Strategic Depth and Obama’s Rejuvenation of Global Arms Control

Steve Clemons in his summation of President Obama’s winning streak on nuclear issues invokes the notion of “strategic depth” (“Obama’s Nuclear Wizardry and the Iran Factor“, Politico, 13 April 2010). It’s not an uncommon term, but one rarely given much by way of explication. Fortunately Mr. Clemons isn’t just breaking it out to conceptually pad his article, in that he calls out an element of this week’s accomplishments that serves as an excellent illustration of the idea:

In a quick succession of deals focused on pre-empting a 21st-century nuclear nightmare, Obama has mended the foundation and infrastructure of a global nonproliferation regime that United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Vice President Dick Cheney and others of the pugnacious nationalist wing of the last administration worked hard to tear down.

And, by bringing together 47 key leaders, Obama is signaling to all stakeholders that a nuclear crisis with Iran and other potential breakout states would undermine the global commons.

Yet he is not vilifying Iran or its leaders. He is not making the same “axis of evil” mistake President George W. Bush did.

Instead, Obama is showing the benign and constructive side of U.S. power to other great states like India, China, Brazil and Russia. He is also inviting Iran to get in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and get back into a club that matters — where Iran could be respected for adopting a sensible course.

The Obama administration is restoring the non-proliferation norm to “a club that matters.” For the previous administration, either a state wanted to adopt a certain policy, or they didn’t; there was no context in which they may have preferred to do one thing over another, so there was no need to apply the nation’s diplomatic energies to construction any particular sort of international régime.

That was a strategically thin diplomacy. If it appears that the future of the international system is the gradual breakdown of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if the system is lowly regarded, treated with apathy and abandonment on the part of the great powers, if declining compliance and the emergence of a number of new nuclear powers seems the likely future, then there is little to recommend compliance or membership. What incentive is there to join a system one anticipates failing in the near future?

But if the NPT seems the way of the future, if great energies are devoted to shoring up and extending the non-proliferation framework, compliance is the norm among the respectable states, if the nuclear powers are making headway toward their Article VI obligations, if the possibility of new nuclear powers seems increasingly remote, then that’s a strategic context in which an entirely different set of decisions will seem the best means to a country’s objectives of security, prestige, diplomatic latitude and so on.

Further, broadening the circle of compliance and advocacy takes some of the lime light off of the United States. This makes it much more palatable to recalcitrant elements. In the case of Iran, if faced with knuckling under to the hated United States, the answer will certainly be no. If asked to cow to a group of flunkeys subordinate to the United States, the prospects won’t be much improved. But joining the global consensus among nations is something they might do. It allows them to save face among their citizens and their international constituents should they chose to back away from their nuclear program.

By imbuing the present architecture with a sense of a bright future, increasing compliance and broad support, the Obama administration is bringing the weight of a whole international system to bare on Iran. This seems like a program with more potential than just the usual carrots and sticks.

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The Mullahs Killed Michael Jackson

[Editor’s Warning: elitist liberal moralizing to follow]

Dan Savage:

The Iranian regime has accused the CIA of killing Neda in order to win sympathy for the protesters and create disorder in Iran. I accuse the Iranian regime of killing Michael Jackson to end all coverage of the protests in Iran on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC.

(“The Mullahs Killed Michael Jackson,” SLOG, The Stranger, 25 June 2009)

It’s unfortunate that the public and the media are so transfixed by the solipsistic, bread-and-circus phantasmagoria. Entertainment trumps world history every time.

When Realpolitik and Principle Converge

Apropos my two previous posts about keeping non-proliferation goals in the mix with democracy permotion, Matthew Yglesias spells out the logic for why this is probably not tenable (“Engagement With a Post-Crackdown Iran,” Think Progress, 23 June 2009):

The hope behind an engagement strategy was that the Supreme Leader might be inclined to side with the more pragmatic actors inside the system — guys like former president Rafsanjani and former prime minister Mousavi. With those people, and most of the Iranian elites of their ilk, now in open opposition to the regime, any crackdown would almost by definition entail the sidelining of the people who might be interested in a deal. Iran would essentially be in the hands of the most hardline figures, people who just don’t seem interested in improving relations with other countries. Under the circumstances, the whole subject of American engagement may well wind up being moot.

So maybe the realpolitik and the principled position have converged here. All-in with the dissidents may be the only option that can produce progress on the nuclear issue at this point.

The Approaching Moment of Decision

A terrible moment of decision is rapidly approaching where the outcome of the revolution in Iran will be determined. It has been said — and I largely agree — that the fate of Iran is for the Iranians and there is little that the United States can do. But little is not nothing and should the prospects of the dissidents begin to dim, that little will become much greater in stature. The Obama administration faces a dilemma here — a real dilemma that leaders in the real world face (discouragingly, one must add this last qualification because on the right there is no acknowledgement that our means are limited and our objectives trade-off here). The United States presently has two objectives with respect to Iran:

  1. We would like to do reach an agreement regarding their nuclear program. The best situation would be that they abandon enrichment altogether, but one where they pursued a nuclear energy program, but verifiably ruled out weaponizing their nuclear material would suffice.

  2. We would like to see a liberalized, less theocratic Iran. This is in part the traditional, principled position of United States, but it is also practical. A liberal democratic Iran will have a moderating effect on the rest of the Middle East, that epicenter of that global war on terrorism that we are fighting. And a liberal democratic Iran will presumably be less likely to provide support to militant elements in Palestine.

Presumably if two obtains, that will be progress toward one. A new, popular, modernizing régime looking to distinguish itself from its predecessor will be much more willing to deal with the United States and the Obama administration will have much less problem with its domestic constituents in dealing with such an Iran.

Alternately, no matter what the United States does, should President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei succeeded in their bid to retain power, it will have become considerably more difficult for the President — any president for some time to come — to make progress on the nuclear issue. However, should the United States throw its weight behind the second objective and the Iranian dissidents fail, then the prospects for future progress on the nuclear issue will be even worse still than if we hadn’t — perhaps lost altogether. Not only will it be extremely difficult for any U.S. administration to deal with Iran, the Iranian government will return to the siege mentality of the 1980s and will perhaps — evidence that foreign powers will act to destroy the régime in hand — conclude that a nuclear deterrent is a necessity if the régime is to survive.

I have generally agreed with the position of restraint that the administration has taken. This is the Iranians’ struggle and strong words only make us feel puffed up — they do nothing for the Iranians. But that time may be coming to a close. Indications are that the Iranian government is moving with increasing forcefulness to suppress the dissidents. This is an effort that the government will win. Dissidents can route the police when it’s rocks versus batons. When the machine guns come out, it will be a different story. We cannot decide this conflict, but we can tilt the balance. The international community can make the government of Iranian aware that the consequences of suppressing its citizens extend beyond its own domestic politics. And perhaps — perhaps — this could bring them to the tipping point, or cause them to draw back from what they are about, or change the calculus of costs where a compromise solution becomes desirable.

But the United States and the Obama administration have to carefully weigh its principles and its objectives, its possibilities of success versus its consequences of failure. I’m not going to game it out here, but the range of options, consequences and rewards and probabilities attaching to each one should be fairly obvious. The nuclear issue is real and momentous and it would be terrible to sacrifice what possibility for progress exists chasing pie in the sky. But our principles are real too. It would be terrible for us to sacrifice them to cynical realpolitik over meager tactics when another world is possible. But not everything is possible and the future is uncertain. Judgment and luck are all that there is.

The Red Right Hand of Iran

The green hand of peace or the red hand of war? Iran, June 2009

Many hearts were warmed by this image of a moment of faction-spanning solidarity between subject and apparatus of state — and rightly so: this is an amazing image.

A demonstrator rescues a beleaguered riot policeman, Iran, 13 June 2009

Unfortunately this moment is now past. Tiananmen is upon the Iranians and the next member of the security forces to find himself at the mercy of protesters will — rightly — not find such sympathetic arms within reach.

Andrew Sullivan’s coverage drawing together a diversity of sources from twitter, YouTube and so on, portrays a startling picture of what’s happened in Iran over the course of the day yesterday (“Live-Blogging Day 8, The Daily Dish, The Atlantic Monthly, 20 June 2009). The cable news networks have definitely recovered from their weekend failure, but Mr. Sullivan is the gold standard on media innovation right now.

I desperately hope that the modernizing force of young people in Iran prevail, but in the maneuvers of the régime three are three significant cause for pessimism:

  1. All indications are that it is primarily in the willingness of the régime to compromise, capitulate or go quietly into oblivion that régimes fall. Given the power of modern militaries, unless dissidents are willing and able to fight a protracted guerilla campaign, states succeed in putting down rebellions. The Iranian régime is indicating that it has decided to dig in and fight. There is a level of drastic measures from which a state cannot subsequently step back. Demonstrators become radicalized by violence, state agents become inexpiable. They are probably already past the point of no return with respect to offering a compromise.

  2. A major determining factor of the success or failure of the demonstrators is in how the police and military react. It is incumbent upon the régime to keep the security forces apart from the rest of society. Should the police and military sympathize, judge the protesters correct, or find their own lives too enmeshed with those of the demonstrators, they may defect, or simply do nothing. Rumor is that the Basij militia, a special band of the Revolutionary Guard, can be herd speaking Arabic to one another. That is, they are not Iranians, but foreign mercenaries imported by the régime. They are not stakeholders in Iranian society and have no bonds to the people they are brutalizing, and thus can be counted upon to do the bidding of the régime in a way that other security forces might not.

  3. The régime is eschewing the sort of media nightmare of direct confrontation in favor of terrorizing demonstrators in isolation. Specifically the Basij militia are tracking protesters during the day, but waiting until cover of night when demonstrators go home and are isolated from the safety of large groups to conduct their assassinations, beatings and abductions (MacFarquhar, Neil, “Shadowy Iranian Vigilantes Vow Bolder Action,” New York Times, 19 June 2009, p. A12). There are rumors of houses being marked for later attacks. Actions such as these could have a medium-term intimidating effect that will simply wear down the demonstrators.

The Iranian government is staffed by seasoned counterrevolutionaries. They are conducting an astute repression of the demonstrations. There are only three things that can defeat the régime at this point: quick adaptation, brute determination of average Iranians and luck.

Protests in Other Countries

Businessman protester, Tehran, Iran, 13 June 2009

What’s amazing about protests in other countries is what pedestrian affairs they are. Look at this protester from Iran. In his right hand is a menacingly large piece of concrete. Obviously you don’t throw something that big and hard without intent to do serious damage. But look at his left hand. He’s got his briefcase and a folded up newspaper. And look at his outfit. He’s wearing his kakis and a work shirt. And are those the earphones of his iPod in front of his face? (I can just see Apple’s next iPod commercial: colored silhouettes of protesters in street battles, their white iPod earphone cords snaking about them as they hurl rocks and overturn cars strangely in time to, say, Rage Against the Machine or Public Enemy) This is like the Office Space of protesters. He’s in the middle of his commute when he decides that he’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. It was the same way with the lawyers’ protest in Pakistan where you had all these black besuited rock-hurlers.

Contrast this with the United States. If our black-robed mullah’s pronounce on an election, we all just roll over and take it. Meanwhile there’s a designated social class who participate in protests. They have a special set of tropes that includes a special garb, preferred hairstyles, a prescribed set of protest products. You go to a political protest in the United States and you could be excused for mistaking it for a 3k walk for breast cancer.

The Iranian Election and the New Media Revolution

I remember CNN’s moment when Bernard Shaw reported live Baghdad in 1992 as the First Gulf War commenced or Aaron Brown live from Midtown Manhattan as the first tower of the World Trade Center fell. News events like those were the height of old media accomplishment. Right now the most amazing thing happening in the world is the election protests in Iran and I turn on the television hoping for something current and relevant. I’m paying for the extended cable package because I have hitherto thought that when a major story happens, only the big news channels can offer coverage up to the magnitude of the event. On CNN Larry King is interviewing Paul Teutul about his favorite muscle cars and on FOX News Geraldo At Large is interviewing Carrie Prejean about her spat with the Miss USA Pageant. On CNN’s website the lead stories are the Six Flags bankruptcy and the troubles at the FCC hotline over the analog cable shutoff.

The only place for news on Iran right now is twitter, internet forums, YouTube, flickr and various other photo sights where individual Iranians are uploading. Twitter is serving as the guide to it all. I am regularly refreshing the #IranElection twitter hash and getting snippets of what’s happening there in bustles of disorganized 140 character updates. Right now #IranElection, Tehran, Mousavi are the numbers two, four and five highest Trending Topics on twitter. The hash #CNNfail is coming in at number three. When CNN does run some loop story about Iran, they are using still photos culled from FaceBook!

I suspect that within a few days the Iranian police will get a handle on this and the Ahmadinejad victory will be made to stick. This will be unfortunate for the Iranian people and the cause of peace.

However, the new media revolution proceeds apace.