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US foreign policy

By Chris Newton

It has been a long, strenuous, and difficult summer in the Ministry of Defence. As part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), it and the entire defence community has been grappling with two fundamental questions about the future. What will the future strategic environment look like? And what does this mean for our Armed Forces? There are those commentators who can, with a remarkable degree of confidence, say that they can predict what the future character of conflict will look like. Future conflict will be similar to the wars we have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and 9/11 was a significant date that heralded a new kind of warfare.

But is this certainty in predicting the future justified when history always teaches us to expect the unexpected? History does not follow a linear, pre-determined path; it is about men and women making choices between alternative futures and scenarios. A gunshot in 1914, for example, completely destroyed an entire European and world order. So we should at the very least be open to alternative scenarios and future pathways. Moreover, there is another significant date has passed us by that could signal the change the world is about to face, and we could risk harming our future security and prosperity if we choose to ignore its significance.

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By George Friedman

We are now nine weeks away from the midterm elections in the United States. Much can happen in nine weeks, but if the current polls are to be believed, U.S. President Barack Obama is about to suffer a substantial political reversal. While we normally do not concern ourselves with domestic political affairs in the United States, when the only global power is undergoing substantial political uncertainty, that inevitably affects its behavior and therefore the dynamics of the international system. Thus, we have to address it, at least from the standpoint of U.S. foreign policy. While these things may not matter much in the long run, they certainly are significant in the short run.

To begin thinking about this, we must bear three things in mind. First, while Obama won a major victory in the Electoral College, he did not come anywhere near a landslide in the popular vote. About 48 percent of the voters selected someone else. In spite of the Democrats' strength in Congress and the inevitable bump in popularity Obama received after he was elected, his personal political strength was not overwhelming. Over the past year, poll numbers indicating support for his presidency have deteriorated to the low 40 percent range, numbers from which it is difficult, but not impossible, to govern.

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By Scott Stewart

Sept. 11, 2010, the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was a day of solemn ceremony, remembrance and reflection. It was also a time to consider the U.S. reaction to the attack nine years ago, including the national effort to destroy al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in order to prevent a repeat of the 9/11 attacks. Of course, part of the U.S. reaction to 9/11 was the decision to invade Afghanistan, and the 9/11 anniversary also provided a time to consider how the United States is now trying to end its Afghanistan campaign so that it can concentrate on more pressing matters elsewhere.

The run-up to the anniversary also saw what could have been an attempted terrorist attack in another Western country. On Sept. 10 in Denmark, a potential bombing was averted by the apparent accidental detonation of an improvised explosive device in a bathroom at a Copenhagen hotel. The Danish authorities have not released many details of the incident, but it appears that the suspect may have been intending to target the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which has been targeted in the past because it published cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed in 2005. Groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have tried hard to ensure that the anger over the cartoon issue does not die down, and it apparently has not. It is important to note that even if the perpetrator had not botched it, the plot — at least as we understand it so far — appears to have involved a simple attack plan and would not have resulted in a spectacular act of terrorism.

Yet in spite of the failed attack in Denmark and all the 9/11 retrospection, perhaps the most interesting thing about the 9/11 anniversary in 2010, at least from an analytical perspective, was what did not happen. For the first time, the al Qaeda core leadership did not issue a flurry of slick, media-savvy statements to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. And the single statement they did release was not nearly as polished or pointed as past anniversary messages. This has caused us to pause, reflect and wonder if the al Qaeda leadership is losing its place at the ideological forefront of the jihadist cause.

When it comes to anniversaries, al Qaeda has not always seized upon them as opportunities for attacks, but it has long seen them as tempting propaganda opportunities. This first began in September 2002, when the group released numerous messages in a multitude of forms to coincide with the first anniversary of 9/11. These included a one-hour video titled "The Nineteen Martyrs," referring to the 9/11 attackers; a book released by al-Ansar media telling the story of the 9/11 attacks; an audio tape from al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri; a statement from al Qaeda's "Political Bureau"; and a statement from al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. Then, on Oct. 7, 2002, Al Qaeda released a message from Osama bin Laden to the American people to commemorate the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

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By George Friedman

Bob Woodward has released another book, this one on the debate over Afghanistan strategy in the Obama administration. As all his books do, the book has riveted Washington. It reveals that intense debate occurred over what course to take, that the president sought alternative strategies and that compromises were reached. But while knowing the details of these things is interesting, what would have been shocking is if they hadn't taken place.

It is interesting to reflect on the institutional inevitability of these disagreements. The military is involved in a war. It is institutionally and emotionally committed to victory in the theater of combat. It will demand all available resources for executing the war under way. For a soldier who has bled in that war, questioning the importance of the war is obscene. A war must be fought relentlessly and with all available means.

But while the military's top generals and senior civilian leadership are responsible for providing the president with sound, clearheaded advice on all military matters including the highest levels of grand strategy, they are ultimately responsible for the pursuit of military objectives to which the commander-in-chief directs them. Generals must think about how to win the war they are fighting. Presidents must think about whether the war is worth fighting. The president is responsible for America's global posture. He must consider what an unlimited commitment to a particular conflict might mean in other regions of the world where forces would be unavailable.

A president must take a more dispassionate view than his generals. He must calculate not only whether victory is possible but also the value of the victory relative to the cost. Given the nature of the war in Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama and Gen. David Petraeus — first the U.S. Central Command chief and now the top commander in Afghanistan — had to view it differently. This is unavoidable. This is natural. And only one of the two is ultimately in charge.

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Dr Robert Crowcroft

The facts of the latest terrorist plot against the West are still hazy, but what we do know is this: simultaneous attacks have been planned against several European cities, including London and probably sites in France and Germany. These attacks were to be modelled on the effective 'commando raids' in Mumbai in 2008, in which groups of terrorists wreaked havoc with automatic weapons and killed hundreds of people. India has still not recovered. And the plot was led by senior Al-Qaeda figures in Waziristan. The intelligence services think that the plot was in the 'final stages' before being launched, that it would have been a 'spectacular', that British Muslims were once again involved, and that the purpose was an old-fashioned suicidal rampage. The plot seems to have been disrupted by American drone strikes in Pakistan, killing the brains of the plot.

There are two points here. One is the absolute centrality of the United States to any sensible security strategy for Britain. I will try not to even get into what this latest American intervention to protect our citizens says about the perspectives of those like Labour leader Ed Miliband (who wants a more 'independent' foreign policy) and his ally Sadiq Khan (who thinks the US alliance is 'poison' for Britain). All I will say is that I look forward to the day when the likes of Miliband and Khan sign up to defend the country with their lives if the Americans decided a whining ally isn't worth having. As a university teacher, when confronted by anti-American students I routinely stop seminars and pose the question whether they, personally, would be willing to kill in order to defend the realm. The bewildered look on their faces when I do so tells me that they have never contemplated an activity that throughout human history as been the norm for most males. But the fact that people in this country can lead such a sheltered existence is due only to Britain's alliance with the United States and our possession of nuclear weapons. Surely it isn't beyond us as a society not to mess it all up.

The second point is that given the inability of Islamic terrorists to match, or better, the 9/11 atrocities over the past nine years, from their perspective this kind of attack would appear to be the most sensible kind of approach to take. All they need is a few guns and a rampage can be launched. With Mumbai-esque operations there is less of a need to do the kind of things that increase the risk of detection – like buying chemicals and cooking explosives in suburban kitchens. The blunt (and frightening) truth is that if I was an Islamic terrorist, settling on a 'commando raid' rampage would now look a far more profitable means of spreading fear and chaos than attempting to stage so-called 'grand' terror attacks.

Will home-grown terrorists head in this direction? If they do, the prospects for social peace in this country will be poor. It is significant that this plot emanated from Pakistan – where Islamic extremists are at least familiar with the concept of 'strategy'. We should be grateful that, so far, domestic extremists have proven even more inept at waging an insurgency against Britain than was the IRA – and they were shockingly bad, to say the least. Instead those British citizens who turn to terrorism have been more inclined to gesture and feel-good exhibitionism about killing the infidels than with actually getting on and killing then. The 7/7 bombings were the only significant Islamist attack on these shores since 9/11, due to not only the diligence of law-enforcement agencies but also the incompetence of domestic terrorists. If more British Muslims come under the operational sway of those people abroad who actually understand how to run an insurgency, then terror attacks could become a more frequent occurrence.

Take the 2005 attack on the Tube and Tavistock Square. Brutal? Yes. Strategically effective? Absolutely not. The purpose of an insurgency is to win the support of a particular part of the population (in this case, the wider British Muslim community). To do that, they need to be radicalised (here, made not only sympathetic to, but willing to actively assist, the Islamist causes). And to be radicalised, the majority of the population must be persuaded to take repressive measures against them (in other words, turn the non-Muslims against the Muslim minority). From this perspective, 7/7 was a dismal failure. The plotters were glorified exhibitionists. Contrast it with the Chechens who conducted the horrendous Beslan school siege in 2005. Now they had an eye for strategy. And compare it with the Mumbai atrocities as well. The reaction of the British public to rampaging, random attacks against the vulnerable or major national hubs doesn't bear thinking about. At the very least, racial tensions in this country would increase markedly.

The terrorists, therefore, have important decisions to make. If they become more cunning and with a greater eye for strategy, then our stable society will find itself in danger. And so we have important decisions to make too: about whether we will stop rubbishing the relationship with the United States, and what we are going to do to prepare for attacks like Beslan or Mumbai. Because it is almost certain that, sooner or later, they will happen.

Robert Crowcroft is a specialist on British politics and defence.

 

By Scott Stewart

On Friday, Oct. 22, the organization known as WikiLeaks published a cache of 391,832 classified documents on its website. The documents are mostly field reports filed by U.S. military forces in Iraq from January 2004 to December 2009 (the months of May 2004 and March 2009 are missing). The bulk of the documents (379,565, or about 97 percent) were classified at the secret level, with 204 classified at the lower confidential level. The remaining 12,062 documents were either unclassified or bore no classification.

This large batch of documents is believed to have been released by Pfc. Bradley Manning, who was arrested in May 2010 by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Command and charged with transferring thousands of classified documents onto his personal computer and then transmitting them to an unauthorized person. Manning is also alleged to have been the source of the classified information released by WikiLeaks pertaining to the war in Afghanistan in July 2010.

WikiLeaks released the Iraq war documents, as it did the Afghanistan war documents, to a number of news outlets for analysis several weeks in advance of their formal public release. These news organizations included The New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and Al Jazeera, each of which released special reports to coincide with the formal release of the documents Oct. 22.

Due to its investigation of Manning, the U.S. government also had a pretty good idea of what the material was before it was released and had formed a special task force to review it for sensitive and potentially damaging information prior to the release. The Pentagon has denounced the release of the information, which it considers a crime, has demanded the return of its stolen property and has warned that the documents place Iraqis at risk of retaliation and also place the lives of U.S. troops at risk from terrorist groups that are mining the documents for tidbits of operational information they can use in planning their attacks.

When one takes a careful look at the classified documents released by WikiLeaks, it becomes quickly apparent that they contain very few true secrets. Indeed, the main points being emphasized by Al Jazeera and the other media outlets after all the intense research they conducted before the public release of the documents seem to highlight a number of issues that had been well-known and well-chronicled for years. For example, the press has widely reported that the Iraqi government was torturing its own people; many civilians were killed during the six years the documents covered; sectarian death squads were operating inside Iraq; and the Iranian government was funding Shiite militias. None of this is news. But, when one steps back from the documents themselves and looks at the larger picture, there are some interesting issues that have been raised by the release of these documents and the reaction to their release.

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By George Friedman

We are a week away from the 2010 U.S. midterm elections. The outcome is already locked in. Whether the Republicans take the House or the Senate is close to immaterial. It is almost certain that the dynamics of American domestic politics will change. The Democrats will lose their ability to impose cloture in the Senate and thereby shut off debate. Whether they lose the House or not, the Democrats will lose the ability to pass legislation at the will of the House Democratic leadership. The large majority held by the Democrats will be gone, and party discipline will not be strong enough (it never is) to prevent some defections.

Should the Republicans win an overwhelming victory in both houses next week, they will still not have the votes to override presidential vetoes. Therefore they will not be able to legislate unilaterally, and if any legislation is to be passed it will have to be the result of negotiations between the president and the Republican Congressional leadership. Thus, whether the Democrats do better than expected or the Republicans win a massive victory, the practical result will be the same.

When we consider the difficulties President Barack Obama had passing his health care legislation, even with powerful majorities in both houses, it is clear that he will not be able to push through any significant legislation without Republican agreement. The result will either be gridlock or a very different legislative agenda than we have seen in the first two years.

These are not unique circumstances. Reversals in the first midterm election after a presidential election happened to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. It does not mean that Obama is guaranteed to lose a re-election bid, although it does mean that, in order to win that election, he will have to operate in a very different way. It also means that the 2012 presidential campaign will begin next Wednesday on Nov. 3. Given his low approval ratings, Obama appears vulnerable and the Republican nomination has become extremely valuable. For his part, Obama does not have much time to lose in reshaping his presidency. With the Iowa caucuses about 15 months away and the Republicans holding momentum, the president will have to begin his campaign.

Obama now has two options in terms of domestic strategy. The first is to continue to press his agenda, knowing that it will be voted down. If the domestic situation improves, he takes credit for it. If it doesn't, he runs against Republican partisanship. The second option is to abandon his agenda, cooperate with the Republicans and re-establish his image as a centrist. Both have political advantages and disadvantages and present an important strategic decision for Obama to make.

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By Adam Dempsey, Research Associate in Residence, UK Defence Forum

Russia's search an alternative buyer for S-300 air-defence missile batteries originally earmarked for Iran appears to have been hastily resolved. On 18th October Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez announced to journalists in Kiev, Ukraine, that his country intends to purchase five S-300s. The deal is expected to cost Venezuela $800 million. Russia's compliance with United Nations Resolution 1929 vindicates international consensus that Iran would use the S-300s to protect nuclear facilities. As it is highly unlikely that Venezuela has a similar nuclear programme the sale of the S-300s to Caracas should be comparatively easy. Yet why would Venezuela need to make such a purchase?

An overview of the S-300 suggests that Venezuela will be purchasing one of the most formidable air-defence systems currently available. The S-300 is capable of engaging six incoming targets simultaneously at ranges of up to 300km. According to the Federation of American Scientists the S-300 is also able to counter intensive air raids at low-to-high altitudes. The system can also be used to target low altitude objects such as cruise missiles and possibly to intercept strategic ballistic missiles.

Should Iran have completed the purchase of the S-300s the dynamics of the Middle East security environment would also have changed. As Iran's outdated air defences remain in place both the United States and Israel can retain the option of a pre-emptive strike on Tehran's nuclear facilities. Whilst the deployment of S-300s would do little to deter a larger-scale American bombardment it is likely that Tel Aviv would reassess its options. Yet this makes Chavez's decision to purchase the S-300s all the more mystifying.

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