Sarin in Syria: what standard of proof?

Damsascus

Damascus. Photo Credit: Flickr/sharnik.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Yesterday US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said it was likely that chemical weapons (CW) had been used on a ‘small scale’ in Syria. President Obama claimed in August that the use of CW in Syria would change his calculus on US intervention, but the intelligence must be examined carefully to assess whether his ‘red line’ on CW has actually been crossed.

On Thursday, the White House said that although it was likely the nerve gas sarin had been used, the evidence was still too thin and that it needed ‘credible and corroborated facts’. President Obama is being pilloried in some quarters for not following through on his earlier red line. But after the misuse of intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq ten years ago, the bar for concluding that Assad used chemical weapons must naturally be set high. The standard of evidence should meet at least three conditions: clear-cut evidence of use, meaningful quantity, and purposefulness.

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Managing risks in cyber warfare

Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command, Watchfloor
By Dr William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

It is a nondescript 12-storey building in Shanghai, but its alleged exploits in cyber hacking into American-based computers has put it at the centre of intensified tensions between China and the United States.

The alleged intrusions by China-based hackers are not entirely new. In past years, the Pentagon and Google have alleged that Chinese hackers had broken into their networks. In 2011, it was alleged that Operation Shady RAT had targeted more than 70 organisations over five years. This included the United Nations, government agencies in the US, Canada, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.

But the mounting evidence of China’s support for the hacking and the growing threat posed to US infrastructure, if proven to be true, would represent an emerging Chinese way of war that is truly worrying.

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Pushing for US-Russia ‘reset 2.0’

06 02 13-010

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant editor

The US ‘reset’ towards Russia during the first Obama administration had created ‘dividends for European security’, the IISS’s new senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia told an audience in London this week – even if this positive effect was underappreciated. However, relations with Russia in Obama’s second term would be complicated by Vladimir Putin’s recent return to the presidency and Putin’s less apparent warmth towards Washington than predecessor Dmitry Medvedev.

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Forward? Barack Obama’s second term

By Chris Raggett, Assistant editor

Although foreign policy played a small role in the US presidential campaign late last year, the way Barack Obama handles Iran before 2016 could determine how the president goes down in history. So argues Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the IISS’s non-proliferation programme, speaking at a discussion meeting last week about Obama’s upcoming second term.

Over the weekend, Iran signalled it might return in late February to talks with the international community over its disputed nuclear programme. However, the country has also recently notified the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, that it will be installing new, more efficient centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. This would dramatically shorten the time it would take Tehran to ‘break-out’ and make a nuclear bomb after expelling IAEA inspectors. Fitzpatrick, who believes there is the chance that some sort of military action ‘may come into play’ in the next four years to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, has said the installation of new centrifuges would be a ‘game changer‘.

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Myanmar ‘delivers’ nuclear transparency

President Barack Obama tours the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

In the run-up to presidential visits aides look for achievements that can be announced, typically agreements on trade and the like. Called ‘deliverables’ in the diplomatic argot, they are often the currency of exchange for deciding on travel destinations.

So when it was announced that US President Barack Obama would include Burma in his mid-November trip to Southeast Asia, there were concerns and questions, including from Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, about whether Myanmar deserved the honour. What ‘deliverable’ would warrant bestowing a presidential visit on a country that had not yet fully emerged from its decades of authoritarianism and human-rights abuses?

But as it turned out, the quid pro quo for Obama’s visit was significant indeed. To the delight of the
non-proliferation community, Myanmar said it would accept the global standard for nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), known by the catchy name of the ‘Additional Protocol’.

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Obama’s second chance at Prague nuke agenda

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The US electorate has spoken, and most of the international diplomats, academics, and others with whom I spoke on the day after our presidential election on 6 November breathed a sigh of relief that the stewardship of the world’s (still) sole superpower will remain in safe hands for another four years. The rest of the world famously backed Barack Obama, so while much of the satisfaction I heard about the Democrat’s re-election pertained particularly to the nuclear-policy matters being addressed in my various meetings, I also found myself, as an American citizen abroad, congratulated more broadly.

The election turned on domestic issues, and even the presidential debate that was supposed to be dedicated to foreign policy pivoted back to the American economy and education system. Nevertheless, the question that I have been asked most is how Obama will use his renewed lease on the White House to address global issues. In my area of specialisation on arms control and non-proliferation, everyone agrees there is much to be done. Unfortunately, there seems little scope for Obama to do it. And, of course, Iran looms large on his agenda.

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Romney’s Italian Job

Mitt Romney

By Guest Blogger Giacomo Tagiuri

In the final days of the US election campaign, my home country of Italy has stepped into a cameo role. It is, to be sure, the role of a villain. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has invoked Italy as the kind of bad example that America should do everything possible to avoid. Even so, as an Italian accustomed to a diminishing presence in the international debate, I have been amused and even a little proud.

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Romney wins debate by ignoring much larger one

Mitt Romney

By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs

The collective punditry has rendered a near-unanimous verdict on the presidential debate in Denver last night: Mitt Romney won it. Romney was sharp, engaged and composed – maybe a tad over-aggressive at times but clearly comfortable in his own skin. President Obama looked – to many of us, anyway – like he would have much preferred to be somewhere else.

This was no real surprise, except perhaps in the magnitude of Romney’s advantage. Despite many other flaws as a candidate, Romney had proved himself a strong debater against his Republican primary opponents. Set debates have never been Obama’s strength; he tends to behave like a professor in a seminar, rather than a debater prepared for battle.

How much it matters is another question. The narrative of September had been harsh for the Romney campaign. The Republican had a flat nominating convention; Obama’s was judged a resounding success (notwithstanding the president’s own rather flat acceptance speech). In the weeks that followed, Romney stumbled through a knee-jerk attack on the White House in the very hours that US diplomats were under attack and dying in the Middle East. Then surfaced the secretly recorded video of Romney telling wealthy supporters that

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what … who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Attacking almost half of Americans was unlikely to win him new supporters, and polling evidence shows that it didn’t. Moreover, though the margins have remained close, Romney had not pulled ahead in polling averages since the beginning of the year, a highly unusual problem for a challenger. In key swing states like Ohio, meanwhile, Obama has built what look like insurmountable leads.

Romney’s supporters will be heartened by last night’s performance, which may well resuscitate his campaign. Historical evidence speaks against turning a debate win into an electoral win, however. To take one of many examples: former vice president Walter Mondale was widely viewed as the winner against an apparently distracted Ronald Reagan in their first 1984 debate; Reagan went on to take 49 out of 50 states. (It is true that 73-year-old Reagan in a second debate delivered a decisive blow with the joke: ‘I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’ But this only reinforced the truth that substantial mastery of issues in a formal debate is rather beside the point).

Romney’s apparent victory carried a certain irony insofar as he probably won this debate by abandoning a very substantial philosophical and policy debate that the 2012 presidential campaign has – against many expectations – actually provided. It concerns genuine and deep-seated disagreements about the relationship of state and society in the United States. Republicans have latched on to an Obama speech of some months ago in which he argued – echoing Harvard law professor and now Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren – that individuals’ economic success rests on a broader community effort. Businesses are possible because of the infrastructure, the education, the regulation and the social safety net that only government can provide. Such an argument only restated the consensus philosophy that emerged from FDR’s New Deal response to the economic crisis of the 1930s. Obama in this particular speech had slightly garbled the message – so he could be represented, tendentiously and out of context, as denying all credit to businessmen and -women for their own success. But leaving this misrepresentation aside, there remains a real philosophical divide. Conservatives seem genuinely offended by the (in historical terms rather mild) communitarian instincts of the president and his party. Romney’s ‘47%’ riff was an extreme expression of this underlying belief that real freedom is a matter of economic freedom and economic success, and that both are threatened by Obama’s commitment to the welfare state and progressive taxation.

One reason that Romney won last night’s staged debate is that he left this underlying debate aside. It was the ‘Return of Massachusetts Mitt,’ as Jonathan Chait put it: a return of the former Governor’s at-least-temperamental moderation for which Obama and his team were arguably unprepared. Romney is still unlikely to win on 6 November, but if he does win it will be by successfully burying that larger debate – a debate that he was losing.


Obama and Ahmadinejad: Rhetoric at the UNGA

President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly. Photo Credit: UN

President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly. Photo Credit: UN Photo Library

By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs

To my eyes, President Obama’s red line looks quite … red.

In front of the UN General Assembly yesterday, the president said the following:

And make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That’s why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

This is not new from the US President; last spring he started explicitly rejecting the idea that the United States could rely on a regime of containment against an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. I’m not sure it is correct that a nuclear-armed Iran couldn’t be contained, but it is pretty clearly the policy of the United States not to take the chance.

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US Congress: pinning hopes on the lame duck?

United States Capitol

United States Capitol. Photo Credit:Flick Creative Commons/Vince Alongi

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

As the presidential campaigns take centre stage, in Washington the conventional wisdom on preventing  $1.2 trillion automatic across-the-board cuts (‘sequestration’) is that Congress and the White House will strike a deal on an alternative debt-reduction plan in the so-called ‘lame duck’ legislative session – after the election and before the new year. But as the deadline approaches, this no longer looks like a certainty.

With half of the impending cuts slated for the defense budget, the US defense industry is feeling the tension. In July, Lockheed Martin CEO Robert J. Stevens testified before Congress that ‘the very prospect of sequestration is already having a chilling effect on the industry’. According to a Bloomberg Government report, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Dynamics spent $10.3 million on lobbying and spreading awareness on the possible effects of sequestration in the first quarter of 2012.  

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