Saturday, December 21, 2013

"Don't die in the Beijing smog!"

Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) has been nominated as America's next ambassador to China. This seems an odd choice by the President seeing how the 72-year-old Senator does not speak Chinese, nor does he have strong relations with the country. Yes he is familiar with trade issues, but why Baucus? It is appearing as though this move's priority was not on strengthening this international tie, but more of a domestic power-play by Democrats to hold on to seats for the midterms. After all, it's not the first time an ambassadorship to China would have protected Democrats political interests in Congress. President Obama nominated Jon Huntsman (who at least had experience in the region and proficiency in Mandarin Chinese) in 2009, essentially shelving the potential Republican presidential adversary in the 2012 election. Also, in the President's favor, this assignment would place a voiced-critic of Obama's Affordable Care Act on the other side of the world.

Baucus had already declared he was retiring from the Senate after serving for six terms, which would leave his seat wide-open. By appointing him as ambassador, this allows the Montana Governor (also a Democrat) to appoint a fellow party member, who as an incumbent would have a leg up in the midterms. In addition, Senator Baucus also is the chairman of the finance committee. His departure means that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) would assume his position, leaving his position on the energy committee open, likely to be filled by another Democrat in 2014.

Baucus himself stated, "China is one of the most, if not the most important relationship in the country, in the world..." yet the priority of Obama does not seem to be in nominating the best candidate as opposed to a Democratic power-play at securing congressional power. This may be a Machiavellian assumption, but it is proving to be a strong likelihood in analyzing the selection. It is certainly a time of sensitive relations with China, with the relations between the two countries not being the strongest in recent years. As the chief envoy, Baucus will be responsible for balancing rising tensions with Japan, China’s growing economic might, contentious diplomatic issues involving North Korea, as well as other regional dilemmas.

Despite the reasoning, Senator Baucus does, at the very least, seem to put forth a full fledged effort in his public service. He will undoubtedly work to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties between the US and China. However, how does this appointment play into the Obama Administration's "Asian Pivot" strategy? For his economic and trade experience Baucus can certainly lend a hand to the long-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but how else can he contribute? Solidifying a democratic stronghold in Congress may not be the best course when an opportunity to improve ties with China is on the horizon.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Robot Olympics

Today in Homestead, Florida DARPA kicked off their “Robot Olympics,” formally known as the DARPA Robotics Challenge.  The contest, with a $2 million top prize, pits sixteen robotics teams against each other in a robot showdown.  Each team’s robot will attempt to complete a series of tasks from climbing a ladder to driving a vehicle.  The teams hail from all over the world, with front running delegations from South Korea, MIT, NASA, and China.  

The competition was born out of the need for semi-autonomous robots that could be operable in the aftermath of a disaster.  The Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 provided impetus for robotic research, and this DARPA project in particular.  Nuclear technicians have said that had someone been able to enter the plant post-meltdown to open a number of vents in order to relieve pressure, some of the explosions that leaked nuclear material could have been avoided.  The area was, however, heavily radiated and unsafe for human responders.  A more versatile version of a bomb-diffusing robot would have been useful in order to complete the task without endangering lives.

It’s not much of a leap to see how semi-autonomous robots that can remove rubble, drive vehicles, and move in uneven terrain would be useful to the Pentagon in other ways.  These robots are, however, incredibly expensive and inefficient when it comes to completing tasks humans have no problem with, like climbing through a window or interpreting visual cues.  DARPA’s unsettling robot mule, which set the agency back $10 million, is about as far as the Defense Department has come in creating a robot with the mobility of a living organism.  Aside from being bulletproof, it’s hard to make the argument that the machine is superior to your standard garden-variety mule, given the cost. 

It's also interesting to consider the implications of crowdsourcing ideas for what is usually one of the most secretive and shadowy agencies in the security apparatus.  Securing defense secrets is difficult enough within a vast and expanding defense contracting community; creating a contest for some of the most advanced technologies means the Pentagon will have access to the best and the brightest in the field, but it's also a forum ripe for intellectual property theft.

Before the week is out we should know whether this contest is the beginning of a revolution in technological warfare or simply a nerd forum for showing off half-formed robot prototypes, years from making any real impact.  I'm guessing it's the latter.

The rest of the competition is being streamed live here:

Irrationality: A Family Tradition

And you thought your family was bad...

It's been about a week since the news broke that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un had executed his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek. In a series of expedited events, Kim had publicly arrested, tried, and publicly executed his uncle. As the second most powerful man in the country, Jang, the vice-chairman of North Korea's top military body, helped to secure Kim's ascendancy after his father's death. Thus despite the litany of charges against Jang, speculation has been circulating about Kim's hasty moves.

If there ever was an inkling of transparency into North Korea, the lights are definitely out now. This surprising event leads many to question their original analyses on the status quo of North Korea, especially since the government released 85-year-old this week, Merrill Newman, yet still are holding on to prisoner Kenneth Bae. Many believe this brutal execution is just the beginning of other brinkmanship moves on behalf of Kim and his government.

So why was Jang put to death? In the humiliating list of charges against him, the most potent to the regime was the accusation of trying to overthrow the state. Was this fear or strength on the part of the young leader? Regardless, many suggest this move is a symbol that he is weaker than his father. In a seeming attempt at total control, this violent demonstration of power may have been his attempt to show that he's not afraid to make tough choices.

In fact, this ruthless act may have him more tied to the likes of his grandfather, Kim Il-Song. Besides the physical likeness, the young Kim has revived the tradition of a public political surge. While his grandfather's brutal use of purging may have been incited by his paranoia from his guerrilla days in Manchuria, what is driving the young leader's Stalin-esque paranoia? Many believe it is weakness. After all last year Kim also made a surprising move and removed his top general Ri Yong Ho, and axed his relationship with the Worker's Party. By attacking the military and the party, especially those so close to him, the purging at the very least is signifying some instability in the regime. If the leader cannot trust his top officials, and is trying to consolidate his power, we are bound to see some more unpredictable moves from the DPPK's leader.

Kim will probably continue to try and push the fold and the fear of other possible irrational actions, like testing a nuclear weapon, now seems more plausible. For analysts, trying to discern the next moves of this regime is in fact, quite a guessing game. At the moment there are no reports about troop movements or other t may just have to be a waiting game to see what new revelation will come out of Pyongyang. Maybe it's time for Dennis Rodman to step in...

See you in Sochi!

In the months leading up to the start of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, Russian policies have been repeated in the news, usually receiving harsh critiques.  Concerns of poor infrastructure, missing critical building deadlines, human rights abuses, anti-gay rhetoric, and security breaches have littered the news for the last year, increasingly coloring international perception of both the Games and Russian policy.

While the majority of the recent reports have focused on Putin's anti-gay rhetoric, security concerns are increasingly abounding.  Many have interpreted Obama's recent announcement of the United States' Olympic delegation as a retaliation against Putin's blatant anti-gay sentiments and as an open snub of the Russian government.  However, the obvious lack of US governmental officials on this delegation could also be a result of the intense security concerns in Sochi.

In order to deal with the increasing security concerns, namely terrorism, in and around Sochi, the Russian government deployed at least 10,000 troops to the Black Sea region to establish security over the course of the next three months, beginning January 7 and ending March 21.  Some have even likened the security plans to "Soviet-Style" security, such as the use of drones for surveillance and communication monitoring.  Police and military forces have begun conducting exercises in the region to preparation.

The United States Olympic delegation is set to include former Olympians and other US persons of note.  The Sochi Olympics will be the first time since 2000 where the President, First Lady, or former President have not attended the Olympics as part of the official delegation.  Departmental secretaries are also conspicuously missing from the delegation list.  It should be noted that the White House has not officially commented on the rationale behind the conspicuously different delegation make-up.  The presidents of both France and Germany have declared that they also will not attend the Games.

As preparations for the Games continue, it will be interesting to witness the effect of the Games (and the controversies surrounding it) upon the United States' relationship with Russia.  Especially if the President's conspicuous absence (and the absence of other Western leaders) weakens his diplomatic relationship with Putin.

F-35 - A warning for future defense planning

In October, 2013, just two months ago, an F-35 Lightning II completed its first successful ground attack during training at Edwards Air Force Base in California.  The F-35B dropped a Guided Bomb Unit-12 (GBU-12) Paveway II bomb from an internal weapons bay from an altitude of 25,000 feet, destroying a parked tank.  Some, especially those officers in the Marine Corps involved in these trials, hailed this successful test as a step forward in a "vital program."  Undoubtedly, the F-35 is vital, if only because of the other airframes it is to replace are already being pulled from service.  In 2012, the U.S. Air Force alone stood down seven squadrons, five A-10's, one F-16 Aggressor squadron, and one aging F-15C squadron.  The F-35 is slated to fill those roles, as well as the role of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets (excluding the E/F model Super Hornets), and the AV-8B Harrier II's.   While there is no recourse now but to move forward with the program, and attempt to gain as much ground as has been lost, the F-35 program and its history should stand as a warning to future DoD leadership on the value of expectation management, and setting realistic goals.

From Lockheed:

Development began in 2001, and since then has been hit with setback after setback.  Original plans called for a $80 million sticker price per unit and full fielding by 2012.  Over a decade later and the costs have more than doubled, with total program coast at $392 billion, $161 million per plane.  Though the Marine Corps and Navy plan to start operating the F-35 by mid-2015, total deployment is projected to take until 2019.  Part of this problem is in the whole premise of the enterprise.  A single multirole aircraft that can replace several different single role, or single focus, planes is difficult enough to develop, but one that can also serve the needs of twelve U.S. allies, partnered in the Joint Strike Fighter program, is abnormally troublesome.  At one point in its development there were as many as nineteen countries signed on to the project, but many have had to bow out due to budgetary concerns.  Each time a contributing member leaves the project, cost per unit increases.

On December 13, 2003 Lockheed Martin Corp. celebrated the 100th F-35 to be produced.  So far 95 of those have gone to the United States, the other five operated by the British and Netherlands Royal Air Forces, but based out of Florida.  Senior DoD procurement officials have said that they believe the F-35 program has made sufficient progress to increase budgets to accomodate higher production in fiscal year 2015, but they remain concerned about progress on the jet's software, reliability and a computer-based logistics system.  In the September 16, 2013 edition of Vanity Fair, security analyst Adam Ciralsky wrote :

According to the Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.), which is relatively independent, the price tag for each F-35 was supposed to be $81 million when the program began in October 2001. Since that time, the price per plane has basically doubled, to $161 million. Full-rate production of the F-35, which was supposed to start in 2012, will not start until 2019. The Joint Program Office, which oversees the project, disagrees with the G.A.O.’s assessment, arguing that it does not break out the F-35 by variant and does not take into account what they contend is a learning curve that will drive prices down over time. They say a more realistic figure is $120 million a copy, which will go down with each production batch. Critics, like Winslow Wheeler, from the Project on Government Oversight and a longtime G.A.O. official, argue the opposite: “The true cost of the airplane—when you cast aside all the bullshit—is $219 million or more a copy, and that number is likely to go up.”

Senate Armed Forces Committee Hearing Concerning F-35 Program for USN & USMC:

At this point the project has already had twelve years, and billions of dollars pumped into it, and there is no option to scrap it and start over with a less expensive model.  What can be done, however, is develop and implement better cost saving mechanisms and policies for future defense spending.  The cost of developing this aircraft are staggering, and most of it has been on the backs of American tax payers.  This is because the contract signed in 2001 placed most of the risk involved on the government.  Under current contractual obligations, should the developers make a mistake in design or production, because the government assumed the risk, we all as tax payers pay them to make up for the loss, the time involved, and then pay them to fix the problem they created.  There's little incentive to get it right the first time when you can make a mistake and actually get reimbursed more in the end for making the mistake.  For more information concerning the F-35 program costs in development, check out the links below:

First East, Now South?

With China's establishment of an ADIZ over parts of the East China Sea, many in the region are worried that China will soon seek to create a similar defense zone in the South China Sea in a move to assert its control over the currently disputed islands.  In a recent meeting with ASEAN in Tokyo, Japan asserted a position of leadership seeking to create an ASEAN-Japan coalition in order to contain China's expanding influence and regional authority.

In a speech in Manila earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed the United States' policy of not recognizing China's East China Sea ADIZ (although, it should be noted that US commercial airlines do, in fact, abide by the ADIZ regulations).  In fact, Kerry's trip to Vietnam and the Philippines were in response to these new prospects of a Chinese ADIZ in the South China Sea, even though Beijing has not confirmed or openly pursued any such plans.  It appears that the United States is also looking for a strong regional coalition to contain China.  The US recently gave $4 million in security aid to the Philippines and $3.3 million to other Southeast Asian states.

Secretary Kerry speaking in Manila on Dec 17
This prospect of another Chinese ADIZ will force the United States to consider how it is going to deal with this rising power, an issue with which it has not yet fully dealt.  The rise of China is often considered purely economical, and little thought has been given to the possibility of the use of force in China's quest for regional expansion.  China's behavior in the conflicts in the South and East China Seas provides a perfect example of its mentality towards regional territorial conflict.  If China has taken measures such as the establishment of the ADIZ in the East China Sea, it is likely that it would pursue similar policy in the South China Sea.  As the South China Sea conflict involves many more actors, the push back against such an ADIZ would be much more severe.

Secretary Kerry's increased interest in these territorial disputes indicates the increased likelihood of US involvement in easing regional tensions.  Since some argue that the US has not be consistent in its approach to Chinese expansion (particularly in dealing with the East China Sea ADIZ), the possibility of similar Chinese policy in the South China Sea gives the United States an opportunity to clarify its position on Chinese expansion and to formulate a coherent policy to protect its allies in the region.

Merry Christmas from your friends at the NSA.

Merry Christmas from your friends at the NSA.  Seriously though, this is getting a little silly.  To show you just how ridiculous the commentary has become, check out this article from the and this video from the ACLU.

"They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety"  Thanks Benjamin Franklin.  Said some two-hundred and fifty years ago and just as true today.  The ever increasing scope of surveillance - and abuses of that scope - is in some ways inevitable.  I don't mean to say it's right (whatever "right" means), morally acceptable, worth the cost to our individual liberties, or actually effective at finding terrorists (or probable terrorists).  Bureaucracies, especially in our system of government, are extremely resilient, sometimes self-serving, and often narrow-minded in scope.  It's not their fault, it's just the nature of the beast, a symptom of bad governance. Without proper oversight and transparency, abuses such as these occur in all agencies.  This is essentially Abu Gharaib level dereliction of duty and lack of leadership, combined with an intelligence community that allows for almost zero transparency between themselves and the public they serve.  Is it an invasion of privacy if you don't know your privacy is being violated?  Some in Congress apparently say no:

Some would answer the following question, "Should the NSA be tapping my phones?" with this answer, "Honestly I don't care, I'm not a terrorist or criminal so I'm good."  But that attitude is exactly the problem.  Soon the somewhat justified taps become completely illegitimate, with analysts tapping in to the communications of friends, family and significant others - even "possible" significant others.  If this happened via a pair of binoculars, a physical wire tap at someone's home, and breaking into their house to steal their photos off their iPad, it'd be considered predatory stalking.  Though many consider privacy a right, there is no express right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution.  However, in numerous articles and amendments it is considered assumed by many citizens and legal scholars alike.  For more in depth discussion, check out the link below:

These top-secret programs, brought to light by whistleblower/traitor/"hero of the proletariat" Edward Snowden, are anathema to individual liberty and privacy.  Whatever you think of the man who leaked the information, now that the cat is out of the bag we as a society have some hard questions to answer.  What level of transparency should we have in order to keep the public abreast of these issues?  What kind of oversight (or lack thereof) lead to these programs, the growth of scale involved and the abuses that occurred?  Is massive trolling of the entire internet an effective means of gathering intelligence and conducting counterintelligence?  I cannot answer any of those questions, and unfortunately, even if I could - they're classified and you don't need to know.

Putin's "Prize"

EuroMaidan protestors in Kiev
Nessa Gnatoush
On November 21, roughly 2,000 protesters convened in Kiev's Maidan Nexalezhnosti (Independence Square) to agitate for closer integration with the European Union after the Ukrainian government decided not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. A few days ago, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych accepted a financial deal from Russia which includes $15 billion dollars worth of Ukrainian bonds purchased and an agreement to sell natural gas to Ukraine at below market prices. While this may at first glance appear a political coup for Vladimir Putin, Russia has in fact only saddled itself with supporting a state even more dysfunctional than itself.
Putin in Moscow on Thursday
Getty Images

The modern Ukrainian state is saddled with corruption, aging infrastructure, and tumultuous domestic politics - EuroMaidan is the second large scale popular protest in the last decade, and the first (the Orange Revolution) led to the resignation of once again President Yanukovych. While the second largest country (by landmass) in Europe is certainly geopolitically desirable, it is hardly a top prize in its current state. The International Monetary Fund has refused to extend Ukraine further financial assistance without significant governmental reforms. While a large portion of the public seems willing to swallow the bitter pill of austerity (at least in the short term), the Ukrainian government does not.

Chemical factory in Armiansk, Ukraine
The EuroMaidan has not only thrown into stark relief the political divide within Ukraine, but casts serious doubt on Russia's grand ambitions for its Customs Union. Not only was it unable to force Ukraine to sign on to the Union (at least at this time), but the rest of the roster is less than inspiring. Neither Belarus nor Kazakhstan are exactly economic giants, and the list of prospective post-Soviet states is a parade of dysfunctional economies, endemic corruption, and various levels of political repression. The appeal of EU membership is in no small part aspirational - despite their many problems, the perception of EU member states as places where the rule of law prevails and the playing field is comparatively level is enticing to many, in Ukraine and elsewhere.

While Putin may be able to strong arm and bribe others into joining with Russia, its renewed position as a power player on the world stage rests on a precarious foundation of high energy prices. Unless Russia and its client states undertake serious economic and political reforms, the importance of their Union will be fleeting. The EuroMaidan may yet fail - but, be it in a year or a decade, the people of Ukraine and other kleptocracies will not be denied the dream of liberty.

Destruction of statue of Lenin in Kiev

Russia lends a "helping hand" to Ukraine

Yesterday, President Yanukovitch of Ukraine solidified his relationship with Russia through a 100 minute news conference. The conference occurred just two days after Yanukovitch accepted an economic relief deal from Putin, at an estimated $15 billion in aid. Protests are continuing in the capital, and Yanukovitch was careful to assure that there would not be a violent removal of protesters for at least three weeks. This statement was followed, however, by stern denunciations of any foreign involvement. Although it can be assumed that he is referring to Western involvement, those observing the events in Ukraine and Russia may note the irony in his statements.  It has been perfectly obvious to those watching from the outside that Russia is vying for control over Ukraine. The manipulation of Yanukovitch through reduced gas prices and economic aid packages seems obvious, but Yanukovitch appears more than willing to engage Putin and defy Europe and his people.

The implications for Ukraine are ominous. The country seems split down the middle regarding preferences between Russia and Europe. The oppression of protests, however, and the governments unwillingness to compromise or listen to the people, indicates that democracy is not being properly utilized. The next elections are scheduled for 2015. Yanukovitch argues that the people can voice their opinions then, but many say it will be too late for Ukraine to remove Russia's grip on the country.

Not only does Russia's grip on Ukraine make joining the EU (or having strong ties with Europe at all) almost impossible, but it also creates friction in energy security and regional stability. Russia's other pets in the area will likely be increasingly nervous if Ukraine comes fully under Russian influence. Georgia is still reeling a bit from the 2008 war with Russia, wherein a domestic territorial issue became grounds for invasion by Putin and Medvedev. It is not in Georgia's interest for Russia's power and influence in the region to grow. For the United States, our interests lie in stability in the region as well as supporting our allies in Europe. We clearly do not enjoy the idea of a Russian Ukraine, especially if it comes about by the way of suppressing protests and rendering democracy moot. As we continue to monitor relations in the region, it will be interesting to note the tone of American diplomats as they coerce this complicated political landscape.

Assessing the overt costs of the NSA controversy

As has been the case the last few years with the subject of the use of drones, some topics in national security seem to dominate policy discussions with great tenacity.  Such has also been the case recently with the topic of the controversial data-mining practices of the NSA, especially since the leaks by Edward Snowden.  While there is much to debate with concern to the NSA practices in the domestic arena, a significant level of attention needs to be turned toward the overt costs the Snowden leaks and the American response are having on the United States in the international environment. 
Consider the explicit costs that are mounting between the United States and Brazil, likely as a result of the revelations of NSA activity.  In an announcement that shocked  nearly everyone, Brazilian President Rousseff just announced that a huge defense contract that most expected was going to be won by Boeing is now being awarded to Sweden’s SAAB instead.   Most observers feel it was a decision personally made by President Rousseff who is still angry at having been the target of direct surveillance by the United States.  This was not just any contract, however.  It is one that had been negotiated for decades over the course of three Presidencies.  The initial contract is expected to be in the amount of around 4.5 billion dollars, with billions of additional dollars to follow over the course of many years in terms of servicing, supply, and parts.  It was one of the most coveted and sought-after emerging market contracts in the world.  Boeing had been so confident in earning the win, that they even built a large corporate office in Brazil and hired the former Ambassador to Brazil to be its executive.   Now, instead of  American F/A- 18 Super Hornets, the Brazilians will be flying Sweedish Gripens instead.   The French Dassault Aviation SA who had also been in the running, flatly called the Gripen an inferior product. The next generation of the Gripen is not even out of prototype stage yet.

Saab JAS 39 Gripen

One Brazilian government source bluntly told Reuters that “The NSA problem ruined it for the Americans.”  And the decision apparently came straight from the top, with even the lead  Brazilian air force commander saying he only heard of the decision the day before, in a meeting with President Rousseff.   While the dollar losses are staggering, one has to wonder how much opportunity for increased military cooperation with this important country will be hampered in the future, especially as they steadily upgrade their military standing and capabilities. 

Brazil remains skeptical of foreign nations trying to take commercial advantage of them.  They even lashed out at a Canadian company earlier this year, which Brasilia felt was conducting industrial espionage of their mining sector.  Thus, if states wish to curry favor with this important and growing nation, already predominant in its continent and beyond, losing their trust must be considered extremely costly.

The direct costs are definitely not limited to lost contracts by Boeing, however.   Cisco Systems, Inc., for example, complained recently that revelations of U.S. spying were negatively affecting the demand for its products in China.  In fact, a rare uniting of nearly all major tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. occurred last week to lobby President Obama for reforms to the data collection, because they felt that public trust in the internet and such services like cloud computing, is being undermined by the NSA controversy, to the point that their business interests are being hurt, especially overseas.
The presidential advisory panel that was assembled by President Obama last August after the Snowden leaks, to look into the matter of potential overreaches by the NSA, has finally gotten back to President Obama with some 46 recommendations.  Without question, most of the recommendations are aimed at domestic concerns of the grand-scale data collection, but the panel could not ignore the international ramifications.  Amongst its recommendations is to make foreign spying on friendly states the call of policy-makers and not of intelligence officials.  They also included the suggestion that “back-doors” into software that the NSA has used to exploit data from large companies should cease.  It would be surprising, though, to see these measures by themselves placate angry world leaders such as Rousseff and Gremany’s Merkel without being accompanied by some sort of Presidential assurances that the espionage will not happen again.  The degree to which President Obama is unwilling to commit to that may help determine just how much further financial costs and lost trust will be incurred.  Moreover, international ears are especially keen to determine whether such promises are made equally, with some suggesting that concrete assurances against further espionage of personal communication is being made to German leaders but not necessarily to Brazilian and Mexican leaders, for instance. 

The path forward is a difficult one for President Obama and all of the defense policy makers in Washington.   This situation is an excellent reminder of how all elements of defense policy are intertwined, causing leaders to decide the best balance and trade-offs between robust intelligence gathering, allied levels of trust, defense systems trading, American jobs, and economic cooperation and growth.  In this specific case, the crux of that decision was captured in the question posed by someone involved in the Brazilian defense negotiations.  Enquiring about the benefit the US earned in its electronic surveillance of Brazil, he asked simply, “Was that worth 4 billion dollars?”

Thursday, December 19, 2013

In Europe, The Beautiful Game Is Turning Ugly

The euro-crisis may be creating a generation of frustrated Europeans who will not enjoy the same level of prosperity and achievement of their parents.  Unemployment for the overall Eurozone sits at 12.2 percent according to Eurostat, and the number skyrockets for youth and the countries of southern and eastern Europe.  The overall rate in Spain and Greece, for example, is over 25 percent.  In Italy, unemployment among people ages 15 to 24 is a record 40.1 percent.  In these countries, far right parties are on the rise as people search for scapegoats to exorcise their frustration.  But racism and xenophobia are also mixing with football - “the beautiful game” - in a grotesque way.

The latest example occurred last month when Croatian player Josip Simunic led fans in a Nazi-era chant after defeating Iceland in a playoff game.  “For the Homeland. Ready!” was the official chant of the puppet regime that ruled Croatia from 1941-1945.  For this Simunic has been banned from travelling with the Croatian team to the World Cup this summer.

Idealizing the Nazi era has become a strange iteration of xenophobic sentiment, finding its most shocking success in Greece’s Golden Dawn political party.  This openly Neo-Nazi movement garnered 7 percent of the popular vote in the 2012 Greek national elections and currently hold 18 seats in the Hellenic parliament.  A new report by Human Rights Watch states that anti-immigrant violence has reached alarming proportions.  Just as concerning, police and government authorities are failing to act, providing tacit approval to Golden Dawn or even acting in complicity with the violence.

On the soccer pitch in March, Giorgos Katidis recently celebrated a game winning goal by running to supporters and giving the Nazi salute before being swarmed by team mates in celebration.  After punishment, members of his team, AEK Athens, went on to defend him as a victim.

In Italy, superstar Mario Balotelli has been the recipient of abuse from Italian and Spanish fans who have chanted racist epithets, made monkey sounds, and even thrown inflatable bananas on the field.  In 2012, Ghanaian player Kevin Prince-Boateng famously walked off the pitch with his teammates in protest at Italian abuse. 

For the third year in a row this August, fans of Hungarian team Ferencvaros flew a flag honoring Laszlo Csatary at their match against MTK Budapest FC.  MTK Budapest has historic ties to the Jewish community in Budapest and Csatary, the Hungarian commander of the Kassa internment camp in Slovakia during World War II, tortured Jews and deported thousands to their deaths.  For his role in recently seeking to bring Csatary to justice, the fans last year made a sign claiming the mother of Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to be a whore.  The year previous they commemorated a Jewish blood libel.  The Hungarian Football Federation has not banned these displays or taken any punitive action.

In the lead-up to the 2012 Euro Cup in Poland and the Ukraine, BBC1 produced a documentary entitled “Stadiums of Hate” detailing racist and anti-semitic violence in the football culture in those countries.  Poland and Ukraine football representatives responded cowardly, claiming that racism wasn’t a problem, but even if it did exist, it existed in other countries, too.  When faced with the evidence provided in the documentary, the tournament organizer UEFA refrained from criticism, responding that holding the Euro Cup in these countries was an opportunity to challenge racism.
In Ukraine the nexus of sports and politics is currently on display in Independence Square.  A major nationalist party opposing President Yanukovich and his turn to Russia is Svoboda, a party founded by World War II partisans loosely aligned with Nazi Germany and that until 2004 provocatively called itself the Social-Nationalist party.  Its red and black flag is displayed ubiquitously in the current protests, but has been banned in football stadiums by FIFA as a racist symbol.

It’s shocking to see crude racism and xenophobia have such potency in the 21st century.  Scapegoating, however, may be an inherent part of human culture.  It certainly is one more reason to hope economic conditions turn around soon. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Waste Not, Want Not

In 2011, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates publicly spoke out against the decentralized accounting mechanisms within the Pentagon, stating:  “My staff and I learned that it was nearly impossible to get accurate information and answers to questions such as ‘How much money did you spend’ and ‘How many people do you have?’”  A recent report from Reuters targets this exact issue:  the lack of accountability within defense spending and the overlapping accounting mechanisms within the security community.  In a particularly disturbing anecdote, the report details how the office of Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS, the Pentagon’s main accounting agency) regularly “fixes” their spending numbers so that they are in accordance with the budget provided by the U.S. Treasury.  DFAS employees are usually able to correct inaccurate or missing numbers through hurried emails and phone calls before submitting their monthly reports; but any remaining inaccuracies are ameliorated through “plugs,” false numbers entered to make monthly expenditure numbers match those in the Treasury budget.

It is commonly understood that no one knows how much the defense community is truly spending.  In fact, as Defense Secretary Hagel recently stated, “The Department of Defense is the only federal agency that has not produced audit-ready financial statements, which are required by law.  That’s unacceptable.”


While the report focuses on the need for greater oversight of defense spending, which I wholeheartedly support, I wish to briefly focus on the fractured nature of the current defense budgetary system.  Former Secretary Gates likened the current business operations of the Pentagon as an “amalgam of fiefdoms without centralized mechanisms to allocated resources, track expenditures, and measure results.”  His choice of the word “fiefdom” invokes images of territorial and competitive organizations and bureaucracies - and certainly this is what the defense community has become:  A series of organizations and groups within organizations vying for resources and opportunities to promote their desired projects.  Much like how the unwieldy growth of the defense community following the September 11th attacks has created incredible bureaucratic overlap, the same overlap of organizational purpose and goals is reflected in its unaudited expenditures.

The expansive organization of the Defense Department (which does not include the money spent on contracted employees)
Indeed, the theory of organizational or bureaucratic competition explains how policy decisions result from infighting between organizations, particularly as organizations seek more resources, autonomy, and influence within the greater national security infrastructure.  As each agency or organization within the security community has pursued its own goals in order to achieve greater influence in policy decisions, excessive funds have been spent on amassing "stuff" -- ultimately resulting in wasted resources.  As a Navy vice admiral told Reuters, about have of their $14 billion inventory is in excess of what they need.  Multiple this excess across all branches and facets of the defense community and a true picture of organizational waste begins to emerge.

It is truly alarming to find so many wasted resources within the defense community.  Until greater oversight and accurate auditing procedures are achieved, inefficiencies will remain in the defense apparatus -- inefficiencies that ultimately threaten the functioning of our security system.

How to Destroy Iran's Nukes

While the six month interim deal with Iran on its nuclear capabilities is a huge breakthrough in diplomatic relations, no one knows how serious President Rouhani and the Ayatollah are about reaching a more expansive agreement.  Iran has lied in the past and its demand to maintain the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program is worrisome.  There is one sure-fire way to induce Iran to give us anything we want, though – all we have to do is give up on Syria.

There are obvious, good reasons why the U.S. has to extents large and small supported Assad’s ouster but given the current state of affairs it may be better to end the civil war and gain a much larger prize.

Three years ago, Iran had made strong gains in its quest for Persian hegemony in the Middle East.  Its oil revenues allowed it to spend freely and it presented itself as one of the few Middle Eastern governments not willing to be manipulated by America and Israel, finding support that transcended both nationality and the Sunni-Shia divide.  Arab monarchs and autocrats worried about the cementing of a Shia Crescent of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon and were terrified of an Iranian nuclear threat, knowing that if it developed nuclear weapons there would be no turning back.

Since then, Iran has experienced a precipitous decline in good fortunes.  Sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy and support for Assad has destroyed the political capital Iran had amassed.  The Sunnis now see Iran as propping up an unpopular dictator out of sectarian loyalty and pure realpolitik. 

But Iran views the consequences of losing Assad and, thus, its control of Syria as untenable.  The Syrian government operated as a client state of Iran for years and since war began Iran has been a major supplier of weapons and training to Assad’s forces.  More critically, Iran has also been providing Syria with discounted oil and free loans to pay for it, all in spite of its own economic woes. 

If Assad were to fall Iran would lose not just control of Syria but the ability to easily interact with and control Hezbollah, critically weakening that organization in Lebanon.  Essentially a domino effect could create Sunni dominance in these countries, leaving Iran with only the hope of its nuclear program to command respect.

Thus, Syria is Iran’s Vietnam, a massive economic and political drain seen as so strategically important that almost any level of support is justified.  If Assad’s survival can be exchanged with Iran for the complete removal of its nuclear program it must be considered for several reasons.

First, the prospect of an Islamic theocracy with nuclear weapons is clearly much worse than the idea of Assad staying in power.  The mix of religious values with Iran’s geopolitical ones put Israel and the entire region in immediate peril.

Also, the situation in Syria has become a humanitarian disaster with no end in sight and its conclusion would be a good thing no matter what.  Syrian cities lie in ruins and displaced people have flooded across borders in the greatest refugee crisis in a generation.  Numbers are expected to exceed 3.5 million by year’s end.

Recently Assad’s forces have been resurgent.  But even if the rebels did defeat him there is little reason to think that democratic reforms would take place or indeed that anything at all would turn out better for the Syrian population.  The rebels are a mix of Syrian citizens lacking a clear agenda and Islamists, some affiliated with al Qaeda.  To make matters worse there is a third group involved in the fighting, foreign jihadists known as ISIS who already control territory within Syria and are terrorizing the local populations with harsh Islamic governance. 
Whoever wins between Assad and the rebels, they will still have to deal with ISIS.  Indeed, Syria is seen as the frontline for Sunni jihadists across the Arab world and beyond, even attracting fighters from Europe.  Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al Qaeda, has stated that Syria is becoming a base for that organization, granting striking capabilities against Israel and Europe. 

Of course, U.S. reputation might suffer if it went back on its support for the rebels.  But it must be clear by now that the U.S. will be damned either way as anti-Americanism is a Pavlovian response in Arab public opinion.  And Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia are only working towards their own national interest when they accuse the U.S. of being weak in the Middle East – the U.S. would be wise to realize there are no friends in international affairs, only shared interests.

Iran knows that Assad has only survived this far by the skin of his teeth and Russian diplomacy.  While his demise no longer seems imminent it is still not assured that he will gain victory soon or at all.  In consideration of this, Iran will be loathe to completely abandon its nuclear trump card – to lose both Syria and its nuclear capability would make Persian hegemony in the Middle East all but a dream.

Conversely, if Iran were given the option to trade its nuclear program for victory in Syria it should consider it a victory.  But it would also be a victory for the U.S. and the Middle East region – Saudi Arabia and others would cheer the demise of Iran’s nuclear program.  Al Qaeda and its militants could begin to be roll backed.  And the Syrian people could try to start rebuilding their lives. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The "Interpreter"

Nelson Mandela, the hero of South Africa, passed away at the age of 95 on December 5. As the first black president of South Africa, he was revered by many for his leadership against Apartheid. His memorial was last week, and thousands paid tribute to his life. Heads of state from across the globe appeared, including President Obama. Speeches were reverent and the respect for Mandela was apparent, but discussions of his memorial quickly turned to scandal when an interpreter on stage was found to be 100% incapable of interpreting.

This interpreter, Thamsanqa Jantjie, allegedly spoke of seeing angels and hallucinating other strange things. He even tried to leave the memorial without interpreting. But somehow, this unqualified, arguably unstable man was allowed onto the stage with the President of the United States. We aren't sure who gave him security clearance, or why. Whether he is really a threat or not, is questionable, but the real issue is: What if he had been? If he was hallucinating things, it is possible that he could have hallucinating something that would cause him to turn violent. The internet is teeming with reports about him being violent, because he had previously been accused of burning a man to death in "mob justice" in South Africa. Although burning someone to death is certainly violent, the alleged attack occurred during Apartheid and was apparently somewhat common. 

The real question is, then, should we be reasonably concerned that an unstable individual was allowed onto  the same stage (not just into the same room) as the President? Is this enough of a breach in security that we should be reconsidering our standards for security in public events such as memorials? Should we ever trust another state to conduct adequate security without also screening those involved? To be fair, we do not know WHO allowed this person to be an interpreter on the stage with Obama. It could have been our own security team. However, "threats" such as this one should spark conversation about the level of care taken in security of events outside of the U.S. While these events may be amusing to us now, they have potential to have devastating consequences if things turn sour.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Curious Case of Robert Levinson

Last week, news broke that Robert A. Levinson, an American who went missing in Iran in March 2007, was in the country gathering intelligence for the CIA. Overweight and suffering from high blood pressure, nothing has been heard of Levinson since early 2011. His family fears the worst.

A captive Levinson - photo undated

Knowledge of Levinson's ties to the agency came to light to the the AP and New York Times in 2007; however, the news services decided to shelve the story while the government attempted to secure his release. Levinson's story reads like a John le Carre novel.

Levinson began his career as an FBI agent, making a name for himself as an expert on Russian organized crime in the 1990s. He had a knack for recruiting informants and was well liked within the bureau. Nevertheless, Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998 to pursue a more lucrative career as a private investigator.

In 2006, wishing to get back into government, Levinson was introduced to Anne Jablonski, a CIA analyst working for the Illicit Finance Group. The groups interest lay in uncovering money laundering and corruption, specifically in regards to Iranian and Venezuelan officials. Levinson was given a consulting contract in 2006 and began reporting from countries he visited as a private investigator.    

The CIA, in its most basic form, is divided into two main branches: operations and analysis. The operations branch runs agents oversees, recruits spies, and collects secrets. The analysis branch does not run agents, but instead weaves the intelligence gathered by the operations branch into a coherent and understandable picture, much like a person solves a puzzle. Like jealous lovers, the two branches have competed with one another for prestige and money within the agency. While strictly speaking Levinson should have been run by the operations side of the agency, he was in fact being run secretly on the side by the analyst Jablonski. When Levinson traveled to Iran in 2007 no one on the operations side of the agency was notified, he had no cover, no escape plan ... no chance. But for now, back to the story.

Later in 2006, Levinson was introduced to Dawud Salahuddin, an American who fled to Iran after assassinating an aide to the former shah in 1980. Salahuddin claimed to have information on a scheme where former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was investing stolen oil money in Canadian real estate.

Levinson traveled to Toronto to investigate the charges. While in Canada, Levinson met Boris J. Birshtein, a Lithuanian businessman with supposed connections to Russian organized crime. Birshtein agreed to arrange a meeting between Levinson and two Iranians looking to import "critical materials" into Iran in the case that economic sanctions were placed on the country. Levinson met the two in Istanbul in late 2006 and detailed his findings to Jablonski in December.

By this time, Levinson's contract with the CIA had run its course, and although it was being renewed, no money was flowing to Levinson. Jablonski told him to take some time off. Instead, Levinson traveled to Dubai in early 2007 to pursue a non-CIA cigarette smuggling case. While there he contacted Jablonski to let her know he had arranged to meet with Salahuddin, who had more info on Iranian money laundering, on the island of Kish off the Iranian coast. Levinson disappeared on March 10, 2007 while on the island.

Jablonski later claimed that she immediately informed her superiors that Levinson may have been in Iran at the behest of the CIA when she heard about his disappearance. Nevertheless, a year later, when an irate Senator Bill Nelson, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, contacted the CIA for answers after being shown the emails between Levinson and the CIA by Levinson's lawyer, CIA officials knew nothing of the case. Top officials launched an immediate investigation and concluded that Jablonski and her boss, Timothy Sampson, misled officials about the work Levinson was conducting for the agency. Sampson was forced to resign and Jablonski was fired.

CIA officials issued an official apology to Ms. Levinson in 2008 and paid her $2.25 million when Levinson's lawyer threatened to sue the agency. Robert Levinson remains missing.

This incident has proved a major embarrassment for the CIA. Not only was Levinson, who had no special training in conducting intelligence operations sent into a hostile country, his presence in that country was hidden from top officials at the agency. Much of the problem at the CIA stems from the unlimited amounts of money that flowed into the agency after 9/11. Levinson's contract was a product of these funds. Nevertheless, his contract was not controlled by an expert in field craft, but an analyst who probably had never worked anywhere other than her desk at Langley. The whole incident reeks of amateurish adventurism, not the work of a competent spy agency.

In addition, as large bureaucracies are wont to do when things go wrong, reform intended to fix the problem has proven too heavy handed. Now, all CIA analysts who wish to discuss topics with outside sources must register their source and have it approved by officials. This means that an analyst who wishes to go out to lunch with a nuclear weapons expert must now have this lunch approved. Instead of working through the hassle, analysts have stopped meeting with outside experts, greatly reducing their own knowledge of vital intelligence topics.

While the CIA is one of the most expert and successful intelligence agencies in the world, this case proves a shameful mark on the agency and greatly damages its ability to conduct work necessary to safeguard the security of the nation.



Sunday, December 15, 2013

Is North Korea the next Iran?

Bill Clinton meeting with Kim Jong Il in 2009
In light of recent developments surrounding Iran's nuclear program, the logical next question many have been asking has been "what about North Korea?" If the second member of the "Axis of Evil" can be brought to the negotiating table, why not the third? The answer: because North Korea already possesses nuclear arms, and views them as vital to the continued existence of the regime in Pyongyang.

North Korean Rodong 1
China News
Perhaps most important to the discussion involving North Korea vis-a-vi Iran is that, unlike Iran, North Korea has successfully tested nuclear bombs, and almost certainly has active nuclear missiles. As history shows, it is nigh impossible to force a nuclear state to give up its nuclear weapons. North Korea currently fields the Rodong 1, a SCUD variant with a range of roughly 900 km, and is most likely capable of producing a nuclear warhead suitable for this missile. Furthermore, evidence suggests that Pyongyang is rapidly improving its long range missile capabilities as well as developing its ability to enrich uranium. In the short history of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, there has been only one instance of a state with a functioning nuclear deterrent (South Africa), and that was only in the face of both enormous international pressure and seismic domestic political changes.

There is also the matter of the West's recent record regarding authoritarian regimes, a record very disturbing from the viewpoint of Kim Jong Un. In 2003, Muammar Qaddafi's Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program under international pressure. Eight years later, Qadaffi was deposed, in no small part due to military
Kim Jong Un
LA Times
assistance provided to rebels by many of the same Western states. From the perspective of a dictator, it was clear that assurances from the international community about one's security could not be trusted, and logically only a credible deterrent could secure one's own survival. In light of this, it is perfectly rational for a state such as North Korea to aggressively pursue a WMD deterrent, and to doggedly hold onto a deterrent already acquired.

It is highly unlikely that a nuclear North Korea will give up its arms due to diplomatic efforts alone - Pyongyang views WMD as too essential to its own survival. North Korea is not Iran, unlikely to respond to similar incentives. Perhaps, like South Africa, it will not the be the international community alone, but internal events which end North Korea's time as a nuclear state.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Increased naval cooperation between India and Vietnam signals further balancing against China

Photo by Sebastian D'Douza/Agence France-Presse

China’s strengthening presence in the East and South China Seas and the increasing boldness of their claims in those critical waters and sea lanes to the Indian Ocean are apparently continuing to cause alarm amongst its Asian neighbors.  This is being signaled again by the increased cooperation now occurring between the states of Vietnam and India.  Recent reports indicate that India will train Vietnamese sailors in submarine warfare.  This appears to be part of India’s broader efforts to reinforce defense ties with countries across the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions. 
Vietnam has ordered six Kilo-class submarines from the Russian Admiralty Shipyard in St Petersburg.  The first one of the six was delivered last month.   While Vietnam already had two Yugo-class midget submarines it obtained from South Korea, the purchase of the Kilo-class submarines puts India in a great position for training assistance as they have operated Kilo-class submarines since 1986. 
However, from several indications, this is only a small part of the cooperation is envisioned between the two states.  A Vietnamese official indicated that the strategic partnership would expand to include joint development of defense projects, and in one of the first times ever, India will extend military credit to another state.   India will provided Vietnam $100 million in credit for off shore patrol vehicles and other military equipment.  There is even interest in India in selling the cruise missile BrahMos to the Vietnamese, but especially as the missile is a joint project of India and Russia, a lot of details would need to be hammered out.  It is in an indicator nonetheless of the extent of the lofty goals of the increased cooperation.

 Geography is always present, however.  Already, India and Vietnam are jointly exploring for oil in the Phu Kanh basin of the South China Sea which Vietnam believes to be in their zone of influence but which China disputes.  In fact,  Beijing warned New Delhi that its permission was needed for India to explore for energy there.  India and Vietnam have gone forward in spite of China's objections. The extent to which China will be upset by the growing cooperation between India and Vietnam (both of whom have fought with China) is not certain.
 One of the more dangerous (for India) responses on the part of China would be for them to be motivated to provide Pakistan with a nuclear submarine.  Nevertheless, there seems to be a resolve to continue going forward with the cooperation, however.