To raise defence spending, Australia needs a new electorate

May 17, 2013 - Comments Off

In defence, as in life, there are no free lunches. This is so especially in an age of defence inflation, as the price of weapons systems spirals almost out of control. But even if the relationship between government and industry were perfectly efficient, defence would still cost serious dollars.


In decades past, this did not seem to matter much. Australia lived in a relatively benign environment. America underwrote the security of the Asia-Pacific. Washington’s primacy was unchallenged. Australia could keep its defence spending low as a percentage of GDP, banking on its alliance with an overdog and the stability of the American-led order in Asia. Defence priorities were so low that the Hawke government commissioned frigates that were left to be equipped with weapons later.


Now, the region is more fearful and more uncertain. Countries like Indonesia, China, the Philippines and Singapore invest serious money in modernising and expanding their defence forces. This money flows from a cocktail of nationalism and fear. They want a commercial peace. But they also want a military insurance that is increasingly expensive. The nuclear ambitious and crisis diplomacy of ‘Rogue states’ such as North Korea also drives fears, as do the spirals of insecurity that such states could trigger.


Looking out on this world, critics accuse the Gillard government of pursuing security on the cheap. They point the finger at the latest White Paper  as a sign of Canberra’s unwillingness to invest. The Paper backs away from the earlier investment envisaged in the 2009 Paper and de-emphasises being militarily prepared for a clash with China, preferring conciliation and diplomacy. The government promises world class hi-tech defence forces. According to executive director of the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings, it is unclear how these programmes can be afforded. Defence spending is at 1.56 per cent of GDP, the lowest since 1937.


The easy response is to insist that we spend more. At a minimum, Australia’s strategic priority is to be sufficiently well armed to be able to inflict heavy costs on any would-be aggressor. Australia may never be a giant in Asia. It would never be able to go the matt and win outright against a giant. But as Professor Ross Babbage once put it, it can be a Beowulf, with the capacity to rip the arm off a giant. Combined with prudent diplomacy, this would hopefully make any attack on Australia or its maritime approaches unattractive.


The aspiration to do this would mean investing in hi-tech planes such F/A 18 Super Hornets or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, stealthy and long-range submarines, and an army large enough to make any invader drive up the forces it puts at risk. According to standard estimates, this would mean raising defence spending to 3-4% of GDP.


To be sure, there are things that matter apart from money. Better doctrine, greater efficiency and more coordination of government departments are all very well. But deterring and responding to major threats will take more dollars than the current budget allows.


The harder question is where do we get the money? Any government today recognises that there is little public appetite for increased defence spending. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the proportion of Australians willing to spend more on defence has dropped from its climax of 60% in 2001 down to 45% in 2010. Anxiety in the years immediately after 9/11 led to a brief demand for more spending. But the jihadist wave seems spent. While few (10%) wish to reduce defence spending, only 15% believe ‘much more’ should be spent, and a rise to 3-4% of GDP would be much more.


For the minority of Australians who do want more defence spending, its not clear where they believe that should come from.


From public services, such as health, education or transport, where public demand is increasing? What about taxation? Offering better defence at the price of more taxes would be a courageous step, which is a Westminster euphemism for political death. The Liberal-National coalition, one of the most vocal critics of the Gillard defence policy, does not boast of many tax enthusiasts. More borrowing and higher deficits? That would also be hard. In Australian politics at present, one of the battlegrounds is the issue of fiscal prudence and budget surpluses.


Given the limited domestic demand for more defence spending, what should Canberra do? It could continue to fudge the issue, keeping spending low, postponing funding decisions about new programmes, hedge between conciliating China and aligning with America, and muddle through.


Unfortunately, this approach offers the worst of all worlds. It would make the country more vulnerable to any predators, and has already begun alienating its major ally while irritating Beijing. That path could lead to a dangerous, gradual isolation. It would disqualify Australia from the ranks of ‘Middle Powers’ that the government thinks we have joined.


Alternatively, Canberra could take a clearer decision and adjust its policy to the reality of limited defence budgets. It could consciously choose to accept the risk of under-investing. Like many European states, it could abandon talk of being a Middle Power, and rely on its alliance with America and hope that unlikely but worse case scenarios do not happen. This would lower expectations and save money. But by increasing reliance on diplomacy and allies and abandoning self-reliance, this would place Australia’s security -and destiny- dangerously in others’ hands.


Or the government, and the political class, could try to change opinion. It could encourage the people to want more defence spending, increased over time, and to be willing to pay for it.  This would require bold leadership and an unusual level of cross-party consensus. It would mean following the spirit of Edmund Burke, offering the electorate their judgement rather than their obedience.


The one option Canberra does not have is the only certain way to revive Australia’s defences- dissolving the electorate, and appointing another.

Sharing Power: America’s strategic choices

April 27, 2013 - Comments Off


The Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College has just published my latest effort, a study of America’s strategic choices and the prospects for a grand strategy based on the two principles of Concert and Balance.

The PDF is free to download. Enjoy!

Iraq: It Takes a President

March 22, 2013 - Comments Off

Some further thoughts on why the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. We’ve had a few posts already now that the tenth anniversary has come. But given the magnitude of the decision and since even its most vocal defenders were caught off guard by how costly, lethal and protracted it was, it is worth lingering on the question.

In varying degrees of sophistication, there is a recurrent argument that the Iraq war flowed out of pre-9/11 developments, with 9/11 itself merely functioning as an enabling event deftly exploited by the war party in Washington. But against the grain of some interpretations, some contingencies and one important individual also mattered.

It is tempting to trace the war back to the rise of the muscular nationalists/neoconservatives in the 1990′s who became influential in the Bush Administration and their view that American foreign policy should be about restoring a martial politics of heroic greatness. The War on Terror became their opportunity to reassert American hegemony. Though they were not particularly haunted by the spectres of terrorism and rogue states before 9/11, these figures readily adapted, framing the new threats as a manifestation of a lack of American presence and power, and the market democracy that is its main export, especially in the Arab-Islamic world.

Accordingly, the Bush II Administration used the sense of security crisis to ram through an idea long in the bloodstream – that Saddam’s existence should never have been tolerated, that the US should have blasted on from the border all the way to Baghdad in 1991, and that it was time for so many reasons to settle accounts. More immediate fears such as WMD were a pretext for a long-held ambition.

There are, however, several reasons to limit this argument. WMD was not a mere pretext – the evidence doesn’t permit that judgment. In fact, it was the one thing that disparate pro-war advocates could agree on, as Paul Wolfowitz has claimed, though as Jeffrey Record has shown, it served more as a totem for a whole range of other agendas, such as creating a pro-American democratic ally in Baghdad and in a vital strategic oil-rich position, removing the main rejectionist Arab regime, avenging the humilitations he had meted out, and restoring fear of American power. While Washington and London presented ambiguous, tentative and uncertain evidence as cast-iron certainty, the record suggests that both governments assumed that whatever the evidence, Saddam had a WMD programme.

And as Jon argued yesterday, to translate the ideas of the Vulcans into a concrete policy decision took a lot of persuasion. It took Democrat votes in the Congress – and they voted for war mostly without even looking at the body of evidence that was available for them to inspect. It took the public to buy it. And it took others in the government to be persuaded that Iraq was an achievable thing. The focus on the neocon cabal can also work as an insidious alibi for liberal hawks to shield themselves with, deflecting blame rather than questioning their own judgment.

And, I would argue, it took a President to change his mind. Along with Colin Dueck and others, there is a case that the individual calculations of Presidents matter in foreign policy decisions, and certainly in this case. Before 9/11, President Bush had shown little interest in statecraft or foreign policy questions. He was an adrift President without any serious unifying ideas about the world, beyond a generalised plea for more humility while also asserting a kind of impolite unilateralism on questions of arms control and striking some tough poses on China. If he privately harboured a serious ambition to attack Iraq, it must have been very secret. Neither was Bush a mere cipher for his wicked advisors, as some seem to argue. On important matters he could stubbornly do what he wanted, defying Vice President Cheney to appoint Colin Powell as Secretary of State, for example.

The question should be – how did the resilient idea of launching a war with Iraq attract the most elite sponsorship?What changed? Putting it crudely, 9/11 changed Bush’s mind about the world and about American security. He concluded that in the volatile and fragile security environment brutally unveiled on 9/11, in the world of fanatical irrational opponents who struck without warning, you have to strike your enemies first. Bush’s evolving world view marked the long erosion of faith in classical doctrines of deterrence and containment.

But that only gets us so far. With that world view, one could also be tempted to attack other perceived rogues, whether Iran or North Korea. Bush chose Saddam for another reason: he had grown more and more confident that he could. Why?

Putting it simply, the Bush Administration was pleasantly surprised at how the war was going in Afghanistan after an autumn of fighting, and drew big conclusions from this particular single campaign. Though Bush spoke publicly of a bold and concerted war effort after 9/11, privately the Administration was scared about fighting in Afghanistan. At an NSC meeting on 15 September after 9/11, Paul Wolfowitz argued that Afghanistan was ‘uncertain’, fearing that 100,000 troops could be bogged down in mountain fighting in six months time, whereas Saddam was breakable. There was great apprehensiveness about Afghanistan’s history of ‘rebuffing outside forces’ and the prospect of mountain fighting, quagmire and even overspill into Pakistan. Afghanistan, so the cliché went, was the graveyard of empires.

Iraq, by contrast and according to well organised Iraqi and Kurdish lobbies in America, was a more modern, more politically centralised, more urban and more middle class society that would embrace the market, free elections and constitutional government. Saddam represented a ramshackle impediment- all that had to be done was remove him, and it would turn out that Iraqis were deep-down Ohio republicans waiting to get out. There were, in fact, reform minded and democratic and capitalist Iraqis. But there was also a far deeper, more penetrating B’aath party system and apparatus, leaving a fractured and frightened society behind. But the Bush Administration believed that because the impulse towards the American way would be natural, it could unleash these forces at its will and timetable.

To get confident enough that America could do this at acceptable cost in Iraq, we should look to the ‘first war’ of the war on terror.In the opening rounds of the war in the graveyard of empires in Central Asia, the US suffered only four combat deaths, smashed and scattered the Taliban with a supposedly new ‘way of war’, marrying air power, cash, special forces and indigenous troops as their spearhead.

Jeffrey Record and Bob Woodward have related how the administration was captivated by its speedy and easy destruction of the Taliban regime and believed it could gain a quick and decisive victory in Iraq. On 21 Nov. 2001, the day Bush instructed Rumsfeld to prepare plans for Iraq, he declared that the Taliban were ‘on the run.’

It was also reflected in the extraordinarily narrow and short-termist war planning, in which the complex and long-term business of birthing a new nation-state out of the B’aathist status quo was reduced to a series of essentially tactical and operational questions of the tempo and direction of invasion, the response to any use of chemical or biological weapons, and how to optimise the physical campaign with the lightest possible footprint. The big picture, of power transition, post-conflict order, political reconciliation and rebuilding would…take care of itself.

So crucially, it took the effects of contingencies (9/11 and the pulse of the Afghan campaign) to turn an unfocused president into a war president with a growing belief in the instrument he commanded. That was the cocktail – a mix of fear (Saddam as intolerable enemy) and confidence (Saddam as easy target).

If there is one pattern worth noting, and if this portrait is useful, it is the wild swing from pessimism to optimism, and the unwise mapping of one war onto another and the hasty flight into a hubristic sense of overwhelming power. Iraq pessimists in 2003 would be wrong because they had been wrong in 1991, even though there was a substantial difference between fighting a limited war of territorial expulsion out of Kuwait and fighting a war of regime change in Iraq. Iraq would succeed because a much harder experiment in Afghanistan was succeeding (a mite too early to make that judgment about Afghanistan in 2001), and a wild misreading of the internal communal politics of Iraq, in which the removal of the brutal Saddam Leviathan might not unleash forces for federal democracy, but under the anarchical conditions of a badly-conceived occupation, could ignite fears that one group would turn on another.

There are plenty of other things of course to say about what caused the war. But the emotions and shifting calculations of war matter. Bush, on one hand, was scared in 2003. But he was also not scared enough.

World War III on a Dime

February 4, 2013 - Comments Off

The Global War on Terror in its first decade was marked by a disregard for costs. As Stephen Biddle defined it, the effort to eliminate terrorism (a method of war) of the world-reaching variety through a global liberal crusade. This amounted to the pursuit of ‘absolute security’ – and at almost any price. This was not just an American ideology about pursuing security through launching ambitious wars. It was also articulated strongly by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But since the Global Financial Crisis and the wider debt-deficit problem afflicting the Euro-Atlantic world, new austerities mean that the formula has changed. The stated aims and rhetoric are still similar. But now that resources are scarce, the commitment of resources is far more limited.

So in response to the appearance of Al Qaeda offshoots in Algeria and Mali, Prime Minister David Cameron calls Al Qaeda an ‘existential threat’, a ‘generational’ one and a ‘global one.’ So few limits are recognised on the scope and stakes involved, and there is little discrimination or ranking of interests. The ultimate aim of this struggle is not to contain the Al Qaeda network until it becomes a marginal nuisance. It is eradication, or in Cameron’s words ‘ ‘not containment but trying over time to completely overcome them.’ A threat spawning in North Africa, it seems, directly threatens British existence, though it isn’t clear how.

Yet the extent of his commitment to this epochal war is modest. A spyplane, a few advisors, a few hundred troops. Cameron may be the hawkish idealist who has discovered Africa as a haven of terrorism, bloodshed and chaos that the West must rescue and help pacify. But he is also the austerity Prime Minister who continues to cut the defence budget seriously. Cameron might respond that he is trying also to galvanise an international coalition. But short of American or African political will, we know that it will be the Western Atlantic guardians who will be expected to do most of the heavy lifting.

This contradiction – between Cameron’s maximalist rhetoric and limited material commitment – is his response to security crises. Its not necessarily imprudent to scale back on resources, or to have far-reaching aims. But it is a mistake to unbalance the relationship between the two. The size of the policy should be proportionate to the resources and capabilities in hand, and vice versa.

It was not a good thing to conduct a war on terror regardless of cost. But its also disturbing that Cameron apparently disregards the proper relationship between ends and means.

First, rhetoric can trap those who utter it. Bellicose warnings and calls to arms generate expectations of commitment and can create a standard against which one is judged. Cameron announces, effectively, a world war while seriously weakening the country’s ability to conduct (and especially sustain) military operations. The service chiefs have noticed.

Secondly, one of the reasons that the War on Terror has been so exhausting and so costly has been our habit of speaking about the adversary without proportionality, the failure to measure risks and costs soberly. To speak of Al Qaeda, an increasingly marginal, incapable network whose flair for mass casualty terrorism has been weakened, which increasingly loathed in the Muslim world and which was irrelevant to the Arab Spring as an ‘existential threat’ is perverse, but it is precisely that misperception that gives Al Qaeda its most serious basis for future mischief. We are still open to reacting to their provocations in a self-defeating way.

Thirdly, we continue to speak as though the violent chaos of the world is an external thing ‘out there’ that must be tamed by our active intervention as an agent of order. It isn’t actually clear that the world is more dangerous, as Cameron and others keep telling us, than during the Cold War. But isn’t it time we recognised that we are part of that violent chaos? Britain’s war in Libya, which some warned would have unintended consequences, helped to empower the Islamists now threatening Mali and indeed cause a proliferation of Islamist militias, just as it turned Libya over to new torturers and vengeful partisans, a place where black Africans are unsafe to go.

Liberal hawks derided us at the time for catastrophising from the experience of the Iraq war, just as they now urge us to sharpen our swords for a good hard crack at Syria. They blithely move from war to war, revisiting their tactical doctrines and lessons learned, but their idealistic and moralistic conception of the West as Saviour is never in doubt, despite the mounting evidence of the limitations on our power and on our knowledge, and the deadliness of our good intentions.

Finally, this word ‘global.’ What does it mean? Does it mean that Al Qaeda’s power and capabilities are evenly distributed throughout the world. Well, they aren’t. The best they can usually do in the West’s backyard is blow up their underwear. Does it mean that events somewhere must implicate and threaten us? Well, now that we’re watching, its quite difficult to project power from the third world against western core interests, and most jihad is local, not global. What it means most of all is that to question these crusades is to be, gasp, provincial. What globalists call provincial, we might instead call strategic.

Planning to be Shocked

December 28, 2012 - Comments Off

One of the most repeated, and most dubious, axioms about strategy is the notion that being proactive is wiser than being reactive, and that reactivity is something we should be allergic to. In the words of Briain’s foreign secretary William Hague, ‘the nation that is purely reactive in foreign policy is in decline.’

Likewise, written into the folklore of the US foreign policy establishment is the notion that the ‘strategic shocks’ that struck America – such as Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor or 9/11 – happened because Washington was passively sleeping. A quick read of Presidential speeches on the anniversary of that attack shows how powerful the creed of active vigilantism lives on, even if it doesn’t power all of America’s day to day behaviour.

Never mind that a prehistory of activism triggered both crises, whether an escalating conflict in the form of economic warfare with Japan, or deep entanglement with the very regimes that galvanised Al Qaeda to take its war to the far enemy. The logic still goes: it is wiser to be active, shape the environment so that it precludes threats.

The trouble with being proactive is that it implies a confidence about forecasting the future. What if world politics is too chaotic to anticipate? Can we make strategy if we can’t predict? This problem is implicit within many ‘strategic’ documents and general theories of strategy – which start by announcing that the future is unpredictable, before going on to…predict it.


This post runs a little against the spirit of the year 2012. After all, what a year it has been for the issue of prognostication in politics. As in moneyball, when the scientific statisticians and big-data interpreters triumph over the primitive ‘gut instinct’ scouts of the Oakland A’s, so too in US domestic politics have the ‘quants’ such as Nate Silver shown that voting behaviour can be forecast with spooky accuracy with big enough data and rigorous enough method.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that international life isn’t as open to being forecast, that for a range of reasons, the world can’t have a Nate Silver, or at least not yet. Triggering events that precipitate revolutions are by definition hard to foretell. The little contingencies that tilt actors towards and away from conflict likewise. As for surprise attacks, often it isn’t a lack of data, but too much information and too much noise, and too much deception, out of which it is hard to extract meaningful intelligence. If that weren’t difficult enough, sometimes the experience of intelligence failure, such as the invasion that doesn’t happen, can desensitise regimes to the actual one. Warning failure has a long and dispiriting history.

In wider political contexts, expert prediction also apparently has a dismal record, roughly at the accuracy rate of dart throwing monkeys. Some of the liveliest expert minds have gotten big things so very wrong, such as the CIA regional guru praising the Shah’s stabilising rule six months before the Revolution. As for the fall of the Berlin Wall, not many scholars could say I told you so.

The belief in noble activism above futile ‘reactivism’ does not just flow from an overconfidence about the knowability of the future. It can also be symptomatic of an ideology about one’s own place in world order.  Some documents, such as the National Security Strategies on both sides of the pond, tend to portray a world that is chaotic and dangerous, but cast their own nations as bringers of order into that chaos, rather than unwitting agents of it. Being proactive – or indeed pre-emptive -in itself can generate trouble and blowback.

So what? If international life is too full of surprises, and if foreign policy activism can generate chaos that it never imagined, where does that leave strategy? Two contrasting responses might be that we should refine our predictive tools and methods. Alternatively, as some diplomats say quietly behind the scenes, we should abandon strategic planning as a fictitious and unrealistic exercise, and just react as we go along.

But there is a third response: maybe we can get better at horizon scanning up to a point, at least to be more aware of warning signals in general if not in particular, and to have a better idea of the spectrum of possibilities. But waybe we should also reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of shock as a constant feature of international life.

In that case, there is a form of strategy that deserves more serious thinking. It is what Walter Lippmann referred to as building up a ‘comfortable surplus of power’ in reserve. We can’t know exactly when or how shocks will turn up, whether on the Korean peninsula or in the Persian Gulf. But less activism and obsession with controlling the environment in advance would free up resources and time to deal with the unexpected and unknown. A reconception of military power not as an instrument to be continually expended and used, but as an insurance policy that is valuable even if it is mostly in the background, would help. And, in a measure, an acceptance of chaos and a touch more reactivism would help us resist the very ideology of confident hyper-activism that makes us so shock-able in the first place.

New Edition of Infinity

October 10, 2012 - Comments Off

With apologies for blogging scarcity lately, I recommend reading the latest offerings from Infinity Journal.

Its a Special Edition on the subject of Strategic Misfortunes, which we’ve seen rather a lot of lately.




Is Victory Bad for Business?

August 15, 2012 - Comments Off

All wars end. Or do they?

Rather too often, we are being reminded that the ‘war on terror’ against the Al Qaeda terrorist network is far from over, in fact that it will never end and even, that it can never end. One military analyst, for example,

“a former employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the US, states OBL and his closest circle in Pakistan were hardly influential to AQ franchises and affiliates. In his last few years as AQ’s leader, OBL was never concerned in the operational aspects of AQ. This perhaps means that the death of OBL, though a great success for counterterrorism, will not greatly affect AQ and its operations around the world, for example, AQ in the Arab Peninsula has been permitted to operate against the Gulf rulers without any open meddling from AQ’s inner leadership.

Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies states AQ has had ten years to attain another leader, has formed strong and international cells and superfluous networks, and has found alternative sites throughout the world. AQ is still a large threat and the US and its allies still have a long way to go in the war against terrorism.”

Really? Firstly, the body of evidence uncovered from Osama Bin Laden’s hideout contradicts these statements. He was far more than a figurehead or ‘rock star’ icon of dark charisma. He tried to maintain an intricate bureaucratic chain of command while realising that there were franchises that were semi-autonomous. OBL was still influential, he was giving orders, he took great interest in the operational side of his movement, and he did have resources at his disposal. And in the cases where he was not fully in control, OBL recognised what some Western observers don’t, that the loosening of the structure came at a high price, enabling the counter-productive behaviour of Al Qaeda affiliates, imitators and franchises and leading to a crisis of legitimacy for the network, from Algeria to Iraq. Indeed, in their own audits and self-assessments, Al Qaeda Central were more willing to entertain the idea of their own failure than many Western analysts.

Secondly, how is AQ still a ‘large threat’ to the security of the United States and its allies in any measure? Against Western targets, it has failed to pull off a complex, mass casualty assault of the 9/11 variety in over ten years since 9/11, and since 2003-2005, none of the lesser scale of a 7/7 or Madrid bombing. It has become wildly unpopular and suffered violent blowback in lands it regards as sacred to its cause, like Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Its attempts at even low-tech attacks in the West have been disrupted and/or ineffective. Third-order nuisance maybe, non-trivial concern in places like Somalia and Syria perhaps, downright lethal still in its car bombings occasionally in Iraq, but ‘large threat’? When its brand is at best marginal amongst most protesting masses in the Arab Spring, how dangerous is it, in terms of translating violence into political results?

The killing of Bin Laden removed one of the networks most skilful, iconic and seasoned players. The regular killing of his subordinate commanders has also drained it of hard-won skills. Terrorism isn’t an instant capability that anyone can acquire at the click of a mouse. It takes experience, group cohesion, a high level of political will, operational security and a range of intellectual and technical abilities.

No doubt violently draining the network of talented folk can produce blowback and have ‘martyring’ effects. But to announce that Bin Laden was just a figurehead, a borderline irrelevance, and that this World War must continue as though the adversary is just as potent as it was on 10 September, is to perpetuate one of the most serious errors of the War on Terror, the failure to measure risks and costs soberly.

There is also a more unfortunate side to this debate: the refusal of professional experts at times to acknowledge not only that AQ has taken hits to its credibility and cohesion, but to acknowledge that it even could. Is it bad for business to recognise when the object of one’s intellectual fascination is fading in importance?

The War on Terror provided many people with a chance to build an industry around worrying about terrorism and warning that the threat is dire and almost never-ending. The last thing they would want would be to admit that the death of OBL and his subordinates has been a serious blow, or the policy implications flowing from it, that we can scale back our global efforts to conventional, day-to-day counter-terrorism. That would be bad for business.

But for those who disagree, please consider this: what would defeat, or marginalisation, look like? If you are saying that Al Qaeda is still a large threat worthy of an ongoing, top-priority war, what are your criteria for our success and their failure?

Why Worry about an Iranian Bomb?

August 5, 2012 - Comments Off

With sanctions and talks – and a big stick in the background – the United States and its allies are trying to curtail Tehran’s nuclear programme. Australia is playing its part. Canberra recently blocked a shipment of industrial equipment to Iran. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, believes preventing a nuclear Iran is vital. Is he right?

Kenneth Waltz thinks not. The celebrated American political scientist says we should redefine the problem. The real difficulty in the Gulf is not Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he argues. It is the fact that one state in the area (Israel) has a nuclear monopoly. An Iranian bomb would be a good thing. It would create a healthy balance of power, and restore equilibrium to an anxious region. Far from being the crisis, Waltz sees an Iranian bomb as the solution.

At this stage, his argument is hypothetical. To the best of our knowledge, it is not clear that the Islamic Republic has decided to go beyond uranium enrichment and build a bomb. It is not clear that it will. Efforts to dissuade it through economic sanctions, threats of regime change or actual military action may work. Or they may be perverse, motivating Tehran to go for weaponisation.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa against the making and use of nuclear weapons in 2005. Yet if Iran changes its mind, it has a doctrine of flexibility that it used during the Iran-Iraq war to justify starting a chemical weapons programme, allowing the needs of the Islamic Republic in extremis to trump Islamic law.

But if Iran keeps enriching to weapons-grade level, what then?

Waltz builds his case on a reading of diplomatic history. This is where the mischief lies. Claiming that the emergence of two nuclear states stabilises regions, he points approvingly to the example of India and Pakistan.

In doing so, he steps lightly over the history of standoffs, confrontations and escalations between those adversaries, whose mutual fears are worsened by ongoing clashes in disputed territories and the ambiguous role of armed proxies.  

In the wake of 9/11, a Pakistani army general warned India that his country could launch a rapid nuclear attack, telling Alastair Campbell to remind the Indians: ‘It takes us eight seconds to get the missiles over.’ If this volatile frontier is a signpost of things to come in the Gulf, then the future is dark.

Waltz also builds his case on a rosy view of nuclear deterrence in the Cold War (1947-1989). For him, nukes have a constraining effect because of their own terrifying logic. Mutually Assured Destruction works. After all, the world has had multiple nuclear states in it since 1949, without a nuclear war.

But we have come close. In the Cold War, despite a deterrence system in a supposedly ‘stable’ bipolar contest, there were still a series of high-stakes ‘near misses’ where fear, misperception, false alarms or system errors nearly resulted in nuclear war. In 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged the Kennedy Administration to attack Cuba, not knowing that Soviet combat forces possessed nuclear-tipped missiles and were authorised to use them. A Soviet submarine commander believed the war had started, and had to be dissuaded by fellow officers not to fire a nuclear torpedo. It was bad enough with two adversaries familiar with each other. A world of more nuclear states makes it harder still. We have avoided Armaggeddon through luck, not just statecraft.

So we should be cautious about Waltz’s ahistorical faith in a stable deterrence system.

More deeply, we should not be narrowly obsessed with the issue of rationality and intentions. Waltz and others assure us that a nuclear Iran would be well behaved, that nukes have a constraining effect. Pessimists often claim the opposite. They fear that a nuclear Iran would be more dangerous than deterrable adversaries such as the Soviet Union, because the theocratic regime is mad and/or bad.

These fears are questionable. That the regime is homicidal does not necessarily make it suicidal. Its commitment to survival was clear during the Green uprisings of 2009. It barks aggressively, but its bite is underwhelming. Recall its hollow threat to block the Straits of Hormuz. It has sound defensive reasons to acquire a nuclear deterrent given its dangerous neighbourhood, encircled by enemy forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and now an Israeli airbase in Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, Israel could be forgiven for staying alert. Tehran has made death threats against it. It officially sponsored a holocaust denial conference. ‘Death to Israel’ is its populist catch cry. Do we expect a people that has been through genocide and wars of survival to dismiss such rhetoric as mere words? As a holocaust survivor once said, ‘if someone says they want to kill you, believe them.’ A nuclear Iran would frighten Tel Aviv, not to mention Riyadh and Cairo, however reasonable those fears would be. That in itself is dangerous.

The issue is not whether Iran or any state is mad or bad. The issue is that they are uncertain, insecure and lack full knowledge. The existential fears of Iran and Israel are strong. They have no strong dialogue in which to signal and communicate. All this is ripe for accident or error. It makes nuclear weapons a problem when they eyeball each other.

Even if Iran turned out to be a sober and responsible nuclear power, the danger would be considerable. A Gulf with two nuclear enemies in it could generate a witches’ brew of fear, suspicion, sabre rattling and a fresh arms race. That could take the region – and the world – to the brink.  

Eyeball to Eyeball

June 17, 2012 - Comments Off

I’ve got an op-ed in the Australian press today about the cold wars on Australia’s doorstep in the future.

So if you’re desperate for entertainment, here it is. 

War, Choice and the Shadow of World War Two

June 3, 2012 - Comments Off

For those having a seriously slow afternoon, my latest academic rant is about to hit the press.

It argues that the ‘war of choice’ versus ‘war of necessity’ binary is a shallow and misleading form of rhetoric, that dodges the vital question of what the stakes are in any given conflict, and what is worth bleeding for.

It also argues that the terms of debate in the United States were shaped powerfully by the collective memory of World War Two, recalled as a war imposed upon America by Axis aggressors. But actually, even that war was a matter of discretion for Washington, generated partly because Franklin Roosevelt willingly stepped into conflicts abroad well before the shooting wars began. And then, there were many different ways America could choose to fight that war, according to theatre, liability and cost.

As it happens, I’m glad America did intervene – but a counterfactual analysis shows that the case for entry in terms of national security rigorously defined is a much closer call than often realised. And if its true, as I argue, that this was a marginal and highly discretionary decision, what does that say about conflicts against lesser adversaries ever since?



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 95 other followers