, journalists, and policymakers are scrambling to determine what it all means.  The President's speech after the strike, as well as statements from the White House, argue this decision was tied to Syrian regime use of chemical weapons late last month.

Presidential decisions do not happen in a vacuum.  Recall, the President and his staff are dealing with a full-fledged FBI and Congressional investigation into the Trump campaign's relationship with Russia, as well as the worst approval ratings of any first-term President since 1953, when Gallup began keeping tabs.  Then President-elect Trump's pledges to work more closely with Russian President Putin seem to have left President Trump in a bind, especially after FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and spotlight media coverage of a dramatic Congressional inquiry into the matter.  Politically, Trump's position on closer cooperation with Russia seems to have reached a brick wall, and the White House may have successfully been forced to distance themselves from Russia at all costs.  The more fundamental question is whether the President has fundamentally changed his policy on Syria or is politically maneuvering away from the Russia scandal which is impeding his early incumbency.

If we think critically about the factors influencing the President's decision to strike in Syria, we can discern three primary motivators.  First, the President’s perspective may have completely changed since assuming the role of U.S. Commander-in-Chief, and his advisers have successfully convinced him to act more "presidential" to accomplish his other policy goals.  Second, as reported in the media, the President may have been emotionally compelled to retaliate against Bashar al-Assad, after he was shown images of Syrians suffering from an alleged sarin gas attack.  Third, the President and his staff seized on the chemical attacks as an ideal opportunity to shift public attention away from the FBI's Russia investigation by appearing to strike a Russian ally and publicly deriding Russia's support of Assad.  Unfortunately, while any of the options presents a rather alarming picture of decision making at the White House, the President's history vis-a-vis the Russian issue seems to lend the most credence to the third.  

Just a few years ago former President Obama weighed an almost identical decision, and Donald Trump spoke out harshly against further U.S. involvement in the Middle East, most infamously in a spat of abrasive Twitter posts.  Years later, as a candidate for president, Mr. Trump claimed foreign wars only wasted money which could be used to “Make America Great Again.”  In fact, only days before the Syrian regime purportedly attacked its citizens with sarin gas, two members of Trump's cabinet – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley – went on the record to say that Assad was no longer a concern for the US, and that the U.S. was now content with allowing the Syrian crisis to resolve without any sincere U.S. involvement.  What we saw, in less than 72 hours, was a complete 180 in the U.S. position toward one of the world's worst humanitarian crises of this generation.

There is no love lost for the Syrian regime and, at about $1 million a pop, the only real lasting impact of the Tomahawk cruise missile strike seems to be the U.S.  taxpayer, stuck with a bill to the tune of about $60 million.  The heavy firepower only took out carefully identified targets at Shayrat Airbase and left the runway largely intact; which was interestingly retrofit by Russia in 2015 and is used as a forward operating base for their military.  Only hours after the strikes on Shayrat Airfield, it was reported that Syrian jets were again taking off from the same base.  If the U.S. wanted to ground Syrian aircraft, they would have focused on military infrastructure (e.g. runways) opposed to equipment (e.g. aircraft), but doing so would simultaneously limit Russia’s mobility in the region.  Since the strike does not appear to fit into some larger strategy for Syria, it seems readily apparent that the White House seized on the sarin gas allegations for political gain.  A prime opportunity to deflect criticism, appear strong, and refute the President's harshest critics who accuse him of being a Russian puppet.  

Without devolving into conspiracy theory, one can assume that when senior U.S. officials rang their Russian counterparts to inform them of impending military strikes in Syria, they may have also had the opportunity to tip their Russian counterparts to an impending increase in anti-Russia statements coming from the White House over the next few days.  Thus preserving diplomatic relations between the world's two largest nuclear powers behind closed doors, work toward minimizing a Trump-Russia connection, boost the waning U.S. public image, and not make any party worse-off than they were before.  President Trump could begin to put the Russia investigations behind him, while still maintaining the ability to work with Putin through shadowy diplomatic channels.  Weary allies in the EU and NATO are lauding the strikes, and already seem more apt to work with the U.S. on security and humanitarian concerns of mutual interest.  Conversely, the Russian spheres of influence have already proclaimed an abuse of power regarding the recent strikes and a violation of international law.   The result of these recent strikes in Syria and successive diplomatic handlings essentially prove that status quo will largely be maintained, with very little change except a slight boost in President Trump’s support.  The only party to lose in this scenario is Syria, branded as a geopolitical mule.  

While the Washington Post is reporting only narrow support for the recent airstrikes, realistically this is the least bad thing President Trump could be doing right now.  No one can deny that President Assad got what he deserved from the U.S. military, which is far better than the White House putting forth controversial legislation or another Executive Order.  The President may have an image issue to deal with, but he is no amateur.  At the end of the day, striking the regime does send a stern message to the Syrian government, those who support it, and to the global theater which has certainly felt somewhat baffled over how to interpret this renewed U.S. foreign policy strategy.  The strikes were well within the President’s constitutional authority, show the world and the American people the President’s willingness to act when contemplating unforgivable atrocities, and deliberated restraint by carefully targeting the responsible Syrian military units.

However, the U.S. and its President lack a clear strategy for Syria and the greater region.  Shrouded behind the curtain of a select few White House confidants is a still-unclear overarching U.S. foreign policy and what it hopes to accomplish.  These tactically-oriented strikes are of only marginal strategic benefit to U.S. interests; rather the decision to strike lends itself to a public relations boost more than anything else.  President Trump spoke of no “Red Line,” nor has he made the Assad regime and Syria crisis a focal point of his boisterous Presidency thus far – other than lessening the intake of its refugees.  These punitive strikes serve a limited purpose in any grand scheme; however, they do promote U.S. image as a powerful nation.  

Small geopolitical victories are important when building and maturing a President’s foreign policy doctrine, but doing so to garner public support should not overshadow political and geopolitical realities.  The ultimate question begs whether the President Trump’s U.S. military intervention in Syria was a legitimate action against a despotic regime, or a politically-driven public relation exploits to distance the Administration from Russia and gain a few approval points.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense on April 18, 2017, and is being posted with the author's permission.

BREXIT: A Geopolitical Conundrum

20% of nations facilitate 80% of globalization

26 June 2016


After being stoked for years by British politicians, “Euroskepticism” has finally had its moment.  Voters in the UK have decided to depart from the European Union (EU) after a once-in-a-lifetime ballot on the Referendum of the United Kingdom's Membership of the European Union.  This news has reverberated around the world and left in its wake a slew of economic uncertainty.  Despite the nearly yearlong campaign fervor, most onlookers outside the UK are shocked at the outcome.  Even some Brits – most notably a soon-to-be-unemployed Prime Minister David Cameron – find themselves in a state of shock.

Estimates from economists vary widely about economic impact, but the ramifications are without a doubt being discussed by every major corporation with business interests in the EU and Britain.  It remains unclear how dramatically the average person will be affected, but so far the British Pound has declined around 8%.  British companies are also taking a hit, in the form of sharply declining stock values.  Initial market volatility is a typical response after any dramatic political change.  These short-term fluctuations are likely temporary due to emotional charge of the moment and reactionary behavior.

In the long run, it seems certain that some legal guidelines will be altered.  Tax and tariff regulations may also change, although the UK Independence Party – the British political party largely behind the momentum to vote "Out" – has indicated the UK will pursue immediate trade deal negotiations with the EU to preserve access to the single market.  As of now, it is too early to make assessments given the political turmoil and bureaucratic nightmare that ensues.  In fact, we have a good two years or so before any real changes will take effect.  This allows ample time to plan and position, and the market will calm with time.  One must remember the UK has only voted to leave, and there are dozens of procedural bridges that must be crossed to make the exit official.  Hopefully British politicians will work to blunt the impact of any negative economic outcome given this decision to separate.

Also at stake, but receiving far less media coverage, is the strategic geopolitical impact of the vote.  The decision to leave essentially reverses a half-century of European integration since the end of the Second World War.  In 1945, a completely devastated and war-torn continent viewed nationalism and conflicting alliances of the classical era as an existential threat to their future.  A decade later, six European nations signed the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Community (EEC).  The EEC’s goal was to spur economic integration through the establishment of a customs union, which would in turn break down nationalistic rivalries and prevent another devastating war.  A generation later, the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, which created the modern EU as we know it.  The EU built upon the EEC and other political institutions to form a true customs and monetary union further bolstering European cooperation and stability.

This 1992 Treaty on European Union is notable for its eventual creation of a single Euro currency, but what few remember is that it also established precedents for a common security pact, judicial cooperation, and freedom of transit policies.  So while on its surface the EU appears to be primarily tied to Europe's economy and monetary interests, the roots of a preeminent EU project is deeply tied to seeking regional peace through the facilitation of trust.  When viewed through this framework, it becomes apparent that the Brexit vote has a far deeper and significant impact than the brief economic fallout and amending of trade agreements.

The EU illustrates a pinnacle of centuries of Western thought, liberal ideals, and testing of the greatest shared governance experiment in history.  Achievements that took centuries to obtain and millions of lives to achieve are a sobering reminder of what life was like at a time when the continent was rife with dangerous nationalistic sentiment.  While the Cold War helped elucidate a need for European unity, the truth is the now 28 member states that comprise the EU were constantly at war before 1945; since then there has been exactly zero.  Democratic Peace Theory and regional unity evidently go a long way in terms of peace and prosperity.

This is not exactly a time of calm for Europe.  The EU currently faces a series of challenging issues including an ongoing immigration crisis, unemployment hovering around 9%, and the perpetual sovereign debt of southern European countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy.  Lest we forget, the term Brexit is actually a continuation of the original term "Grexit," which emerged as Greece was considering defaulting on its loan obligations and could have been forced out of the EU.  What's to stop other countries from holding their own referendums on EU membership?  The only approach to an effective union is through compromise, no one state can always get their way.  The threat of Greece being forced out, or a Britain voluntarily exiting, sets a nasty precedent for future dilemmas that may arise.  A less stable nation may always fear the looming threat of being forced out, while economically powerful nations may see voluntary departure as a backup plan creating a precarious moral hazard.  There is no question a France or Germany could go it alone, but would that only serve to nullify 60 years of progress and peace?  During times like these with rampant extremism and immigration plaguing Europe, a fractured EU would only exploit additional vulnerabilities.

What is certain though, is that British sentiment did not appear out of thin air like an apparition.  Technocrats and bureaucrats in the EU’s Brussels headquarters are also responsible for their failures to achieve sufficiently satisfying ends to these crises and to address the issues of concern to Europeans across the continent.  For example, the flow of war-fleeing refugees and economic migrants into Europe since 2013 and a failure to adopt a single, unified policy in response has had a tremendous socioeconomic impact on the varying EU nations.  The EU's failure to properly fund, equip, and train a shared military force on its eastern and southern borders allowed this crisis to snowball.  Lack of a coherent policy on failing states, such as Libya, have led to internal EU bickering between states like France and Italy which are in close proximity.  NATO is not an alternative to a severely lacking unified EU police and military capability.

It would be easy to say the EU’s faltering policies originate from its inception, and the nations of Europe are inherently different and too culturally defined for the EU to ever truly be a single bloc for an extended period.  Cultural identity is important, but there is a fine line between pride and hostility.  Perhaps the French are too French and the German’s too German.  Alternatively, you can say the policy did not go far enough.  It joined nations across the continent in a shared currency and open border system but not in shared fiscal, military, or foreign policies whereby leaving too much sovereign power within national capitals.  Being as there is no precise answer to such a rhetorical inquiry, it would appear that Great Britain's exit vote is likely the first thread coming loose on a sweater.  It is only a matter of time until the rest unravels.

Why the Middle East Acts Just Like Your Mother

20% of Middle Eastern actions lead to 80% of the regional misunderstandings

9 March 2016


Have you ever been sitting quietly at the kitchen table and suddenly you hear a shriek from your mother in the other room – only to find that a few pieces of paper fell on the floor?  Or, have you just had the biggest work presentation of your life, and then when you think your mother calls to ask how it went she instead asks if you’ve called your grandma for the eighth time this week?  The list goes on, and we all know that moms have the best intentions and mean well.  But, this behavior is nothing more than a blatant case of ‘misaligned priorities.’  There is no way to change such an ingrained mentality, and trying to apply logic will be futile.  The next time your mom has a conniption because she misplaced this week’s Bed, Bath & Beyond coupon, just nod your head in empathy and pretend to look for it… It’s your safest bet for a swift evasion.

In case you thought ‘misaligned priorities’ is merely a reinterpretation of the Rational Actor Model, you would be mistaken.  Your mother satisfies all of the constraints to be considered a rational actor, but this is only because her objectives most likely differ significantly from yours.

The Middle East has evolved into a fragmented collection of states that, not exclusively, lack direction and tend to care very little for the well being of its residents.  Why else would you have rentier kingdoms and royal families enjoying unfettered power or theocratic elites billowing the fires of sectarianism?  The consolidation of power in many of these countries leads to biased priorities that are untested by the general public.  Over time, leaders and residents from any one of these nations will eventually convince themselves that these priorities are deserved and right… Just like your mom when she tells you touching raw meat will literally kill you.

Saudi Arabia, along with its goon-squad of Gulf allies, is continuously plagued by bouts of misaligned priorities.  To be honest, the Gulf has been so disengaged from reality for so long, they have really put themselves between a rock and a hard place.  It is no secret Saudi is at odds with Iran over economic and regional power, but has the Sunni-Shia quarrel been overblown as a cover for more political endeavors?  Let’s play this out…

Saudi backs Sunni militants to counter regional Iranian influence and implements an air campaign against Shia-Houthis in Yemen that has cost the lives of hundreds (or even thousands) of civilians, which takes the heat off al-Qaeda in their Yemen safe haven.  Saudi continues to instigate by executing Shia leaders, then Iranian protesters attack the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and Sunni nations withdraw ambassadorial presence.  Now that certain Iranian sanctions have been relieved, the Gulf is concerned over Iran's petroleum industry and starts exporting surpluses of oil – in addition to their growing concern over US oil shale production.  Now that income has been reduced for Gulf kingdoms due to low oil demand, specifically in Kuwait and the UAE, they are beginning to implement revenue-generating taxes, which may even positively impact regional priorities!  And now the world is flooded with cheap oil… sounds good for your commute to work, right?  Moody’s just cut the rating of these Gulf countries to junk status, but we can save further economic implications for another time.  Look at the mess these misaligned priorities have gotten us into!

Talk about a messed up system of priorities, take a look it archenemy #1: Iran.  So in good faith, the US decides to limit enough Iranian sanctions to release $100 billion in frozen assets in return for Iranian compliance with a variety of nuclear programs.  Instead of seeking relief to additional sanctions and reverting from an outcast status, Iran decides to continuously test ballistic weapons and disregard other sanctions.  At present, the Iranian Rial is considered the most devalued currency in the world and the Islamic Republic has a negative annual GDP growth rate.  Instead of pulling its citizens out of decades-long financial hardship, the Supreme Leader would rather invest millions into advanced weapons, sponsor nefarious proxies around the world, and continue down a sanction-ridden path.

Pakistan, like Iran, is another very rational, unitary actor in its own right… With priorities way out in left field.  This country positions the majority of its modern and well-trained military units along the Indian border, when the more tenuous border is clearly along the Afghanistan front – or is it?  From Pakistan’s rational and inward looking perspective, India is the strategic threat and a wrong step could lead to war.  While conventional war is unlikely, this distrust comes from decades of localized issues and a degradation of diplomatic communication.  From the rest of the world’s perspective, clearly the Afghan border poses a more continuous threat and extremist groups run rampant within Pakistani borders.  And then we have the Pakistani intelligence service plotting attacks against non-threatening and presumed allied countries, even to the point of harboring and providing support to terrorist organizations hostile to the West.  Wouldn’t their efforts be better aimed at curing internal sectarian violence, or providing aid to the thousands of residents affected by flooding in the north and earthquakes in the south?  Just as The Atlantic puts it, The Ally From Hell.  

Speaking of allies from hell, Turkey is in a similar boat as Pakistan.  Whether it is due in part to an egotistical President vying to impose despotic rule over the “Europe sometimes, but Middle East when we feel like it” country, or an inability to handle so many regional crises at once, only time will tell.  Turkey’s priorities have been in such shambles recently, it is difficult to make sense of it all.  What benefit does shooting down a Russian fighter jet have, when you have a multitude of other diplomatic tools at your disposal?  And the Kurds, where do we even begin.  The issue is quite evidently Turkey’s porous border – which the fairly able Turkish military can monitor if they so chose – and not airstrikes against the Kurds. 

While there is less of an effect on the global economy, Pakistan has extreme implications on the geopolitical front.  The immigration crisis in Turkey is also a geopolitical concern at first-glance, but one that is leading toward serious economic implications throughout the greater European Union.

So as you can see… The Middle East (OK, and maybe parts of South Asia) pretty much acts like your mom when you come home to visit for a few days.  She means well and thinks her way is the right way, but she is mostly thinking about what she wants and what affects her immediate proximity.  No one can tell her otherwise.  Without a doubt and just like convoluted Arabia, she believes she is acting rationally, making all the right moves, and focusing on all the important details… Like the weird outfit her friend wore to brunch last Sunday, but not your first marathon you are running next week.  So, next time you hear a yell from outside because the mailman didn’t come today, simply agree and move on with your day.  Just like the US did when the Syrian Government used chemical weapons.

Five Things That Will DEFINITELY Happen In 2016

80% of the New Year will be 20% of the same old $#!%

January 2016


One:  Crude oil will go up.  While the pre-recession peak of $140 a barrel was an anomaly, staying well below $40 doesn't seem to be the new normal either, unless of course the world economy really slips off the rails and heads south in the next quarter (which seems doubtful).  It is probably a safe bet that petroleum exporting countries will cut production a bit so that prices stabilize higher.  Don't forget, these guys need the barrel price high to run operations, fund their governments, and continue exploration. It is oil after all, and we all need it. 

Two:  Donald Trump will not be President.  It is only a matter of time before the Trump-train comes to its final destination.  That's two train metaphors already in one blog post.  It's only January, but if Trump does manage to carry the nomination he's certain to look like a monster attacking Hillary, and, what's more, her mix of experience, acumen, poise, and wonkiness, ensure she'll be able to speak truth to volume.  Besides, the Democrats win presidential elections, right?  The real question is, will we see Bloomberg on the ticket as an independent in 2016?  Watch out Hillary!

Three:  Negotiations for Syria will fail.  As much as it may be painful to admit, there is really no realistic peaceful outcome at the moment, and the current iteration of peace talks in Geneva will break up over something (who is invited to a seat at the negotiating table, disagreement over presidential transition, governing structure post-Assad, etc).  There are just too many factors pulling in the wrong direction.  Too many train conductors at the wheel, so to speak (boom, three-for-three). While the US President may be morally right and justified in insisting Assad is a murderous dictator that should leave office, the next President – whoever that may be – will likely have to abandon a hardline stance and accept Assad for the time being to destroy ISIS.  And even in 2017 when the world maybe gets serious about fixing this issue, it is more likely than not a diplomatic solution will leave three states in the place a contiguous Syria once was. 

Four:  Iran will violate the JCPOA, also known as the ‘Iran Deal.’  Don’t get your panties in a bunch, we are not implying World War Three… but there is a historically greater than average likelihood Iran will violate this deal or another sanction.  Chances are, world powers will simply overlook the violation and let them off the hook – so long as the violation is not egregious and does not involve nuclear weapons testing (looking at you, North Korea). So the saying goes, a nuclear-free Iran is a good Iran… I think.  Give a little get a little, am I right? 


Five:  The China slowdown will continue, and may lead to a Chinese economic crisis significantly affecting the emerging markets.  Chinese economic authorities have again lowered growth expectations for coming years, and continue to devalue their currency as Chinese stocks are trading lower by the day.  Capital flight is of increasing concern, debt is rising, exports are declining, and as the world’s second largest economy these are worrisome prospects.  China’s rapid growth is what propelled the nation into becoming a world power, and there is no doubt President Xi Jinping will respond in full force.  While it is unlikely these events will lead to a catastrophic depression or collapse of the Chinese economy, they will experience a severe setback that will certainly ripple throughout the local and global economy.  Investors beware.

Six???  If you have any thoughts on what will happen in 2016, let us know through one of the Social Media buttons above!!!

Iran and the Old Potomac Two-Step

September 2015

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     The Obama administration believes that legitimizing Iran as a nuclear threshold state will moderate its behavior.

The Obama administration believes that legitimizing Iran as a nuclear threshold state will moderate its behavior.

The White House is hell bent on achieving hegemonic equilibrium, or strategic parity, between Iran, the Gulf States (and Egypt), and Israel. The Obama administration, with Secretary of State John Kerry and Deputy National Security Advisor Benjamin Rhodes acting as point, has adopted a strategy of forcing highly unpopular diplomatic equations to promote the balance of power between opposing states, and their poly-polar alignments, in the Middle East.

The cost? Tearing to shreds 35 years of supporting and gaining the trust of American allies, like Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia in the pursuit of promoting American interests and regional stability. The result? A new American posture that protects the interests and ambitions, not of itself, but of an internationally recognized Iran characterized and legitimized as a nuclear threshold state.

This paradigmatic shift in America's view towards the region has also led to genocide, ethnic cleansing, the rampant use of unconventional weapons, Russia's kinetic reentry to the region for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, the potential onset of covert nuclear arms programs and the world's greatest refugee crisis since World War II. By attempting to make the Middle East power structure more egalitarian, chaos now reigns free. The most important conclusion one must make when analyzing this policy is that it has led to a less secure America.

Why would we sign a deal with a regime that openly declares America to be its greatest enemy?

I drove to Atlantic City last week to participate in a debate on the Iranian nuclear deal. As I meandered my way on back roads to the Jersey shore, I envisioned that my conversation on the Iranian nuclear deal with supporters and detractors on the panel was about to go the way of an unfortunate 'cospiratore' caught in the Pine Barrens on the wrong side of a Soprano family dispute. Dead on arrival. If I came out against the deal, I would be in favor of war, according to our President.

The arguments presented by a Republican member of Congress, a representative from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), a mid-level White House National Security Council (NSC) official, and a senior Israeli diplomat provided a relevant backdrop to the larger national debate going on around the Iranian nuclear deal.

The Israeli position was obvious: The official repeated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition to the deal articulated since Bibi's speech to Congress last March.

The Republican member of Congress concurred with the Israeli position and attacked the Obama administration for selling out American security and its allies in the region to Iran.

The position of the JCPA, a Jewish public policy umbrella organization (representing both left- and right-wing organizations), was to not have a position. Unfortunate, but expected.

The NSC official, who happens to moonlight as head of the White House's Iran desk, said:

The deal has a series of punitive measures... a mini snapback if you will rooted in US domestic policy that will inevitably lead, if there is a violation of the agreement, to [America] punishing Iran and enacting a cost against the Iranian regime. There is a staggered means of assessing costs on Iran for any material breach [of the agreement].

The moderator took an informal poll of each panel member and asked if they believed the Iranians would violate the deal. The NSC official raised his hand and indicated that Iran will most likely not hold to its word of keeping its end of commitments laid out in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iranian nuclear deal). The Obama administration believes Iran is going to cheat on this deal.

I know we were in Atlantic City, but I don't think the most egregious, pathological and indebted gambler would take a bet on Iran holding up its end of the bargain after hearing that statement.

NSC official Nitin Chadda acknowledged that Iran will likely violate the nuclear agreement.

Why would the United States sign a deal with a regime that has killed American soldiers, acts as and admits it is the largest supporter of terrorism in the world and openly declares America to be its greatest enemy? Especially when you expect them to violate the agreement in the near future? Why would we risk turning an already dangerous Iran into an even more dangerous Iran that will now be a threshold nuclear weapons state when we expect them to violate the very same deal that is meant to prevent them from becoming a nuclear weapons state?

Perhaps, as White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest posited in July, this deal will make it easier for America to attack Iran. That position infuriated the Iranians, and the White House quickly dumped that talking point. The answer I received from the official was: This agreement is about the nuclear issue. We are not trying to tackle any other issue Iran may be responsible now or in the future. In other words, this deal was born out of a complete lack of strategic foresight, polymorphic ignorance and gross ineptitude in handling American international relations with Iran and America's allies in the region.

The Iran deal reflects the administration's lack of strategic foresight, polymorphic ignorance, and foreign policy ineptitude.

Shockingly, I was not surprised. Ignorance has been the mainstay of the Obama administration's policy towards Iran since it failed to support the Green Movement led by Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi during the June 2009 Iranian Presidential election. For the last six years Iran's opposition has been beaten, murdered, raped and hung in the streets of Tehran as the Obama administration has sought short term rapprochement and detente with the Ayatollahs at the expense of inviting long term instability and hostility in the Middle East. Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman slaughtered by the Iranian Basij militia and the face the world remembers from the failed Green uprising, must be somber in heaven as her memory fades in the wake of Iranian atomic dreams.

Scandal and hidden agendas have a long history of being the chatter of parlor conversations and Sunday talk shows in Washington DC. Not so for the most transparent administration in history; its strategic blunders, folly and shortsightedness at policy making is broadcast around the world on live TV, streamed on YouTube and captured by social media. Never have the architects of a diplomatic blueprint danced the old Potomac two-step from the Oval Office down Pennsylvania Avenue and straight and through the halls of Congress with the explicit purpose of promoting deceitful and dangerous engagement with America's greatest enemy.

For all the naiveté, myopic conjecture and feckless posturing (a daily dose offered by the Obama administration's public affairs team) floating out of the White House and infighting in the Democratic Party in Congress around this agreement, the active promotion of power sharing with Iran is bound to continue for the next 16 months until a new President takes office. That is, unless the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, or the Majlis, Iran's parliament, rejects the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

So how do we move forward out of this mess? I'm finding it hard to be sanguine or cheery in the wake of this disastrous agreement approaching implementation now that the President has secured a congressional minority to pass an agreement a majority of Americans disagree with. It is important to highlight challenges America faces abroad the day after the agreement passes, beyond the Iranian nuclear file.

America's ability to influence actors and nation states in the Middle East is in turmoil; amateurish diplomatic uncertainty exhibited with ambivalence towards our closest partners and embracing age old enemies. Our allies in the Middle East are being bought off with arms packages and empty promises of collective defense. Our enemies are being offered diplomatic and military protection. Even the American Air Force is providing cover for Iranian backed militias and the top Iranian clandestine operative, Qassem Solemeini, responsible for the deaths of innocent Americans in Beirut, Saudi Arabia and our soldiers in Iraq.

What world do we want to live in today? One in which we exhibit our greatness (not to be too cliché in borrowing an outspoken, bellicose Presidential candidate's slogan) to our allies and lead? We must stop partaking in diplomatic processes geared towards ameliorating our enemies' concerns, which in turn they use to rally against.

We must turn towards defeating them, and if need be, on their own turf. It's time to unravel this policy of attempting to find a balance of power and "resetting" hegemonic equilibrium in the Middle East. America need not dance between the Gulf and the Mediterranean; we must dominate.

The author of this article, Gregg Roman, is Director of the Middle East Forum, a research center headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  This article was originally posted at the Middle East Forum, and reposted with the approval of its original author.

A Manifested Destiny

20% of nations make 80% of foreign policy decisions

August 2015


The geopolitical landscape has not changed considerably since September 2, 1945 – the day Japan formally surrendered to the United States, thereby concluding WWII.  In this relatively short span of 70 years, the world has been effectively led by powerhouse nations and their respective spheres of influence.  After the end of WWII, Soviet Russia and the US emerged as the two world powers, they each would fulfill this role for decades.  Nations will, and should, act in their own self-interest; whether that interest is on behalf of the people or plutocracy.  If you disagree with Machiavelli, discontinue reading now. Upon the Cold War’s conclusion the US emerged as the sole world power.  Projecting power comes at a cost; when you have the biggest stick in the playground, you sometimes need to swing.

Due to its preeminent position, the US has been plagued with exceptionally difficult times since the fall of the Cold War.  As Whitney Kassel, author of Stay Scary, America, said, “the answer is not to always use force, or hard power, to achieve objectives.”  However, the US must show readiness and willingness to swing the big stick when necessary to fulfill its goals.  There is a great risk in no action, minimal action, or weak action.  Nations should be pursuing a strategy of deterrence against aggressive or enemy states.  Deterrence is a good thing; it not only establishes a global precedence, but it also minimizes bloodshed and conflict.  Deterrence is a powerful strategic device; it should never be considered a minimal or weak action.  As for moments in which we must engage our enemy, diplomacy should remain as the first option, but it should not consume our ability to act decisively with the full weight of a powerful nation when a situation necessitates.  Above all, the expression of fear is our penultimate enemy.  Power is a curse to maintain, terrifying to lose, and irreversible when lost.

Today, the US faces multiple foreign policy issues that will significantly affect its perception amongst friends and foes.  The dynamic nature of present threats make it a particularly unique time for the US due to the convergence of asymmetric threats, along with the more traditional power struggles, combined with a rapid proliferation of technology.  Core challenges include Russia’s reemergence, cyber threats, European disunity, Iranian negotiations, Israeli relations, and the ubiquitous Middle East disarray.  While this relative list is worthy of discourse, it represents an intricate recipe for disaster.

The current administration’s actions have led to an equivocal approach in foreign policy, or in other words, the US flexes its muscles in a questionable manner.  White House foreign policy since the infamous Syrian red line message in August 2013 has come across as foggy, dubious, and even concerning.  As former CIA Director Leon Panetta said in October 2014, drawing the red line for chemical weapon use in Syria was “the right thing to do,” but then he qualified that statement by saying “…credibility of the United States is on the line” once the we had proof [Syrian President Bashar] Assad used chemical weapons, killing 1,400 people, “then it was important for us to stand by our word and go in and do what a commander in chief should do.”  Whether or not setting a red line was a wise decision, it was crucial for the US to follow through.  Instead, the US pursued a policy of mild inaction by teaming with Russia to eliminate declared chemical weapons through a United Nations entity; however, allegations are still being reported of chemical use and the United Nations has yet to complete its investigation two years later.  The US did not project its power, and as a result opposing states realized an opportunity to act in their own self-interest.  For example, this position may have granted Russia the ability to annex Crimea without fear of consequence; which led to an ongoing and brutal civil war in Ukraine.  In response to Russia’s aggression, the US pursued a series of ineffective sanctions against the Russian Federation.  Former British Foreign Secretary Malcom Rifkind explained sanctions targeting Russian businessman and corporations have been “useless” and “simply symbolic.”  Given Russia’s economic situation, the return to a bi-polar geopolitical model is not on the horizon; but America’s credibility is certainly on the line.  Ideally, the US is viewed as the global police officer or benign hegemon, but realistically this title is waning before our eyes.  As a Business Insider articles purports, “America is no longer as alarming to its foes or reassuring to its friends.”  Whether or not the US should continue to be “Globocop” is an entirely separate argument, but projecting sufficient power to deter rogue and enemy states while preserving security is critical and possibly deteriorating. 

Another case the US may lose is a strategic advantage over Iranian relations.  In a momentous attempt to mediate relations with Iran, the nuclear deal has exacerbated Washington’s partisan playing field.  Coupled with fear and distrust, the hesitance on both sides is to be expected.  (As a reminder, this article is not an explanation of a deal nor does it suggest an outcome… so let us assume for a second that everyone relatively supports a deal [insert comedic remarks] ).  Why did the State Department permit such an extensive amount of negotiation, and further why was the deadline delayed so many times?  Just as the President said during his 5 April interview with Thomas Friedman, “… We’re not relinquishing our capacity to defend our allies or ourselves.  In that situation, why wouldn’t we test it?”  As the strongest party at the negotiating table in Vienna, the US should have directed a strict deal in its best interest… that may also mean simply walking away.  The deal should very clearly uphold strong security precautions for years to come, that are in the US’s best interest.  Just as the White House has said, we have nothing to lose by holding talks, but others have much more to lose (and a lot to gain) from economic standpoints and access to the world.  Therefore we should be aiming for the highest possible demands under our stringent timeline.  This is not about threat of military force or additional sanction penalties; this is about leveraging soft power in its finest hour.

Arguably, a more interesting phenomenon to the average American is the progression of the US-Israeli relationship.  This is a complex topic, but again the focus here is on influence and authority.  Israel has benefited from more US aid than any other allied nation, and enjoys what may be considered the most powerful security blanket from the world’s most powerful military.  Iran nuclear deal aside, the unique and special relationship with Israel is not one that has any reason to falter.  For years the US has diplomatically made what can only be considered ‘suggestions’ to Israel, regarding Palestinian statehood and settlements… But the US does have the ability to use its influence to strong-arm Israel to make certain decisions and changes – it chooses to not.  The fact that Israel could not have attained such global status without US support since 1948 is true, but there has never been an attempt to impose on their sovereignty – a symbol of ideological democratic (and dare I say religious) values.  After several years of strained relations, the historic Iran nuclear deal has unquestionably caused the most significant rift between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu.  Bibi’s divisive statements against the US and provocative congressional speech have certainly added fuel to the strained relationship… would you go insulting and pissing off your best friend in dire times?  What many overlook is the domestic bipartisan rift being caused by the icy relationship, which actually has the potential to hurt the US.  The idea of the US not standing by Israel is inconceivable and will not occur during our lifetime…. But where is the respect?  If your closest subordinate won’t show respect, then no one will – it is nothing more than an exploitation of weak foreign policy.  We don’t want to ever use the big stick with Israel, but if there were ever a time to sternly chastise an ally, now would be that time. 

American self-interest is premier; everyone else comes second.  How very Realpolitik!  Don’t act surprised, some of you were warned to discontinue reading.  The aforementioned are just a few exemplars of modern foreign policy engagements that largely overlap the real and the ideal.  Contrary to popular belief, a strong foreign policy does not mean threat of military action and geopolitical isolation.  And acting in ones self interest, with one being approximately 319 million US citizens, is not necessarily a selfish act.  It is impossible to perform foreign policy objectives in a completely ideological manner, yet it is unmaintainable to conduct them in a wholly realist manner either due to interdependent relationships and personal affiliations.  A blend of the two thoughts leads to a maximized policy, and this article quite clearly opines a much greater weight be applied to the statecraft of realism.  Credibility is on the line, which is quite possibly one of the most difficult types of credibility to have obtained and maintain.  In today’s complex environment all eyes are on the single most powerful player to make their move, so let us choose wisely and swing that big stick!

Releasing Jonathan Pollard: A Policy of Deterrence or Appeasement?

80% of a criminal punishment can effectively deter without the 20% remainder

August 2015

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    Poster on Israeli bus during Bush’s visit in 2005, juxtaposing Bush with the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah

Poster on Israeli bus during Bush’s visit in 2005, juxtaposing Bush with the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah

Just the other day, while the President was outlining the deal negotiated with Iran on its nuclear program on TV, Wendy Sherman, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and the principal negotiator on this nuclear arrangement, made a little reported on statement.  She said in a press conference that the US was prepared to "discuss enhancements" to Israel's security.  And this is important, because Israel's buy-in on this deal is crucial for its survival and its ability to pass the US congressional review.  After years of a strained relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv, the US has to give Israel a bit of what it wants.  And one of the carrots is the release of Jonathan Pollard, a convicted spy for Israel, who has been sitting in a US jail for 30 years.

Jonathan Pollard spied for Israel in the 1980s when he worked for the US Navy as an intelligence analyst.  In 1985, he was sentenced to life in prison, but with mandatory parole after thirty years.  On July 28, the US Parole Commission announced that Pollard received parole and will be released this November.

Pollard’s imprisonment has long been a sore point between Israel and the United States.  Israel has repeatedly pushed for Pollard’s release, imploring President Obama, and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allegedly tried to include Pollard’s release as part of the peace process in the 1990s.  Fearing that President Clinton would agree to this, former CIA Director George Tenet threatened to resign if Clinton released Pollard.  Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld along with seven other former defense secretaries signed letters in 1998 and in 2001, sent to Presidents Clinton and Bush, respectively, against the release. 

Now Israel’s wish has finally come true.  Pollard’s release will benefit America’s relationship with Israel.  Tensions between these historical allies have recently peaked; with Israelis from both sides of the political spectrum being united in opposition to the Iran deal. However, like the Presidents before him, President Obama did not cave to Israeli pressure, and the US administration denies that Pollard’s parole has anything to do with soothing Israel.  Pollard will be free in November, but simply because he served his sentence.  He did not commit additional crimes or any other conduct that would be legitimate grounds to deny parole. 

Pollard served his sentence completely; he was not granted any special leniency or given any special favors.  Nonetheless, there has been substantial opposition to his release—ranging from disgust concerns about national safety.  The primary concern is deterrence.

Deterrence is the utilitarian justification for punishment.  Punishment should be set at a level required to deter others from committing a crime.  The crime’s cost — the expected punishment discounted by the probability of being caught — should outweigh the crime’s benefit to the would-be perpetrator.  A lenient punishment would not discourage others from committing similar crimes.

On 28 July, Rumsfeld came out again against Pollard’s November release, tweeting: “Releasing Pollard was a bad idea in 1998 & 2001. It is not a better idea today” and that this “would be enormously damaging to our efforts to keep spies out of our government.”  Rumsfeld’s argument sounds in deterrence: Harsh sentences must be imposed for espionage in order to discourage others from stealing intelligence.  Therefore Pollard should not be granted parole and instead serve his full sentence in order to deter other would-be spies. 

Deterrence is a good reason why the US government did, and should not, have taken any actions to release Pollard prematurely.  Potential spies may be less deterred by large criminal sentences if there is a possibility that a country’s involvement or popular outcry would prematurely free them.  However, deterrence is a dubious argument against Pollard’s parole after thirty years.  It seems intuitively doubtful that a potential spy would perceive a life sentence as decisively worse than a decades-long sentence.  (How many would honestly think: “I’ll risk spending the rest of my health and youth in prison but won’t take on the additional risk of losing a few years of freedom in my old age”).   

Moreover, deterrence rests on a doubtful assumption that people rationally weigh the benefits of a crime versus the costs.  Individuals may be overconfident that they will not be caught, or simply unaware of the magnitude of punishment.  And it seems more likely when spying on the government, where individuals are not motivated by rational thought but instead motivated by ideology. Although Pollard received monetary compensation from the Israeli government, he admitted that Zionism and support of Israel were factors.  Similarly, ideology motivated former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and US army soldier Chelsea Manning to reveal US secrets – although it was not allegiance to a foreign country but rather to their ideas on the views of the proper functioning of government.  In sum, Pollard’s release by mandatory parole will not embolden others to spy on the United States. 

A Pain in my Donbass: The 80-20 Argument Against Ukraine

80% of Ukraine is Russia, the other 20% is Chernobyl

April 2015

Since the ongoing crisis in Ukraine began in late 2013, leaders in the West have been discussing how to confront Russia like its 1959.  The American strategy has been to have Joe Biden interviewed daily by Vince McMahon, so he can tell Putin what Veep is Cooking. Europeans are lauding sanctions, which combined with a plummeting oil press have made the Russia economy look like, well, a Russian economy.  In America, we are more proactive and are thinking of further arming the Ukrainian Government and various fascist militias operating in the Donbas Region.  Or as John McCain would call them, “moderate terrorists.”     

As much as Lockheed Martin would love an escalation in Eastern Europe, the US should refrain from further providing lethal and non-lethal support to the government in Kiev.  The reason is simple, Ukraine is not a real country, and therefore should not be treated like one. 

Ukraine, like all CIS countries, is a Soviet construct operating in a Post-Soviet world.  Like all countries formed with the fall of the USSR, Ukraine has a history of 25 years as an independent nation.  A nation’s longevity, combined with any significant actions it undertakes throughout a congruent time period, will improve that nation’s standing in international forums. For example, when you storm the beaches of Normandy you earn the right to craft global policy. 

After 25 years of poverty, corruption, and bafflement, Ukraine hasn’t earned much.  The country, in a regrettable twist of fate, gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994 in return for Russian security guarantees.  Russia has since stifled every opportunity for Kiev to join NATO, confirming that chunks of the country’s territory will be incorporated into the Russian Federation.  Lest we forget Russia already controls territory in the Post Soviet republics of Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and Moldova (Transnistria).

Ukraine’s lack of international legitimacy is also derived from a poor historical narrative.  Unlike most European countries, there was never a historical kingdom, principality, duchy, commonwealth, republic, or khanate of Ukraine prior to brief claim during the Russian Revolution.  Some will argue that the Ukrainian roots can be traced in the Kievian Rus which existed during the 10th Century.  First, if you are not familiar with the 10th Century, it was a long time ago.  Second, Russia claims to be the heir of the Principality of Kiev, as it was the first Orthodox dynasty in the region. Point for Putin.

Ukraine can be viewed more as a state within a country, like Kansas or Manitoba.  Kate Brown, in her work on the construction of Ukrainian identity, “A Biography of No Place,” argues that after completing the Russian Revolution, the Soviets attempted to organize Ukraine based on an ethnicity that did not exist. For God’s sake, she refers to Ukraine as “No Place” in the title.  In order to reflect the doctrine of the “Communist International,” the Ukrainian SSR was formed as a separate, yet internal, entity of the Soviet Union.  The ethnographers sent by Moscow to develop a Ukrainian nationality for this new “republic” located a number of Catholic and Orthodox communities who spoke variations of Polish, Russian, and a combination of Russian and Polish, known as Ukrainian.  The Soviets also found no geographic or cultural consistency. Some villages spoke Polish, but were orthodox; while others were Catholic and Russian speaking. Despite this fact, the Soviets meticulously recorded all ethnicities, which proved useless to the USSR, but obviously very useful to the Nazis during their occupation.  Once the Soviet Union fell, this denomination also proved exceptionally accommodating to policymakers in the West, who were so excited about reshaping the USSR that even Turkmenistan got a country.

Now Russia is attempting to physically expand its sphere of influence and, let’s face it, take back what was very recently theirs. Through NATO, the West has drawn a clear line which encompasses the Baltic countries and Poland.  This can still be viewed as significant spoils from the Cold War even if Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus are lost to the Russians.  So the next time someone watching Brian Williams tells you we need to arm Ukraine, tell them: just like Palestine, Ukraine is just not a real place.