Archive for category Foreign Policy

Alliances and Their Discontents

The Sunday Times is reporting that several Arab countries are prepared to join Israel and Turkey in a missile-defensive alliance designed to contain the threat from a nuclear Iran:

The plan would see Israel join with Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to create a Middle Eastern “moderate crescent,” according to the Sunday Times, which cited an unnamed Israeli official. Israel does not currently maintain formal ties with Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, and relations with Ankara have been strained since 2009.

According to the report, Israel would gain access to radar stations in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and in exchange share its own early warning radar information and anti-ballistic missile defense systems, though it’s not clear in what form. The report details that Jordan would be protected by Israel’s Arrow long-range anti-missile batteries.

The so-called 4+1 plan is being brokered by Washington, and would mark a sharp shift in stated policy for the White House, which has insisted the US is not interested in containing Iran but rather stopping it before it reaches nuclear weapon capability.

This is an idea that may have some merit, but if overburdened with expectations, could also lead to catastrophe.

The idea of finally breaking the ice between Israel and its longtime Arab enemies in a meaningful way has got to be tremendously appealing.  If the stalwart Saudis could be brought publicly on board with such a plan, it makes it easier for other Gulf States and Arab countries to be added in eventually, and forces the more recalcitrant states to explain why their people’s survival is less important to their rulers than the Saudi subjects’ is to their king.

It puts the lie to the idea that the Palestinians present the paramount, insurmountable obstacle to such cooperation.  The Israelis will never agree to return to the Auschwitz boundaries, but for those obsessed with the “peace process,” by playing on Palestinian fears that Israel and the rest of the Arab world are prepared to move on without them, in however limited a way, it may force the Palestinians to re-examine their own obstructionism.  And it surely brings to the surface the internal contradictions of a Muslim world that tries to isolate Israel even as it makes its own accommodations to its existence.

Put in the context of recent developments, it also places Obama’s attempt to get Israel and Turkey talking again as a first move in a plan to contain Iran.  If the administration is finally looking to create more alternatives for itself, rather than paint itself into rhetorical corners, it’s also a welcome sign of some belated maturity.

But all of these are largely long-term effects, the sort of thing that take years, even decades to mature into tangible benefits.  It may be that a military threat from Iran is what is forcing the Arabs and Turkey to publicly look to Israel for cooperation, but a solid trade relationship would accomplish much the same thing.

The risk is that the military benefits and diplomatic durability of such an alliance get oversold, with the result that the lack of one leads to the collapse of the other.

In point of fact, none of the players very much likes any of the others; it’s a potential alliance with 10 difference two-way relationships, almost all of which are fraught with distrust and hostility.  Such alliances are often useful over the short-run, and become, over time, extremely vulnerable to diplomatic maneuvers designed to exploit these fault lines.  Moreover, the Turks have never really cut off trade relations with the Iranians, they they share a common interest in keepin’ the Kurd down.  Once the Syrian regime has fallen, it’s anyone’s guess whether that country will continue to be a source of irritation between Iran and Syria.

We don’t have to detail every individual scenario – some are obvious, others less so – in order to understand how that works.  Purely defensive alliances by definition put the initiative in the hands of the enemy.  Without persuasive offensive options, such alliances allow the enemy opportunities and time to manipulate the diplomatic landscape.  It allows them to choose when they’ll make their moves, and if they’re smart, they’ll wait until a moment of tension between two or more of those allies.  If they’re really smart, they’ll help create that tension themselves.  And the Iranians have shown themselves adept at avoiding actual containment, both through the threats of terror abroad, and the availability of their oil to willing buyers.

Ultimately, these are the wages of appeasement.  With the United States not only being evidently unwilling to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities itself, but also having publicly restrained Israel from doing so when it might have, we are now left with this option.  Instead of having acted when we might have, and still might, we seem resigned to the deeply immoral policy of MAD.   As long as we understand its severe time and extent limitations, it may serve as part of a fall-back plan.


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Game of Thrones, High Altitude Edition

Walter Russell Mead has aptly characterized the ongoing re-working of strategic relationships in Asia as the “Game of Thrones,” and he takes notice of the latest developments on the disputed Chinese-Indian border.

The government on Friday for the first time admitted that People’s Liberation Army(PLA) troops had intruded as much as 19 km inside Indian territory to pitch their tents there, even as it kept a third flag meeting between local commanders in eastern Ladakh “on hold” to give China “time and space” to withdraw its soldiers on its own.

The move has to be seen in at least 4 different contexts.  First, there’s the simple straightforward ongoing border dispute with India.  India still has bad memories of having lost that war, and is clearly shying away from a direct confrontation this time.  It doesn’t have the organization to take on the Chinese right now, and doesn’t have the irredentist passion that existed in, say, pre-1914 France.  Anyone who’s ever tried to climb a 14er, or has followed a rescue from such a peak, understands the difficulty of conducting operations in such an environment.  So the Chinese may have stolen a 12-mile push forward, but it’s not as though there’s much more than pride at stake here.

Of course, Chinese-Indian tensions now extend well beyond the Himalayas.  As Robert Kaplan as pointed out, the Chinese have made Pakistan a strategic ally, with an eye towards an outlet to the Indian Ocean; the two countries are engaged in a struggle for economic influence in Burma, which has a direct bearing on the question of who will end up being responsible for naval security in the vital Straits of  Malacca.  And the Indians have taken suitable umbrage at Chinese resource claims in the South China Sea.  China’s Hiamalayan gambit can also be seen as an effort to put India back on its heels.

Not only does this serve as a remind to India of who’s in front right now, it also reminds others in the region that India can’t protect them, and of their own, weaker positions vis-a-vis China.  And globally, it calls into question the United States’s willingness and ability to continue to stabilize the situation in Asia.

Thus the fruits of taking punch at your strongest rival in his weakest spot.

The risks, of course, are they someday you’ll misjudge your own strength or your neighbors’ willingness to resist such incursions, even as your strengthen their resolve.  China, without serious allies in Asia (unless you count Russia’s willingness to make distracting trouble elsewhere), now has simmering direct or proxy disputes with India, Burma, the Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

It’s also worth remembering that China’s population is becoming older and unbalanced, with more men that women, thanks to sex-selective abortions, putting it in a mid-term (no longer a long-term) demographic bind.  This, even as the population grows increasingly displeased with Communist Party rule, has led the Party to stoke nationalist flames.

The analogy to pre-WWI Germany is looking increasingly apt, with baleful possibilities for all concerned.

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