Did the New Spooks on the Block Really Fix U.S Intelligence?

This news story first appeared on April 27, 2015 . For more information, click here.

Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security. He is the author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence (Cornell University Press, 2011).

Did the New Spooks on the Block Really Fix U.S. Intelligence?

By Joshua Rovner, Austin Long. This story first appeared in Foreign Policy, April 27, 2015.

For decades intelligence reformers sought to centralize the U.S. intelligence community in a single office with real power over budgets, personnel, and operations. Ten years ago they finally got their wish. Following an intense congressional fight, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) set up shop in April 2005 with high expectations. The office was supposed to ensure the kind of inter-agency coordination that was supposedly missing before the 9/11 attacks. It was to be the fulcrum of sharing and collaboration among agencies with long histories of mutual suspicion and occasional disdain. Ultimately it sought to unify a sprawling constellation of civilian and military agencies into “fully integrated intelligence community” that would “inform decisions made from the White House to the foxhole.” Has it achieved these goals? Has it improved national security against terrorist attacks? Has it led to intelligence on other issues and improved the quality of intelligence-policy relations? The 10-year anniversary of ODNI offers a good opportunity to evaluate its performance. Understanding its strengths and weaknesses is particularly important today, because the current push for further reforms is based on the notion that ODNI model has succeeded. Whether these recommendations make sense depends in large part on how we understand ODNI’s history. Writing for Shadow Government last week, Michael Allen and Stephen Slick argued that ODNI has generally succeeded, though they begin by noting that in some ways it is still too early to judge. In the last decade, for instance, rising intelligence budgets have mostly eased the burden on the director to make hard resource decisions among competing agencies. But on the whole they conclude that the office has successfully promoted intelligence integration, which critics argue was one of the main problems before 9/11, and they urge future policymakers to support its effort. “The alternative,” they write, “is backsliding into old habits that may result in weakened collection, information hoarding, and renewed tribalism.” To be sure, the intelligence community has a lot to be proud of over the last decade. It played an important role in destroying the original al Qaeda organization that was responsible for 9/11. It developed a raft of new collection capabilities at a time of extraordinary technological change. It supported military campaigns in two wars and conducted its own operations in several others. It also invested heavily in tracking nuclear proliferation and keeping a close eye on emerging nuclear powers like Iran. Policymakers have quietly expressed satisfaction with these efforts. But it is not clear ODNI deserves the credit. Most of the effort to dismantle Osama bin Laden’s organization occurred in the years immediately following 9/11. Indeed, by the time ODNI opened for business in April 2005, most of al Qaeda’s leaders were on the run, in prison, or dead. Moreover, much of the war on terrorism has been spearheaded by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Counterterrorism and Special Activities Centers along with the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, so it makes little sense to judge ODNI by progress in the war on terrorism. What about warning? This is a more important criterion, given that ODNI was established explicitly to improve coordination so that terrorists could not slip through the seams between different intelligence agencies. Allen and Slick argue that one of the most important elements of intelligence reform was the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) housed within ODNI, which “plays a crucial role in merging terror threat information from all sources.” Our conversations with policymakers and intelligence officials suggest that it has been largely successful, and President Obama has directed the creation of a new cybersecurity center based on the NCTC. Rather than being revolutionary, however, the NCTC was an outgrowth of a pre-existing organization called the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which was in place more than a year before the intelligence reform legislation that led to the creation of ODNI. Moreover, it is unclear why NCTC requires a Director of National Intelligence. NCTC’s success is much more a result of taking the lead in managing strategy and policy for counterterrorism rather than intelligence integration per se. This management role is intrinsically important, and for an ongoing global campaign like counterterrorism it is beyond the limited capacity of the National Security Council staff. Yet managing strategy and policy for a specific issue area does not require an ODNI and its attendant bureaucracy. Indeed, the relationship between the national centers (NCTC, the National Counterproliferation Center, and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center) and the ODNI headquarters staff sometimes creates unnecessary problems. Rather than facilitating coordination, the additional layer of bureaucracy can create friction. It is entirely possible that the centers would perform at least as well — and perhaps even better — without ODNI. Perhaps we are being too critical. After all, it is a fact that the United States has not suffered another 9/11- scale attack, which seems to suggest that the major aspect of intelligence reform has worked. It is impossible to know whether better warning procedures are responsible, however, because al Qaeda was decimated before the reforms were implemented. Al Qaeda was unique among terrorist organizations, both in terms of its ambitions and capabilities. Few if any other groups had the wherewithal to pull off the same kind of spectacular violence during the time that ODNI was getting up and running. It may have implemented reasonable reforms to improve warning, but the United States was unlikely to suffer a major attack even if it hadn’t. In any case, there are reasons to believe that the “failure of coordination” argument is overstated. There was quite a lot of coordination before 9/11, and the failures were mainly due to human error rather than poor organizational design. It is also worth considering the unexpected by-products of the drive for more sharing and coordination that has been central to the ODNI story. While it is understandable that analysts have easier access to information, there is a danger that pooling information for common use may create a greater danger for major breeches. Would Edward Snowden, a contractor, have been able to steal so many classified documents if not for a decade’s worth of exhortation to share? Ultimately, the major successes in U.S. counterterrorism after 9/11 were not due to intelligence reorganization but a change in policy. Before the attacks, U.S. policy was unfocused and risk averse. After the attacks policymakers took an intense interest in destroying al Qaeda and were willing to risk a great deal of blood and treasure in the process. Nearly a decade ago we argued that 9/11 was a national failure rather than an intelligence failure. In the 1990s, politicians and the general public took the threat of terrorist attack much less seriously than many in the intelligence community. The past decade has been radically different. It is this change, rather than ODNI’s rearranging of the bureaucratic deck chairs, that explains the lack of successful attacks.

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An Intel Success: Tracking Iran’s Nuclear Program

This news story first appeared on April 16, 2015 . For more information, click here.

Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security. He is the author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence (Cornell University Press, 2011).

An Intel Success: Tracking Iran’s Nuclear Program

By Joshua Rovner, The National Interest, April 16, 2015.

The nascent U.S.-Iran nuclear deal seeks to diminish Iran’s nuclear program in return for relaxing sanctions. Advocates of the deal highlight the intrusive inspections regime that will monitor Iranian compliance. Some have also noted that the inspections regime creates new opportunities for intelligence gathering, including the chance to scrutinize Iran’s manufacturing base, not just its nuclear facilities. New inspections will also cover the whole nuclear fuel cycle, which means that Iran will have to construct a fully parallel covert program if it wants to beat the inspectors. This would make it easier for intelligence to detect cheating.

Critics, however, worry that the intelligence community has not kept up with Iranian developments over the last decade, despite the fact that the Iran’s nuclear program has been the focus of international scrutiny. They charge that intelligence agencies have been naïve, vulnerable to surprise, and forced to backtrack from their embarrassing blunders.

None of these claims are correct. Contrary to popular views, the intelligence community has been quite successful in tracking Iran’s nuclear program.

Consider the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program, which provoked a burst of criticism as soon as the summary judgments were declassified. Henry Kissinger called it a “policy conjecture” masquerading as a sober estimate. The Wall Street Journal called it a “fiasco.” Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra called it a “piece of trash.”

In fact, the NIE was accurate and prescient. It concluded that before 2003, Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program, but that it had disbanded the formal effort under international pressure. There is no evidence this was wrong or that Iran had resuscitated work on weaponization, though laboratory scale research would be hard to detect. More importantly, the estimate concluded that Iran was continuing to install enrichment centrifuges and work on related technologies. This was the NIE’s critical if overlooked conclusion, because the process of accumulating fissile material is the most demanding part of becoming a nuclear power. The estimate concluded that Iran would be “technically capable of producing enough [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.” By November 2013, Iran had accumulated more than enough uranium for a bomb if further enriched.

Two years after the NIE controversy, Iran disclosed the existence of the Fordouranium enrichment facility, which was buried in a mountain near the city of Qom. This surprising revelation fed the belief that intelligence could not keep track of covert Iranian nuclear activities, and some observers continue to see it as proof of the limits of intelligence. Earlier this week The New York Times’David Sanger wrote that the CIA “missed a large underground site called Fordo” and was forced to rely on allied intelligence services for information about what was going on in Iran. “The CIA’s ability to detect covert nuclear sites,” he concluded, “has been mixed at best.”

But it is not clear that the CIA or any other agency was caught unaware. Intelligence officials explained at the time that they knew about Fordo but were reluctant to go public, both because of the traditional concern about revealing sources and methods, and because they wanted to make the “strongest possible case” about the nature of the facility. Satellite imagery reportedly spotted suspicious digging at the site long before Iran started installing equipment there in 2009. While intelligence officials obviously have reason to put a positive spin on their record, no subsequent reports indicate that they were misleading the public.

Critics claim that intelligence agencies have sheepishly backtracked from their previous views of Iran. As John Bolton put it in a recent New York Times op-ed, “there is now widespread acknowledgment that the rosy 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which judged that Iran’s weapons program was halted in 2003, was an embarrassment, little more than wishful thinking.”

Bolton may believe this but public statements from the intelligence community have been remarkably consistent on Iran since the original NIE. The Director of National Intelligence’s annual threat briefings to Congress, for instance, have stressed the same basic conclusions: Iran’s weapons program ended in 2003 but its enrichment program did not; Iran has worked hard to master the fuel cycle; Iran may seek nuclear weapons but it is also sensitive to economic and political pressure; and Iranian leaders have not made a final decision about whether to build an arsenal. Even a cursory reading of these statements, all of which are online, belies the notion that the intelligence community is running from its previous conclusions.

For all the criticism of its performance, the intelligence community has done well to keep up with Iran’s nuclear activities over the last decade. There is no obvious flaw in its conclusions or evidence that has reversed course. Indeed, this looks like an analytical success story. The 2007 NIE had the basics right, and estimates evolved as the intelligence community acquired new information. There may be reasons to be skeptical about a nuclear deal with Iran, but bad intelligence is not one of them.

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Why U.S. intelligence is right about Iran

This news story first appeared on April 13, 2015 . For more information, click here.

Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security. He is the author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence (Cornell University Press, 2011).

Why U.S. intelligence is right about Iran

By Joshua Rovner, The Washington Post, April 13, 2015.

This post is part of the “Iran and the Nuclear Deal” symposium.

In 2002, the intelligence community produced a flawed estimate of Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capabilities. Intelligence analysts had very little reliable information at their disposal, especially because weapons inspectors had been out of the country for several years. Making matters worse, the George W. Bush administration began to lean on the community to exaggerate the Iraqi threat, and it used intelligence to sell the war to Congress and the public. Despite the patchy and unreliable underlying information, intelligence reports became increasingly assertive about the growing danger posed by Saddam Hussein’s illusory arsenal.

In 2007, the intelligence community produced another controversial National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). This time the topic was Iran’s nuclear program. Unlike the first case, this estimate was prepared under the assumption that it would remain classified, and analysts were surely surprised when then-President Bush ordered its publication. The estimate became the target of intense criticism, especially from Republicans who accused intelligence agencies of undermining the administration’s aggressive posture toward Iran. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger called it “policy conjecture” masquerading as objective intelligence. Peter Hoekstra, the former House intelligence committee chairman, called it a “piece of trash.”

In reality, the NIE was accurate and prescient. It concluded that Iran had disbanded its organized nuclear weapons research program in 2003. At the same time, it noted that Iran was continuing enrichment work apace and that Iran would have sufficient material for a bomb by 2015 if it chose to enrich its uranium stockpile to weapons grade. This prediction, which was supported in later threat assessments, has been borne out in International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports and open source analyses. Meanwhile there is no evidence to suggest that Iran had resuscitated its weaponization effort at any point between 2003 and 2007. If the estimate was so naive, as critics would have it, they are at a loss to find proof that it was substantively wrong.

Despite all the criticism, intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program has been a success story. The 2007 NIE made the useful distinction between Iran’s suspended weapons effort and its ongoing enrichment program. It served as the baseline for subsequent analyses, which refined what was known and unknown about Iranian capabilities and intentions. The Director of National Intelligence’s annual threat assessments give a flavor of the evolving view of Iran’s capabilities and intentions. The conclusions incorporate new information about Iran’s nuclear program but do not contradict the bottom line in the original NIE. Iran was building the scientific and technical infrastructure to master the nuclear fuel cycle, but it had not restarted the weapons program.

Nor was the intelligence community surprised by Iran’s revelation of a second enrichment plant called Fordow. On the contrary, it had been surveilling the site for months and perhaps years before Iran started installing equipment for centrifuges in 2009. Intelligence officials have publicly and privately asserted that they were watching closely but were reluctant to come forward until they could make a convincing argument that the facility, buried under a mountain near the city of Qom, was designed to house uranium centrifuges. No subsequent reporting appears to challenge these claims.

President Obama appears impressed by this record. The White House has expressed confidence in the intelligence community’s ability to keep track of Iran, and Obama has a particularly close relationship with CIA Director John Brennan, whom he has backed despite calls for his resignation. All of this suggests that policymakers are using intelligence to help inform their judgment about the nuclear deal and to monitor Iranian compliance in the aftermath. So far, so good.

The problem is that policymakers are also using intelligence for political purposes. Rather than simply letting secret intelligence inform its private discussions, the administration is enlisting it to help sell the nascent nuclear deal with Iran. Last week, for instance, Brennan spoke about the ongoing negotiations at Harvard University. Beyond discussing general issues related to intelligence, he included praise for U.S. policy, arguing that sanctions had badly hurt Iran’s economy and caused Tehran to give away far more than expected. The deal, he said, was “as solid as you can get.” Brennan also took aim at critics, some of whom are “wholly disingenuous” for their claims that the deal provides Iran with a pathway to the bomb.

It is easy to understand the temptation to use intelligence as a public relations vehicle. Individuals tend to believe that private documents aremore reliable than public statements, and they associate information quality with secrecy. Thus when leaders use secret intelligence to justify their policy choices, they remind skeptics that they are privy to unique sources and thus deserve the benefit of the doubt. Selectively releasing intelligence also implies that more valuable information remains classified.

But using intelligence in public is dangerous. My research shows that it often pushes the community toward firm conclusions even when the underlying information is open to multiple interpretations. Leaders involved in policy disputes do not benefit from intelligence that betrays uncertainty or doubt. If a gap appears between intelligence conclusions and policy statements, policymakers may pressure intelligence officials to alter the tone and substance of their conclusions. Examples abound. In 1967, Johnson administration officials pressured the CIA to provide optimistic assessments of progress in Vietnam in order to overcome growing opposition to the war. Two years later, the Nixon administration leaned on intelligence to hype the Soviet strategic threat in order to help sell a controversial missile defense program in Congress. In both cases the underlying information was ambiguous and contested inside and outside the intelligence community, but the demands of the public debate meant that policymakers could not tolerate signs of doubt or disagreement. So they removed them.

In addition, using intelligence to win public debates discourages reassessment – even if new information appears that contradicts previous beliefs. Intelligence leaders are reluctant to review their findings after making bold public pronouncements, because doing so would amount to an embarrassing admission of failure. In the months leading up to the 2003 Iraq War, for example, the intelligence community benefited from new information from inspectors as well as new secret sources. Officials were loathe to reassess their earlier findings, however, despite the fact that it was increasingly hard to justify the earlier estimates. The United Nations and IAEA conducted several hundred inspections, but they found no evidence of active unconventional programs or stockpiles of old weapons. Some mid-level CIA officers were desperate to reconsider the NIE and follow new leads, but they were stymied. “It’s time you learn it’s not about intelligence anymore,” one was told. “It’s about regime change.”

Finally, the decision to use intelligence in public may poison intelligence-policy relations over the long-term. Right now the Obama administration and the intelligence community seem to share a common view of Iran’s nuclear program. But their views may diverge, and intelligence leaders may become unwilling to make the kind of unequivocal statements that political leaders crave. If this occurs there may be a falling out that outlasts the current administration. Past intelligence-policy breakdowns have created mutual mistrust and hostility that lingered for years after the fact.

As the administration pushes to complete the Iran deal it should keep these dangers in mind. The expectation that intelligence will be part of the foreign policy debate has already led to surprisingly specific revelations about issues including Syria’s use of chemical weapons and U.S.-Saudi intelligence sharing in Yemen. U.S. policy is somewhat ambivalent on these issues, however, meaning that the risk of politicization is low. In the case of the Iranian nuclear deal there is no ambivalence: the administration is clearly staking itself to a nuclear deal in the face of substantial Senate opposition, and it is using intelligence to help make the case. This is a recipe for politicization. If intelligence conclusions start to drift from policy beliefs the White House will be strongly tempted to bring it back into line.

The administration should also reflect on the reasons that intelligence on Iraq was a disaster while intelligence on Iran was a triumph. Before the war in Iraq, intelligence was buffeted by the demands of an administration that needed to use it to justify the invasion. In 2007, however, there was no expectation among analysts that their work would be aired in public. The result was an estimate that has stood the test of time and subsequent intelligence built on the NIE to form a wide-ranging picture of Iran’s nuclear activities. If the White House continues to use intelligence to sell the Iran deal, it risks sacrificing that record.

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Guillermo Jesus Velasco and Maribel McMillian: A cultural dissonance that isn’t going away

This news story first appeared on April 10, 2015. For more information, click here.

Tower Center Associate, Jesus Velasco is a specialist on U.S.-Mexico relations at Tarleton State University.

Guillermo Jesus Velasco and Maribel McMillian: A cultural dissonance that isn’t going away

 The Dallas Morning News; April 10, 2015

In their recent piece in The News, Alfredo Corchado and Robert T. Garrett sized up the state of Texas-Mexico relations and a “growing tension … undermining a long-standing partnership.” They noted that, although Texas remains Mexico’s main trade partner among American states, there is tension at the political level, fueled by the deployment of Texas National Guard units to the border, anti-immigration sentiment expressed publicly by Texas political leaders and warnings against travel to Mexico.

What explains this tension in the bilateral relationship? What are the causes that have provoked the current state of affairs? In our view, the sources of this rift can be explained by domestic politics in Texas and Mexico and by societal and cultural dissonance that is not likely to end soon.

Start with the conservative politics in Texas. Since the election of Ann Richards in 1990, Texans have elected only Republican governors. The GOP has controlled all statewide elected offices since 1998. Since 2003, Republicans have controlled both chambers of the Legislature.

It is not strange, therefore, that conservative attitudes are reflected in relations with Mexico, where people view important issues very differently.

According to a Feb. 15, 2015 poll of Texans, conducted by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, the most important problems facing the state are border security (21 percent) and immigration (17 percent).

Gun control worries only 2 percent of the population. Forty-four percent said they favor deployment of the National Guard to the border, while only 9 percent are opposed. The poll also reveals that 35 percent of Texans strongly agree with deporting unauthorized immigrants, while only 16 percent somewhat disagree. Clearly, Texas’ public policy reflects the views of residents.

Of course, Mexicans have different views. According to a poll conducted by the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in 2012-13, 45 percent of Mexicans considered trade and investment the most important issue in U.S.-Mexican relations. Other concerns: drug trafficking and organized crime (18 percent), border security (17 percent) and migration (15 percent).

The topic of the death penalty follows a similar narrative. Texans, generally speaking, are in support. For most Mexicans, though, the death penalty contradicts the Catholic principle of preservation of life (although public opinion shows the wave of drug violence and kidnappings is changing some minds).

But the biggest issue is vastly different views on immigration. To the Mexican government, immigration is a foreign policy issue. For Texas — and the greater U.S. — it is a domestic policy concern. The majority of Texans support the deportation of undocumented workers for breaking the law. Mexicans see it as a question of fairness. Mexicans believe undocumented workers are in the United States because they are needed here to do the jobs Americans don’t want to do. Paradoxically, it is the very forces of American capitalism — and arguably of Texas’ friendly business climate — that drive the problem, which the United States works to stop with walls, border patrols and the National Guard. Law is not the issue here but fundamental cultures on which these laws rest.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz says cultures are systems of beliefs, values, attitudes, traditions and ideas that distinguish the members of one group or category of people from others. If that’s true, Mexico and Texas have very different cultures. Though they share a historical background, strong cultural differences have created ruts in the relationship. It is likely that this cultural dissonance pervading Texas-Mexico relations will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

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Yuval Weber | Why the U.S. does nothing in Ukraine

This news story first appeared on March 18, 2015. For more information, click here.

Tower Center Associate, Yuval Weber is an assistant professor in the Department of World Economy and International Affairs at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia.

Why the U.S. does nothing in Ukraine

By Yuval Weber, The Washington Post; March 18, 2015

The ongoing war in Ukraine recently passed the first anniversary of the highly dubious referendum that split Crimea off from Ukraine and eventually saw it attached to Russia. Over the course of the conflict that followed, over 6,000 people have died, large swathes of eastern Ukraine have been destroyed, and Russian support for separatists rendered insecure by the change of government in Kiev has gone from highly suspected to fairly open. Reaction in Washington has been equally vitriolic with politicians and commentators pushing for President Obama either to escalate the challenge to Russia by providing greater amounts of military aid to Ukraine more quickly or to come to some sort of great power accommodation instead, effectively ceding a low-importance country in exchange for an end to the conflict to a much more resolved adversary. Recent expert interviews conducted by my colleague Andrej Krickovic and I here in Moscow on Russian strategic interests, and insights derived from the bargaining theory of conflict, suggest that the current policy – doing little at the cost of watching the collateral damage rise – may best fulfill U.S. foreign policy interests by refusing to give Russia the fight it wants at the time and issue of the latter’s choosing.

For a recent paper, Krickovic and I interviewed a number of foreign policy experts here in Moscow to understand the extent of Russian strategic interests. The interview subjects clearly indicated that the war in Ukraine is a symptom of greater dissatisfaction with the post-Cold War international order. As Evgeny Lukyanov, the Deputy Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, has said, “We need to sit down [with the United States] and renegotiate the entire post-cold War settlement.” The experts further stated that the potential loss of Ukraine directly threatens Russia’s ability to pursue Eurasian integration, which is central to the country’s larger strategic vision of developing a Eurasian bloc (through bolstering the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization) to resist the consequences of U.S. unipolarity and to compete in the multipolar world it expects to emerge.

In terms set out by our interviewees, Russia seeks a “grand bargain” that explicitly identifies the role of the United States in the international order and puts limits on U.S. behavior to make America more predictable in its behavior and to prevent it from overstepping its own authority. Three tenets of this bargain that would assure Russian security include a collective security treaty binding Russia, the United States, and the leading European states; a supranational decision-making body (Security Council of Europe of NATO, the European Union, and CSTO) as previously proposed by Dmitry Medvedev that would end NATO dominance in Europe; and a “Monroe Doctrine” for the post-Soviet space that legitimizes a sphere of influence in the region. These ideas follow along Vladimir Putin’s “collective leadership” offer at the latest Valdai meeting: a new world order based on competing hierarchies of states, mutual non-interference in spheres of interest, and coordinated responses to transnational problems of mutual interest, such as Islamist terrorism. Eventually, all these institutional developments would lead to an “integration of integrations” so that a bigger EEU could associate with the European Union and other Western institutions as a full-fledged partner enjoying the same status as these powerful institutions.

These terms set out exactly why Russia is motivated to fight over the resolution of Ukraine now rather than later. By Russia’s own bloc-oriented view of the future of international relations, the failure to “get” Ukraine means that the Eurasian bloc has roughly reached its apex (Kyrgyzstan will accede in May 2015 while other regional states are seemingly getting cold feet). Facing a negative shift in future bargaining power means that it should fight now before it gets too weak in the future to mount a credible challenge to revise the international order later.

This very well explains what Russia is doing, but how can we explain Obama’s reluctance either to commit greater resources to the conflict or to cut bait and leave? Why has Obama settled on a policy of seemingly strenuous inaction? It is very likely that Obama can observe that Russia’s bloc-oriented strategy has led to the same apex, and that future decline by Russia’s own standards is approaching. Thus, to accommodate Russia in this bargaining framework would not only involve upsetting European allies and the Ukrainians, but would give a lifeline to an adversary by ameliorating the decline. Moreover, to challenge Russia over Ukraine would be to escalate a conflict that the United States is less able and less resolved to win with acceptable costs.

This places Obama in a different position relative to formulating strategy regarding a rising challenger like China that needs to be accommodated or challenged because the latter is dissatisfied with the international distribution of benefits. Russia is instead a declining challenger (by its own standards) that offers the United States a third policy course of maintaining the status quo and waiting to negotiate later from a position of greater strength. If Obama believes that Russia has internal structural contradictions (resource-dominated economy) and is externally at its peak, then he finds himself roughly in the same position as Dwight Eisenhower roughly 60 years ago: confident of prevailing in a long war or arms racing against an adversary with internal structural contradictions (command economy), but wary of entering into short-term conflicts close to Russia. Just as Eisenhower failed to intervene in Hungary in 1956, Obama is failing to intervene decisively in Ukraine and giving Russia a fight at the latter’s time and place of choosing.

The policy of strenuous inaction of helping Ukraine to prevent collapse but insufficiently strongly to avoid challenging Russia runs the risk of allowing events on the ground to run away from the United States and opens up Obama to considerable domestic and international criticism, but it may leave the United States in a much stronger position vis-à-vis Russia later on – even at the cost of death and destruction in Ukraine and the precipitous decline of bilateral relations.

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The U.S. just leaked its war plan in Iraq. Why?

This news story first appeared on February 27, 2015 . For more information, click here.

By Joshua Rovner and Caitlin Talmadge, The Washington Post

Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security. He is the author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence (Cornell University Press, 2011).

Last week U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) gave a remarkably detailed press briefing about its intended late spring offensive to drive the Islamic State out of the critical Iraqi city of Mosul. Critics immediately jumped on CENTCOM and the Obama administration for telegraphing its intended operations to the enemy. In an open letter to the president, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) warned that the “disclosures not only risk the success of our mission, but could also cost the lives of U.S., Iraqi, and coalition forces.”

Whether one agrees with McCain and Graham or not, the CENTCOM disclosures certainly were odd. Military officers are typically loathe to provide specific details of future campaigns. So why did CENTCOM broadcast its plans?

According to one report, U.S. officials wanted to warn the estimated 1,500-2,000 Islamic State fighters in Mosul that they would soon face an onslaught from 25,000 or more coalition personnel, including five Iraqi army brigades and three Kurdish Pershmerga brigades, all backed by U.S. airpower, intelligence, and advising. Perhaps Islamic State fighters would retreat rather than stand and defend their de facto capital in Iraq, thereby saving a great deal of blood and treasure for everyone concerned.

This rationale is at odds with other U.S. activities in Iraq, however. While advisers have been training Iraqi troops, and planning (and advertising) the impending Mosul offensive, coalition air forces have stepped up bombing in and around the city. If the goal is to encourage the militants to flee, we might expect U.S. officials to allow a safe exit route. But bombing may send exactly the opposite message: it tells the fighters that if they try to flee the city they will exposed to massive U.S. airpower. If anything, the air campaign could encourage them to hunker down and strengthen their defenses.

So what’s really going on? First, the Islamic State may not be the intended audience of the U.S. messages. It knows a fight is coming—the fall of Mosul galvanized the U.S. return to Iraq last summer, after all—so it probably won’t make a tremendous difference whether the group expects the fight in May or some other time. The need to defend Mosul is likely something that the Islamic State has already factored into its plans. And given the notoriously poor operational security of the Iraqi Army, the chances of keeping secret any Iraqi-led campaign were poor anyway.

Instead, the United States may be speaking more to its coalition partners and Iraqi counterparts than to the Islamic State. We can only guess as to the dynamics behind closed doors, but coalition partners might be holding back their own military contributions and political support amid doubts about U.S. and Iraqi resolve to wrest control of the region from the Islamist militants. Iraqi forces also might doubt U.S. willingness to support them in any planned offensives. Or they might prefer to first contest Islamic State control of western Iraq rather than the north. The United States might be trying to signal its own trustworthiness as a partner, stiffen the backs of unmotivated Iraqi forces, create a fait accompli with regards to campaign planning, or some combination of the above. In short, it may be aiming its communications at targets other than the Islamic State.

One can also sense a sort of “heads we win, tails you lose” logic to the U.S. public messages about Mosul. If the Islamic State forces uncharacteristically flee without a fight, they will face humiliation and a setback to their claims of control in Iraq. That’s a win, at least operationally, for Washington and Baghdad. Conversely, if the Islamic State decides to stand its ground and starts trying to flow reinforcements to Mosul in preparation for the defense of the city, that could be a good thing operationally, too. These forces will be highly vulnerable to the stepped-up coalition air attacks, which are already seriously threatening the militants’ lifeline between Raqqa and Mosul. Sending reinforcements to Mosul will also draw Islamic State resources away from Syria, where the coalition’s ability to fight is much more constrained, and into Iraq, where that ability is more robust.

Whatever the rationale behind the U.S. statements, the overall plan to retake Mosul carries serious tactical and strategic risks. These risks exist whether CENTCOM releases a trailer for the campaign or not. Urban combat is costly—even if you win. The United States knows this from its own history in cities such as Hue during the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War. The Iraqis know it from their history, too, such as the battles for Khorramshahr and Basra during the war with Iran. And the more recent experience of Fallujah is in the living memory of many soldiers from both Iraq and the United States.

In Mosul these forces will be inviting battle against extremely motivated Islamic State troops with all the advantages of being on the defense, including knowledge of the terrain, control of the local population, and the use of that population as a giant civilian shield. It’s great to “want Mosul to look a lot more like the liberation of Paris than Stalingrad,” but it is important to remember that that “easy” liberation came more than two years after the horrendous battle at Stalingrad, which lasted five months and caused over a million casualties. The march into Paris was only possible because of the staggering losses the German army suffered on the Eastern front.

Moreover, because the Islamic State is likely to be isolated with little chance of escape, it may fight with special ferocity. Sun Tzu famously noted that soldiers fight hardest when they are on “death ground,” which is part of the reason he advised leaders to avoid sieges. Meanwhile Iraqi forces will mostly be Shiites and Kurds, seeking to take back a Sunni city. A cynic might point out that they are being asked to die for territory belonging to the very sectarian rivals they fought over the last decade before the Islamic State appeared. Whether their cohesion holds and whether Sunnis welcome them as liberators are big question marks.

If the answer to either question is no, pressure for U.S. escalation will be intense, and the Obama administration may be tempted to increase the direct U.S. combat role. Ironically, what looks like an approach to bloodless victory with Iraqis in the lead, might end up with U.S. troops involved in enduring offensive ground operations.

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Does Dallas Need a Mayoral Election This Year?

This blog post first appeared on February 26, 2015. For more information, click here.

Tower Center Associate, Edward T. Rincon is President of Rincón & Associates LLC.

It’s an odd question to ask indeed, but perhaps not so odd if you have kept up with recent news stories about this year’s Dallas mayoral election. Several recent stories in the Dallas Morning News, for example, continue to praise Mayor Rawlings for the programs that have been initiated during his tenure as Mayor of Dallas, and his campaign fundraising success in comparison to his one challenger, Marcos Ronquillo. The DMN has made no secret about its love affair with Mayor Rawlings, and that a second term would be a piece of cake for the mayor.

But the stories did not stop there. One rather bold DMN columnist stated that “Marcos Ronquillo has a zero chance of being elected” as mayor of Dallas. Yet another story announcing Ronquillo’s candidacy for mayor was placed next to the Obituary section of the DMN.  Of course, this was probably just a coincidence.

While it may be obvious to the Dallas Morning News staff that Mike Rawlings is destined to win the next mayoral election, I believe that Dallasites are smart enough to make up their own minds about who our next mayor should be. With voter turnout rates at historic lows, it doesn’t make sense to discourage voter participation by telling voters that the mayoral election is a done deal.

The voting public needs to understand what the mayoral candidates have in mind for improving the quality of life for City residents. The subjective opinions of media pundits should not substitute for a series of well-planned public debates that would require the candidates to address important issues in their own words. Once scheduled, the candidates should embrace the challenge and not avoid open debate.

Following are a few questions and issues that I would personally enjoy hearing the candidates address in a public debate:

Trinity Tollway: Is there any scientific evidence that Dallas needs the Trinity tollway as a transportation solution? Are there any scientific polls that tell us whether Dallas residents favor or oppose this tollway? Wouldn’t it make better sense to first upgrade our local streets, bridges and highways which are suffering from a lack of maintenance and increasing traffic?

Education: Mayor Rawlings stated in a recent DMN story that Dallasites “do not value education.”  What evidence allows you to make such a profound statement? How does this conclusion fit your role as the self-proclaimed “Education Mayor?”

Poverty and Unemployment:  Efforts to remediate poverty and unemployment often focus on helping people improve their job skills, business plans or personal skills. However, poverty and unemployment also result directly from the loss of millions of contract dollars that leave the City of Dallas every year to companies located outside of the City of Dallas. These lost dollars contribute nothing to our local economy. Moreover, the City’s poverty rate is among the highest in the nation. As mayor, what plans do you have for awarding more contracts to local business firms and bringing more jobs to City residents?

Fundraising Roadblocks: Current City policy places a $5,000 cap on the amount of funds that a mayoral candidate can raise from any one donor, although the policy does not apply to the incumbent mayor. This policy clearly gives the incumbent mayor a decided advantage in fundraising. How does an incumbent mayor justify accepting donations larger than $5,000 when it clearly creates an uneven playing field for other candidates?

Of course, the notion of not having a mayoral election this year is ridiculous. But equally ridiculous are efforts by the media that discourage voter participation by suggesting that the election outcome has already been determined and that some candidates have a zero chance of being elected. Perhaps the media pundits can find something more useful to do with their time rather than discouraging voters from participating in important elections.

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25 Years of McCuistion: A Brief History of Immigration

This news story first appeared on February 16, 2015 . For more information, click here.

Tower Center Associate, Neil Foley is the Robert H. and Nancy Dedman Chair in History at SMU.

The history of immigration in the United States is the topic of today’s discussion. Ironically even though the United States is a nation of immigrants, immigration has been a controversial issue from its very beginnings.

Click here to watch the video

The immigration debate is again heating up as a result of President Obama’s executive actions as they relate to immigration. Recent news headlines report that 26 states filed a lawsuit to stop President Obama’s executive actions that would allow approximately 4.9 million eligible, undocumented immigrants to temporarily avoid deportation by applying for deferred action programs, namely the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA). The suit was initiated by then Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has since become the state’s governor.

On the first of our 25th anniversary programs, host, Dennis McCuistion, is joined in part one of a three part series titled A Brief History of Immigration,  by experts:

While discussing the history of immigration in the United States, our guests take us back in time to the making of our present policies and their colorful evolution. At the start of this country U.S. migration went from East to West. Westward migration expanded into Kentucky and the 1803 Louisiana Purchase pitted us directly against the Spanish Empire. There was a south to north Spanish immigration into Texas, which began  causing conflict as early as the 1820’s . The U.S. intended to own America from east coast to west coast.

We’re  reminded  of the various immigration acts,  their outcomes and challenges. At one time Mexicans were not considered immigrants, with families living on both sides of the border. The 1917 Immigration Act called for a head tax and a literacy test, partly to keep Asians, primarily Chinese from immigrating. The 1924 National Origins put quotas on SE Europeans, Irish and Italians, Poles and Slavs. Many of these acts have failed.

It’s no surprise that our guests tell us we keep repeating the same old story. We have border enforcement, which is still not secure, and the same fears of immigrants taking jobs away from citizens.

Join us this week as we talk about our country’s origins and the peoples who have made this country a great one in a Brief History of Immigration.

Thanks for joining us in our 25th year of talking about things that matter with people who really care.

Click here to watch the video

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25 Years of McCuistion: Immigration Policy from 1990-2015

This news story first appeared on February 16, 2015 . For more information, click here.

Tower Center Senior Fellow, Pia M. Orrenius is Vice President and Senior Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Immigration policy is the subject of this McCuistion Program episode. Joining host, Dennis McCuistion, to continue the Immigration question on part two of our three part series are guests:

  • Richard A. Gump Jr. PC, Owner:  Immigration Law
  • Pia Orrenius PhD, – V.P. and Senior Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas
    Adjunct Professor, Hankamer School of Business, Baylor University
    Author of Beside the Golden Door: U.S. Immigration Reform in a New Era of Globalization,
  • Hipolito Acosta- Former District Director U.S. Citizenship and Immigration, Houston
    Author of The Shadow Catcher

Immigration is part of the founding myth of the United States which has gone through several immigration waves in its short history. Its first; the founding colonial wave, which was largely English. Since, we’ve had the primarily German/Irish wave of 1820-1870 with German immigration the largest to date, comprising 15% of all our immigration. The third wave took place from the 19th century to World War I. Today we’re in our fourth wave.

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Immigration policy has become ever more complex; as a human rights issue, jobs and economic issue, welfare issue, a cultural and a national security issue. Despite the succession of laws it still remains problematic. A 1986 law gave 3 million undocumented aliens some legalized status and had provisions to fine employers who abused the system by employing undocumented aliens.

A 1990 law expanded the number of family based visas that were being issued and resulted in the highest rate of immigrants in decades- 10-11 million people. Another law in 1996 added reinforcement provisions, more benefits were granted; even more enforcement to authorities and considerably more resources along our borders. Still illegal immigration continues; the complexity increases and our policies are still deficient.

When speaking of immigration policy, our experts challenge us to  remember why so many people immigrate to the United States, in spite of the obstacles put in their way. The answer is partly opportunity – and economic and other freedoms.  Research shows that it’s high skilled immigration which has the highest payoff for our economy. Still, as always there’s demand and supply so programs that work need to be in place to bring both the highly skilled and not so skilled into the United States, albeit  legally.

Is there one solution to our immigration policy dilemma? Secure borders, enforce the law, strong interior enforcement? The U.S. needs more comprehensive laws and  better enforcement. President Obama’s executive order helps families and offers employer reforms but is that enough to resolve the growing issue?

It’s a lively discussion on immigration policy and we go back several years with excerpts from previous programs on immigration, which include comments from: Jacob G. Hornberger, founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, James F. Hollifield, PhD, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Tower Center of Political Studies at SMU and “Tom” Tancredo, former congressman, Colorado, (R).

Thanks for joining us in our 25th year of talking about things that matter with people who really care.

Click here to watch the video


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Joshua Rovner | The Foreign Policy Essay: Hidden Victories

This news story first appeared on February 8, 2015 . For more information, click here.

Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security. He is the author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence (Cornell University Press, 2011).

DSC_7285President Obama fails all the time. That is the verdict of the op-ed pages, at least. His foreign policy is a muddle. His decisions to exit from Afghanistan and Iraq were disastrously premature. His responses to terrorism, Syria, Iran, and Russia revealed weakness. His response to the rise of China is a massive failure based on wishful thinking. America’s standing in the world is in steep decline because of all these errors.

Of course, the situation was no better in the last administration. Our summary judgment about President Bush is more or less summarized in the titles of two popular books from the time: Hubris and Fiasco. Our summary judgment of President Clinton was that he lacked any conception of grand strategy, concentrated on domestic policy at the expense of foreign affairs, and otherwise took a “holiday from history.” And we can go back much further. Indeed, read the news from any era and you may get the feeling that the United States is incapable of coherent foreign policy, that it is devoid of serious strategic thinkers, and that its whole history is a depressing catalog of blunders. Yet somehow we ended up as the world’s most prosperous and powerful country.

To be clear, the United States is certainly capable of blunders. Americans frequently misunderstand foreign crises but plow into them nonetheless. They are also capable of nationalist back-slapping and heroic myth-making that obscure the limits of American power. And sometimes they throw good money after bad in foolhardy attempts to rescue ill-conceived policies. We should not ignore these errors, however tragic and demoralizing. Exploring the causes and consequences of strategic failure is a necessary antidote to hubris.

But the United States has also done some things very well, blending activism and restraint in order to deal with present threats without getting mired in unsolvable long-term quagmires. It is historically secure and prosperous, and its position in the world is not simply a matter of geography or luck. For a number of reasons, however, we often fail to acknowledge our own triumphs. This has major implications. For analysts, the focus on failure makes it difficult to understand the sources of success. For policymakers, it encourages abandoning successful strategies and replacing them with bad ones. This leads to overreach, not because of victory fever but because of the inability to recognize victory in the first place.

Consider the conflict with Iraq during the 1990s. The decade began with the first Gulf War, which many worried would be an atrocious bloodbath. At the time, Iraq boasted the fourth-largest army in the world, battle-tested in the long war with Iran. Saddam Hussein was ruthless and aggressive, and the Iraqis had proven willing to suffer horrendous casualties rather than capitulate to their enemies. But Operation Desert Storm was a stunningly rapid victory with a historically low casualty rate for the U.S.-led coalition. In the process it destroyed the bulk of Iraq’s conventional military capabilities, and the sanctions that remained on Iraq over the next decade shattered Iraq’s economy and prevented it from rebuilding. During the 1990s, +weapons inspectors also located and destroyed Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and caused Iraq to shelve its nuclear ambitions. Most important, Saddam Hussein’s behavior changed during that time. Before Desert Storm he harbored dreams of expanding Iraq’s regional power, but after the war he focused on holding on to power at home.

The irony was that as all this was happening, U.S. officials began to worry that Iraq was “winning the peace.” As long as Saddam remained in place, and as long as he spouted belligerent rhetoric, they feared that whatever gains they made against Iraq were temporary at best. Fears about the deterioration of the sanctions regime were overblown, and in any case even a complete collapse of sanctions would not have mattered much. Iraq’s economy was so thoroughly demolished by the end of the decade that Saddam had no chance of restoring its previous strength, regardless of whether he had unfettered access to international markets. Fears that Iraq would resuscitate its nuclear program were also exaggerated, because they downplayed the resources needed to achieve even a modest nuclear weapons capability. Nonetheless, despite abundant evidence that Iraq was a shell of its former self and that it posed no real threat to anyone, officials became increasingly convinced that stability and security in the Persian Gulf were only possible if Saddam was removed. So they removed him. What followed was a terrible civil war, which is now in its second decade.

The war on al Qaeda followed a similar pattern. The United States rapidly and decisively shattered Osama bin Laden’s original organization. This was important, because vintage al Qaeda was unique among terrorist groups: it was rich, well organized, led by a charismatic figure, and dedicated to killing large numbers of American civilians. Dismantling that group was the most important task in the aftermath of 9/11, for which the Bush administration deserves a great deal of credit. Unfortunately, that administration was unwilling to settle for a limited victory. Instead, it launched a quixotic nation-building effort and became deeply involved in the fractured politics of Afghanistan. At the same time it decided to pursue an open-ended “war on terror” rather than a straightforward war on al Qaeda. By targeting far-flung terrorists with no direct connection to the perpetrators of 9/11, it set the stage for an ambiguous conflict with no end in sight.

The tendency to ignore success also has implications for U.S. foreign policy and great power politics. Consider the Obama administration’s handling of the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s decision to annex Crimea and support separatists in Eastern Ukraine led the Obama administration to enact a series of escalating sanctions against Moscow, but it was cautious about intervening in a way that would put it squarely in the ongoing conflict. At the time, some criticized the administration for timidity and argued that Vladimir Putin was outmaneuvering the president and undoing the post-Cold War order in Europe. But the Obama administration’s approach has worked. Russia’s actions spooked investors, leading to a stock market and currency crisis and a staggering wave of capital flight. Recent estimates suggest that as much as $150 billion left the country last year, and U.S. sanctions compounded Russia’s economic pain. On top of all that was the collapse in oil prices, which has made it extremely difficult for Moscow to weather the storm. Among other things, the loss in revenue will probably force Russia to scale back its ambitious military modernization program. And while Russia’s economic and military power is eroding, its aggressiveness breathed new life into NATO and made its neighbors desperate to strengthen ties to the United States. Thus, Russia simultaneously weakened itself and united its rivals.

The Obama administration appears to have recognized Russia’s self-defeating behavior for what it was. While critics worried that Putin was “running circles” around the White House, the administration’s patient approach has exacted a huge toll from Russia at minimal cost. Of course, this means that Washington is willing to tacitly accept that Crimea will never go back to Ukraine. There is also risk involved: a desperate Putin might gamble for resurrection by lashing out against NATO allies along Russia’s western border. But the administration has clearly drawn the line in the Baltics and is working to deter Russia from going forward there. So far this combined strategy—economic sanctions against Russia plus deterrent threats to protect the alliance—has allowed Washington to avoid a costly intervention while letting Russia exhaust itself.

Limited success isn’t enough for some, however, and prominent critics continue to call for more robust U.S. efforts to assist Kiev, including providing military assistance. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration or its successor will be able to resist this pressure.

Dealing with China may prove to be the biggest test of all. U.S. success in East Asia is one of the great underappreciated triumphs of the last half century. Successive administrations have managed to deter China from attacking Taiwan, while simultaneously restraining Taiwan from declaring independence. Such a provocation would likely shatter the framework of triangular deterrence that has sustained the peace for decades. Although each case is unique, U.S. relations with all of its Asian allies rely on this basic concept. The United States offers them protection while taking steps to discourage them from doing anything that might lead to a serious crisis with China. As a result, understanding how the United States succeeded in standing between Taiwan and China is critical for developing the United States’ diplomatic approach to the region as a whole.

There are reasons to believe that Washington will change course, however. For instance, U.S. officials might conclude that the past offers little guidance given China’s growing economic and military strength. New circumstances might require an unequivocal declaration of U.S. support in order to reassure increasingly nervous allies. While this is not an unreasonable argument, it risks overstating the degree to which China is actually catching up to the United States. China has clearly made important gains, but it also faces gigantic economic and demographic problems, and there is evidence that the United States is actually increasing its overall lead. If this is true, than the Obama administration and its successors need not abandon the approach that has served it so well for so long. But as with the other cases, everything depends on whether they are able to recognize success in the first place.

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