Dienstag, 29. November 2011

Modern Classics in War and Warfare - XII

When a couple of weeks ago, the United States Attorney General announced the indictment of various suspects who were allegedly planning to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, many if not most felt that such a brazen plan could hardly enjoy the endorsement of the Iranian leadership. Too dangerous, too risky, and too belligerent a move that the always careful Iranian theocracy could have possibly ordered it. One is well advised, however, to take a step back and remember that the Iranian leadership—and I do mean this Iranian leadership—is responsible for a whole number of politically motivated assassinations and terror plots. In the 1990s, shortly after Ali Khamenei became Supreme Leader, Tehran was going on the offensive. In 1990 a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Sweden had failed and shorty thereafter exiled opposition leaders were murdered in Vienna. But my own country has seen one of the most brutal plots the Iranian leadership had mounted. In 1992 exiled opposition leaders from the Kurdish region of Iran were meeting at a Berlin restaurant, the Mykonos, when gunmen entered and killed four of the politicians gathered. Thus, on the soil of Germany, state-sponsored terrorism had been carried out a mere two decades ago. I can write that with all certainty, because it is not just an allegation, it has been proven in a court of law. In 1996 a German court sentenced the gunmen carrying out these attacks. But it also ruled that those who ordered it, were sitting in Tehran and could not stand trial, the most important of them former Iranian intelligence minister Fallahin, who is today serving on the Expediency Council, one of Iran's most important political bodies, responsible among other things, for choosing Iran's Supreme leader. Such is the leadership of a state that is now developing nuclear weapons. The story is being told in a book that has hit the shelves in a rather timely fashion: Roya Hakakian's Assassins of the Turquoise Palace.

It is indeed an entertaining book that takes the reader through the events of 1992 and the subsequent trial in Berlin in a rapid pace (at times, however, a little too rapid). Roya Hakakian had the lovely idea of ridiculing the theocracy while describing their heinous acts by starting each chapter with a quote from an Iranian satirist, the very people the regime was and is waging war against (to give you an idea, yours truly feels obliged to give you an example: “Nietzsche's famous Thus Spoke Zarathustra finally cleared the censors at the ministry of culture when its title was changed to Thus Spoke the Ayatollah.”). But the point really is that the Iranian theocracy has had an extensive programme with which it tried to assassinate no less than 500 political leaders, writers, and intellectuals in exile. We do not yet know whether the culprits of the botched assassination plan in the United States were acting on orders of the Iranian regime. The trouble for Tehran, however, is that it would fit a pattern. A pattern most have forgotten but that Roya Hakakian reminds us of.

Dienstag, 22. November 2011

In Defence of Foreign Aid

The final quarter of a year is always when things are getting really busy, though I have no earthly idea why. Rushing from one commitment to another, I have little time to digest daily news. But what former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and Norm Coleman put out on politico is worth reading and, well, noting. This year's presidential debates have shown a bunch of Republican candidates largely out of touch with international affairs. With the notable exception of John Huntsman, they hardly seem to have a grasp on what is going on, in a world where knowing what that sound is, has become more important than at any other time before. One simply has to feel flabbergasted when most of them, even the serious ones like Rick Perry, suggest that cutting back on foreign aid is a particularly lovely idea to save the budget. Increasing foreign aid was one of the most important successes of the Bush-administration and having a group of presidential contenders running away from such a legacy is really dispiriting. But then again, of the current crop, I'd have to endorse Huntsman. Though I've got the vague feeling that that doesn't carry much weight in New Hampshire.   

Donnerstag, 17. November 2011

The U.S. in Asia - Not That Much of a Shift, Mind You

The leading political paper in Germany is—as one might recall even outside Germany—Der SPIEGEL and I remember vividly that when I first developed an interest in politics some two decades ago, I took to the weekly for my insight into the world. But in recent years, the weekly cannot really pride itself in its journalism. Instead it has often taken an alarmist tone, even when that would defy reality. Commenting on President Obama's visit to Australia, the paper ran an article today called Obama provoking the red leaders, characterising Obama's policy in the Pacific as a fundamental re-orientation of the United States' foreign policy. That is quite a strong statement, considering that the Pacific ocean and the South China Sea have been a focus of international security policy for more than a decade now, with the U.S. being involved in it to a larger extent ever since George W. Bush managed a rapprochement with Vietnam in the early 2000s. And sometimes the paper is getting outright absurd in its coverage, arguing today that the U.S. is not only about to permanently station U.S. Marines in the North of Australia but also warships and fighter jets in a move to encircle China. Even though up to 2.500 Marines will permanently rotate through Australia, the part on the increased presence of fighter jets could not possible be more off the mark. What the agreement does say is that the United States will be allowed to use the facilities of the Royal Australian Air Force for its own planes, which is quite different from establishing a permanent base for fighter jets (which would be nonsense anyway, since no jet in the U.S. arsenal could do much about the South China Sea from a base in Northern Australia, you know, the stuff about range, refuelling, overflight rights, etc. I am just saying...).

Is this really provoking the Chinese? Well, in a sense, certainly. But not because Chinese interests are really threatened. The People's Republic has replaced its long-standing foreign policy rationale of a peaceful rise with a more assertive stance in the South China Sea. A sense of entitlement to predominance in an area, where other sovereign states have just as legitimate interests (Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia). Beijing can hardly be surprised that its military build-up is being met with these powers having an interest in an American counterbalance. And in that sense, its China that really invited the U.S. But 2.500 Marines and access to some air force and naval facilities are not going to change the military balance in the region and given China's recently made gains in anti-ship and area-denial systems, even an additional U.S. carrier group would not tilt the balance more in the U.S.' favour. What is missing in the picture presented not only by SPIEGEL is that China's neighbours are investing in their armies and navies as well, investments that are far more important than a slightly increased U.S. naval presence—even though that remains an important stabilising factor in the Pacific.  

Montag, 14. November 2011

The Indian Bid for Fresh Fighter Jets Revisited


Now, as some of you may recall, I've recently lambasted the gifted colleagues of the American Enterprise Institute for arguing that the Indians were truly making a mistake by not buying F-18s and instead focusing on possible procurement of the French Rafale or the Eurofighter Typhoon. I feel largely vindicated by Michael Mazza's latest post, in which he welcomes the possible sell of F-35s to India. Just as I've argued, its about getting the right amount of bang for a particular amount of bucks. And as a matter of principle, selling the F-35 is actually an idea that appears to be more attractive from the view of India's security environment as well. It'll piss of the Pakistanis, of course, but then again, Tom Ricks had a rather valid point on that recently: "Pakistan is now an enemy of the United States." More on that to come.

We better stop, hey, what's that sound - A new War in Sudan?

As Buffalo Springfield once wrote: there's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear. If what the press is reporting is true, the formation of a new Sudanese rebel group—the Sudanese Revolutionary Front—is a remarkable new development in the war-torn country. After all, the secession of South Sudan earlier this year has brought one of Africa's most devastating civil wars to an end. Or so it seemed at the time. In the end, the Sudanese Revolutionary Front brings together the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the SPLM-N. In all those cases, the question really is, whether the formation of a new conglomerate of rebel movements is a sign of weakness or strength. Overcoming splits and different agendas speaks to the latter—the new movement has already laid out an agenda of overthrowing Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's current leader—whereas the formation itself can also been seen as the result of struggling movements under intense military pressure. And this is certainly true for JEM, which has been hit hard by the government in its area of operations, Darfur. Not coincidentally, JEM has long been the platform used by Hassan al-Turabi to get back at his one time political ally Omar al-Bashir. By the way, the conflict has led to renewed calls for a no-fly, though I spare you the feasibility-debate on that particular issue. As far as SLA and SPLM-N are concerned, these groups are basically leftovers of the SPLM/A, the liberation movement that succeeded in its secessionist bid with the formation of South Sudan. Put differently, there are strong indications for both interpretations.

Which also leaves me asserting this. Though state failure has received a lot of attention in the wake of the Somali, Yemeni and Afghan conflicts, what is less analysed is the nature of state-failure. Somalia and Afghanistan basically imploded, whereas Sudan seems to be failing on its periphery. I'll get into this another time. But what we do know is this, if I may put in terms, that might sound familiar. There's a man with a gun over there. Its Bashir and its time for him to go. 

Montag, 7. November 2011

Loosing China's Soft Power

Photo courtesy of US Army on Flickr

It is now well known that China's somewhat inevitable rise to being one of the world's most powerful nations is creating some backlash among its Asian neighbours (take a look at all the China stuff I put out on this blog). But what is hardly covered is the full extent of this sometimes painful relationship. With its newly gained prominence, the Chinese leadership is often finding itself abandoning its long-held philosophy of a peaceful rise and is instead bragging about, what it calls, its anti-imperialist legacy. Neighbouring nations are often fringing at the imagery China employs. Vietnam's elite—Vietnam is of course itself a rising power—has seen its record in fighting American and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam war called into question by largely inflated claims by China's elite about its role in the fight. It might indeed be one of the reasons why the Vietnamese elite, despite the Vietnam war, is trying to forge a close alliance with the U.S. I am currently reading Andrew Wiest's highly readable collection of essays in Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land and came across this short piece written by Bui Tin, himself a veteran of the Vietnam war whilst serving in the armed forces of the North:

“The Chinese inflated their importance when they claimed that 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese troops had fought in the American air war. In truth, the Chinese supplied about 40 gun squads, belonging to 12 battalions, and four regiments of air defense, along with several corps of army engineers and various transportation, communication, logistics, and medial units. These rotated through the country in two-to-three-month cycles, from 1966 until 1972, when they were recalled. They were stationed north of the Hong River, at the request of the People's Liberation Army of China, who wanted their troops 'to get combat experience suited for modern warfare and learn about the activities of the American Air Force.' At Vietnam's request, the Chinese soldiers lived in the jungle away from Vietnamese population, to avoid trading between the two peoples and the formation of relationships between the Chinese soldiers and local women. The local Vietnamese disdained the Chinese for being on a 'wild turkey shoot.' The Chinese expended great amounts of ammunition, shooting skyward while reciting Mao's slogans and waving his little red book over their heads, but they never downed a single American aircraft.”