General Election Issue Number 1: Gas Prices

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Normally, the retail price of gasoline wouldn’t be much of a presidential election issue, but for two things: the president can do precious little to lower the normative cost of gasoline, but he can certainly make it more expensive; and, President Obama is, himself, making it an issue by saying unsupportable things about it.

His lament that there is “nothing I can do right now” is wrong – he could lower the national average to $3.514 today by declaring a “tax holiday” on the $0.184 federal tax on every gallon of gasoline sold[1]. If he tried to claim concern over debt and deficit with a straight face, no else in the room would be able to suppress the snorts and guffaws. That aside, everything he has done in the energy sector has exerted an upward pressure on the price of gasoline, and if you believe the rhetoric of this administration, that’s no accident. For all of the President’s talk about wanting to put us all in electric clown cars, all we need to do is go back to January 20 2011 when his Energy Secretary, Dr Stephen Chu, publicly said he wanted to “figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe[2],” which, at the time was $7 to $8 per gallon.

The president’s handling of the Keystone XL pipeline, for example, makes no sense other than political maneuvering. Like every other major decision he’s facing, he desperately wants to put this one off until after the election. The most studied pipeline project in history – three years and EPA and the Departments of Energy and State have already signed off on it – we are told, needs more study.

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Above is a map of existing pipelines in the United States[3], so we’re not talking about blazing a trail through undisturbed territory here. And, as I say, this project was studied for three years already. It’s plain that Mr Obama doesn’t care about vetting the route, he just doesn’t want to address this until after the election. Gas prices, jobs, revenue, be damned.

Balancing his windmill and clown-car base against voters who understand that fuel prices affect the price of everything is a tricky high-wire act, and in the process, some pretty silly things are being said. Don’t listen to the disingenuous rhetoric, watch what he does. And what he has done – the pipeline[4], starving domestic production[5], near-constant threats of regulating and taxing profits away[6], incomprehensible policy in the Middle East[7] – has invariably been detrimental to the price of gasoline.

It’s far from the biggest issue of the upcoming campaign, but it’s one that is being driven by the incumbent, not the opposition.


[1] At this writing, the national average price of a gallon of gasoline was $3.698, it was $1.92 the day Mr Obama took office.

[2] Quoted in Erick Erickson, Fridays with Erick Erickson, in Red State, February 24 2012.

[3] Source: Energy Information Administration.

[4] 830,000 barrels of oil per day taken away from Texas refineries.

[5] 120,000,000 barrels taken out of domestic supply, 2009-2012, from the Gulf of Mexico alone.

[6] Driving up the price of futures contracts by ~$10 a barrel “fear factor”.

[7] Making Saudis less cooperative on compensatory increases in production to hold OPEC prices down.

the Physics of Foreign Relations

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Foreign policy, as we understand it, began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which marked the birth of the modern nation-state as a sovereign political actor. Before that, the king or queen, not the state, was sovereign, and they were guided by the oft heavy hand of the Pope.

To successfully negotiate the fluid environment of international relations, we need a Grand Strategy – an algorithm – that allows for a philosophically self-consistent worldview from which the behavior of the various actors can be judged and American responses can be fashioned. George Washington set us on a path of “Splendid Isolationism,” warning us about getting involved in the squabbles of others (we had no overseas interests at the time). For the most part, we held to that dictum – with a continent to populate and build – until our entry into World War I. There were forays into the outside world, from the War of 1812 to the Spanish-American War, but for the most part, we tended our own garden from Washington to Wilson.

Isolationism defines American national interests almost exclusively along domestic lines, essentially “pulling up the drawbridge on Fortress America.” Today, in a world rich in supersonic aircraft, submarines, ballistic missiles, the internet, and transnational terrorism, Isolationism is a policy of nostalgia and is reactionary rather then cautious. There is no longer a drawbridge. Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul are today’s most visible practitioners of a near-isolationist worldview.

Isolationism is as short-sighted as it is obsolete. The most profound single factor in improving the conditions of people worldwide is trade – giving them privy to the goods and services of the world, and giving the world privy to theirs. The system of world trade is supported on a framework of American guarantees of freedom of the seas and freedom of the air. Isolationism would render this service impossible. These pathways of travel and commerce aren’t secured by cruise ships and airliners, they are held open by combat aircraft and carrier strike groups, and the support facilities and basing rights that permit forward deployment of those military assets.

Today’s most prevalent foreign policy school of thought, Liberal Internationalism, was set in motion by Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech, delivered to a Joint Session of Congress on January 8 1918, and his work to establish the League of Nations. Its pillars are:

1. Legalism. Liberal Internationalism is based on the construction of a consortium of treaties and agreements that bind the international community into a web of normative behavior;

2. Multilateralism. Each nation should act in concert with other nations in pursuit of “international legitimacy;” and

3. Humanitarianism. Liberal Internationalism harbors a deep suspicion of “national interest” as a justification of projecting power. It considers such parochial concerns as communal selfishness, hindering the construction of an international system modeled on domestic society, based on law, treaties, covenants and norms that will eventually abolish power politics.

If suffers from cultural anthropomorphism in that it assumes Western standards and an all-inclusive “coalition of the willing.” The chief obstacle to Liberal Internationalism is this naïve outlook that we can “discuss” a sovereign state out of its own best interest, if that interest is not in the best interest of the collective. We’ve seen the utter failure of this in Europe’s non-stop five-year negotiations with Iran trying to get them to abandon their nuclear program (which they see as a strategic necessity).

Ultimately, Liberal Internationalism is basically a utopian mindset – having an end-state in mind at the outset – and as such, suffers the same malady that all utopian schemes exhibit: human nature and serendipity simply don’t comport with the wishes of an elite few.

The third school of policy theory is Realism, which emphasizes the primacy of power in international relations. It recognizes that the world is anarchic in nature, and not congruous with domestic society which enjoys a community of values, a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and an enforcer of norms. The international realm has none of these.

Realists note that they more closely describe the way the world actually works – it is human nature to seek power balances. Alliances are transitory and based on mutual benefit against a common danger, not on a utopian vision of wrangling intransigent states into “acceptable” behavior. Realism suffers wider acceptance because it offers nothing beyond descriptive calculus – it’s all means and no ends. A fatal flaw to the United Nations is its atheistic view of governance – is sees them all as equally legitimate – and a similar affliction, governance agnosticism, besmirches Realism – it simply doesn’t consider government type as interesting. It’s not a question of legitimacy, rather of utility. Realism assumes all governors to be rational actors, and therefore transparent to the maneuverings of nations.

The fourth school, Democratic Globalism, addresses the above-mentioned weaknesses of Realism by championing the spread of democracy as both the means and the ends of foreign policy. Democratic Globalism believes that republicanism is an important element of global safety and security – historically, democracies do not war against one another, ergo, the more democracies the fewer wars. Realists see the international system as an arena of billiard balls, attempting to understand the interaction between them. Democratic Globalism gives credence to what goes on inside the billiard balls – the type and quality of government. For example, we have no fear of French nuclear weapons while we abhor the thought of Iranian ones.

While this is an improvement over strict Realism, it has been abused by the neoconservative school of political thought to justify American diddling in foreign confrontations merely to impose democratic solutions, often where they are inappropriate (see Hamas’ “election” in Gaza). While the overall intent of favoring widespread democracy is philosophically sound, it needs to be harnessed by the Realism from which it sprang. Democracy is, itself, an end (not a means), and requires the careful installation of institutions before it can take root – an independent judiciary, a free press, an uncorrupted police, economic liberty, and so forth. They can’t all simultaneously spring fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. And democracy requires a politically sophisticated electorate, rich in potential candidates that are capable of putting national interests above their own. These must all be present before democracy can be tried. These are the things we should be encouraging through our diplomacy and maneuverings.

Charles Krauthammer, a Washington Post columnist and FOX News contributor, suggests a fifth school – Democratic Realism. This removes the too-idealistic and too-ambitious tenor of Democratic Globalism, by returning geopolitical necessity as the criterion for activist policy, not merely the lack of democratic institutions. Both are refinements of the Realist school, which enjoys the unique qualification (among these major schools of foreign policy) of being based on how international interaction actually works. His ideas reinstate the necessity to balance “democratic” with “Realism,” and thus strengthens the desirable aspects of Democratic Globalism. It’s more of a fine-tuning of a fine-tuning rather than a wholly unique approach to foreign affairs.

There may well be other ways to formulate a worldview and our place in it, but these three – melding the last two into Realism – constitute the most widely accepted choices to guide overall foreign policy. Which you favor depends on two parameters: where one falls along the Liberal-Conservative spectrum; and where one falls along the Idealism-Pragmatism spectrum. There’s a lot of overlap between these two spectra – Democratic Globalism, for example, is a neoconservative approach to Realism (pragmatism) rooted in idealism. The only thing more important for a national policy than which of these schools more closely describes an administration’s approach is that an administration has a school of thought on the world as a whole. Lack of this results in a meandering, whack-a-mole personality to foreign policy. Ambiguity – the lack of knee-jerk reactions – is one thing, but unpredictability – a scattered reaction to similar stimuli – is dangerous and invites miscalculation.

A useful asset toward understanding the problem of formulating a foreign policy is Stephen Krasner’s article in the October 2010 issue of Policy Review, An Orienting Principle for Foreign Policy. In it, Dr Krasner defines “Grand Strategy,” and the necessity for a great power to have one, and to have it well understood by friend and foe alike. The task is enormously complicated by the lack of an “us against them” enemy of the Free World. There is, of course, apocalyptic Islam, but its gaseous, amorphic nature requires more of a counterterrorist or counterinsurgency response, which tends to be more colloquial than globally attractive. It’s a condition that plays on Mr Logan’s view of the questionable value of our historic (read: Cold War) alliances.

Another instructive treatment of how to look at the post-Cold War world is offered by Thomas Barnett’sThe Pentagon’s New Map, a book that offers an internally consistent way of looking at things, but more importantly, is firmly rooted in the post-Cold War world. If what we are dealing with is a New World Order, and I think that’s irrefutable, then we must eschew the old labels and identify nations by other criteria. The ones Mr Barnett offers are useful, but the idea of a fresh look at the world free of bipolar prejudices is the true value of the book.

He sees the division of importance isn’t East vs West, but globaized vs non-globalized – whether a nation successfully fits into the globalized economy (the “Core”), or doesn’t (the “Gap”). The strategic trouble spots – those places where American forces have been deployed – almost perfectly coincides with Gap nations whose internal structure and behavior have not adapted, for whatever reason, to globalization. Basically, the Gap consists of the Caribbean Rim, virtually all of Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and much of Southeast Asia. That is roughly two billion of the world’s six billion people. Most have demographics skewed very young, and most are labeled “low income” or “low middle income” by the World Bank (i.e., less than $3,000 annual income per capita).

Mr Barnett stresses the importance of World Trade Organization membership, for example, because it supplies the very “normalizing” forces spoken of by Liberal Internationalists by incentivizing local economies to practice David Ricardo’s “competitive advantage” of concentrating on what they do “best” – produce the best quality at the lowest consumer price – and import other needs. This moves each economy toward maximizing its efficiency and fosters cooperation between economies through free trade. These are the “webs of normative behavior” that Liberal Internationalism strives for through security arrangements and treaties, but lack the day-to-day efficacy to be largely self-regulating. Globalization works because it is tied to the real world where Liberal Internationalism fails because it is tied to some abstract future benefit. Mr Barnett cites numerous other examples of where mutually beneficial arrangements help nations adapt to the global economy by improving the living standards of their citizens – actual, rather than promised, self-interest is still the best motivator.

It’s not as important that the next administration choose from these four worldviews as it is that it has an internally consistent one, and that it let us know what that worldview is.


For a more complete examination of these schools of diplomatic thought, see Charles Krauthammer, In Defense of Democratic Realism, in The National Interest, Fall 2004, beginning on p. 77.

Graham H Stuart Professor of International Relations, Stanford University; senior fellow, Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute.

Stephen D Krasner, An Orienting Principle for Foreign Policy, in Policy Review [Hoover Institution, Stanford University], October 2010.

(PhD) A distant cousin of Major General George Barnett who was Commandant of the US Marine Corps during WWI;. received his BA (Honors) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Russian Language and Literature, and International Relations with an emphasis in US foreign policy; received his MA in Regional Studies: Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia as well as his PhDin Political Science from Harvard; Senior Strategic Researcher and Professor in the Warfare Analysis & Research Department, Center for Naval Warfare Studies, US Naval War College [Newport RI] (1998-2004); Assistant for Strategic Futures in the Office of Force Transformation in the Department of Defense (2001-2003); author: The Pentagon’s New Map, Putnam Publishing Group, 2004.

Thomas PM Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map, Putnam Publishing Group, April 22 2004.

(1772-1823) English political economist, often credited with systematizing economics, and was one of the most influential of the classical economists, along with Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill. He was also a Member of Parliament, businessman, financier and speculator, who amassed a considerable personal fortune. Perhaps his most important contribution was the law of comparative advantage, a fundamental argument in favor of free trade among countries and of specialization among individuals. Ricardo argued that there is mutual benefit from trade (or exchange) even if one party (e.g. resource-rich country, highly skilled artisan) is more productive in every possible area than its trading counterpart (e.g. resource-poor country, unskilled laborer), as long as each concentrates on the activities where it has a relative productivity advantage.

Novus Ordo Seclorum

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After emerging from the Dark Ages, the World moved along as a dynamic balancing act between British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and German powers until the period between World Wars, during which the Oxidant saw the rise of The Third Reich to quasi Super Power status, and the Orient absorbed the rise of the Japanese Empire.

The end of hostilities in 1945 saw the dawn of a New World Order – Europe lay in ruins from the Urals to the Atlantic, the Japans were a de facto American colony and the United States stood astride the World. The post-World War II era revealed itself however, as a bipolar world, the seat of despotism having merely moved east to Moscow, and the New World Order turned out to be a Cold War between national self-determination and Communism. This would define the next 46 years.

Any group will have a leader – appointed, elected or percolated – and the world of nations (often laughably mischaracterized as “the community of nations”) can be thought of as a metagroup of group [state] leaders, co-existing on a Hobbesian sea of anarchy, having no overarching governing body imbued with an enforcement mechanism. This arrangement yields a struggle to achieve a power-balance against any existential threats perceived by any given nation. The natural tendency of nations is very Darwinian – the weak are dominated (or eliminated) by the strong. That’s just how it works as long as there is a strong state willing to exploit weaker ones.

With the Western defeat of Imperialism, Fascism and Nazism, the world found itself in an ideological struggle between democracy and Communism – a true, worldwide bipolar arrangement. There was a disengaged collection of nations that were reluctant to bandwagon with either – the Third World – which formed the battlespace for much of the competition between the Super Powers. This post-World War II period was fascinating: history’s longest period of prolonged confrontation between the dominant powers in which neither engaged the other in general warfare – largely because both were in possession of fission and fusion weapons. As Richard Pearle noted discussing Mutually Assured Destruction, “It’s wasn’t pretty, but it worked.”

The dissolution of the Soviet Empire left the world in a Pax Americana. The United States maintains a military that is an order of magnitude more powerful than any other[1]; defense spending close to half of global military expenditures[2]; a blue-water navy superior to all others combined[3]; a chance at a splendid nuclear first strike over its erstwhile foe, Russia[4]; a defense R&D budget that is 80% of the total defense expenditures of its most obvious future competitor, China[5]; and unmatched global power-projection capabilities[6]. The post-Cold War international system is unquestionably unipolar[7].

It is a mantle inherited, but a mantle nonetheless – and as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Chief among those responsibilities is the Command of the Commons: keeping the world’s shipping- and air-lanes open for the free transit of trade. That requires the very power-projection assets that preclude other great power challenges – an incomparable blue-water Navy and virtual worldwide air superiority. No other nation on Earth can accomplish this task. Without American husbanding of these trade lanes, they are left to whims of local powers such as Iran and its tacit control of the Strait of Hormuz.

While the evaporation of the Soviet Union didn’t produce Sailors kissing nurses in the streets of New York, the relief was palpable in the capitals of the world. George HW Bush announced “a New World Order,” about which he was inevitably right – the disappearance of a global pole can’t leave the order of things unchanged – producing two seminal commentaries, Francis Fukuyama’s[8] 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man[9], and Samuel P Huntington’s[10] 1993 essay in Foreign Affairs, The Clash of Civilizations[11].

Professor Fukuyama argues that in the end, Aristotle was right – of all the government types likely to be realized by actual human beings, a republic is the superior model – and that Adam Smith was right – that without economic freedom, there can be no political freedom. Market republicanism, then, is the highest and best method of governance yet envisioned by man. With the defeat of Soviet Communism and the Chinese economy liberalizing, “History,” in the struggle for balancing governance and humanism has ended and the “last man standing” is market republicanism.

Professor Huntington argues that the next order of things will be a generalized post-national arrangement of cultures seeking common governance. Very few nation-states are culturally homogenous, building-in fissures of potential strife. He sees eight natural groupings of persons – civilizations – that form natural amalgams for internally consistent governance. These are the Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and African civilizations. The long-wave future, he contends, will be strife between these groups, only exacerbated if they are randomly distributed among various sovereign states practicing foreign (to them) cultures.

Both of these treatises enjoyed wide readership and resulted in wide commentary, both pro and con.

Zbigniew Brzezinski[12] also penned a scholarly examination of the post-Cold War world in his 2005 essay, The Dilemma of the Last Sovereign, for The American Interest, in which he writes:

America today is the world’s most sovereign state. To be sure, in our time the concept of sovereignty has been largely drained of content by the reality of increasing interdependence among states. For most states, sovereignty now verges on being a legal fiction. Even in the case of the more powerful few, practical rationality lessens the temptation to arbitrarily assert sovereignty. Ultimately, of course, any state (or rather, its leadership) can commit even a suicidal act of folly, but the scope for such self-assertion is increasingly constrained by the overlapping interests of some 200 states in a more politically congested and interwoven world[13].

He lays out the conundrum faced by George W Bush, having the deep conviction that to protect America’s national interest the United States must have a free hand: the sovereign Gulliver must not be tied down by feckless Lilliputians. A robust Realist view as opposed to the squishiness of Liberal Internationalism. Dr Brzeainski called it “neoconservatism,” but what he describes is Realist theory. Neoconservatism, like neoliberalism, lies in the intent – Realism, Liberal Internationalism, Isolationism, Democratic Globalism are defined by policy.

Justin Logan[14] argues that with the sudden disappearance of a bipolar environment, our alliances are now obsolete, or at very least, run the risk of being obsolete[15]. Our strategic alliances need to be completely rethought in light of “the New World Order.”

The point is, much, much academic thought has been given to just how the world works under these new conditions. While all of these (and many, many others) hold a modicum of truth, none comes close to describing the reality that actually has emerged. Unipolarity isn’t being led by Brzezinski’s Gulliver, nor has the nation-state dissolved into Huntington’s borderless “civilizations” nor are we presiding over the end of man’s search for governance models. Rather the world’s peoples are, as they always have been, searching for ways to get along in a world they do not define.

The acceleration of China’s rise, Putin’s reasserting Russian influence in the old Soviet sphere, the euro’s near-death experience, Iran’s bid for regional hegemony, none of this was foreseen by the thinkers pondering the affects of the Soviet demise. And most of all, no one saw the specter of the PLO’s Soviet-taught political terrorism[16] morphing into a worldwide jihad by apocalyptic zealots.

We find ourselves flailing around in the unfamiliar, modifying strategies and doctrines carefully crafted for a world that no longer exists, fighting an enemy that reveres death and sees mayhem as legitimate tool to fulfill their Lord of the Flies version of the Qur’an’s message – convert or die. As backdrop to all of this is the exponential increase in connectivity that gave rise to the ease with which Arab Springers spread their message and coordinated their demonstrations; the hopelessly intertwined nature of the world’s economies; and a rudderless America that unwittingly insults its allies and abets its adversaries. The world, in other words, is far more complex, and far more unknowable, than the early commentators anticipated.

In some ways, the next president’s foreign affairs task is somewhat simplified in that he will be starting from a clean slate – the Obama administration having no discernable overall foreign policy. What is needed is for a team of people whose task is to establish a coherent worldview and how America currently fits into that picture. Then the president should articulate, in detail, how he envisions America’s role in the world. Foreign policy then becomes how we get from here to there.


[1] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 2010: Armaments, Disarmament, and International Security, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 196-198.

[2] Ibid., p. 202.

[3] Robert O Work, Winning the Race: A Naval Fleet Platform Architecture for Enduring Maritime Supremacy, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2005, p. 16.

[4] Keir A Lieber and Daryl G Press, The End of MAD? The Nuclear Dimension of US Primacy, in International Security, Spring 2006, pp. 7-44.

[5] Barry Posen, Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of US Hegemony, in International Security, Summer 2003, pp. 5-46; and Robert J Lieber, The American Era:Power and Strategy for the 21st Century, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 16.

[6] Posen, ibid.

[7] See Nuno P Monteiro, Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity Is Not Peaceful, in International Security, Winter 2011/2012, p. 9.

[8] Senior Fellow, Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, Stanford; served as a professor and director, International Development, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

[9] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, 1992.

[10] Eaton Professor of the Science of Government, Director, John M Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University; author, Political Order in Changing Societies.

[11] Samuel P Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations, in Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, pp. 22-34.

[12] Founding board member, The American Interest; trustee and counselor, Center for Strategic and International Studies; fmr national security advisor [President Jimmy Carter].

[13] Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Dilemma of the Last Sovereign, in The American Interest, Autumn 2005, p. 37.

[14] Associate Director, foreign policy studies, Cato Institute [Washington DC].

[15] Justin Logan, America’s Alliances Are Costly Relics, in Defense News, November 9 2009.

[16] See KGB General Ion Mihai Pacepa’s Russian Footprints, in National Review, August 25 2006.

a Calm Discussion about Iran

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There are five seemingly unrelated issues regarding American relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. First among them is the fact that Iran has been in an unresolved state of war against the Untied States since the Embassy takeover in 1979. It should be remembered that, up until September 11 2001, Hizbollah, an Iranian creation that is funded and armed from Tehran, had killed more Americans than all other terrorist groups combined. We ignore this state of affairs. That fact projects an image of national weakness in the Persian mind. And that fosters an environment favorable to miscalculation.

The obvious issue between us is the nuclear one. The problem here is one of a flawed Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, negotiated in more innocent times. Iran, or any other signatory, can produce all the pieces of a uranium fission warhead, and not be in violation of NPT unless and until the pieces are assembled into a warhead. This is a condition known as being “a screw away,” and is what the world assumed of Israel for about 20 years[1]. The threshold technology permitted under the Treaty is the fuel cycle – allowing non-nuclear powers to master the enrichment and reprocessing of non-fissionable uranium or spent reactor fuel into fuel pellets (or, further enriched, into weapons-grade material). At the time the Treaty was written, there were only four nuclear powers – Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States, and if they were grandfathered-in as the only nations allowed to process or reprocess nuclear materials, things would be greatly simplified today.

Two things to consider here: the geopolitical value of nuclear ambiguity; and, the difference between being able to build a nuclear explosive and building a deliverable warhead. Israel has played the ambiguity card expertly during her various disputes with her neighbors – no one willing to take steps thought to cross a line that might provoke Israel into using nuclear weapons (if they had them). Though it’s still not confirmed (no Israeli test of a nuclear device has ever been detected), it is assumed they have mastered the design and manufacture of deliverable nuclear warheads. The point is, look at how the rest of world has to treat Iran now, knowing that they might be on the brink of developing them. Might. Ambiguity.

DPRK is an excellent example of the second conundrum in dealing with emerging nuclear states. We know they have tested two devices, one generally thought to be a “fizzle,” or partial detonation. That is technically challenging enough, but it is only the first half of the task. Ever see “the Gadget” device built at Alamogordo [NM] to see if the Manhattan Project figured out how build a fission weapon? It’s huge, with detonation circuitry exposed and sequencers hard-wired to the control bunker 5.7 miles away. It had an estimated yield of 20KT (the explosive equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT). The “Little Boy” linear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima 20 days later exploded with a yield of 14.2KT. We had reduced the physics package into a smaller, deliverable bomb that was 71% as efficient as the technology tester[2]. It’s a lot harder now that miniaturization is drastically increased by having to place the physics package into a re-entry vehicle and must be sequenced and detonated in the terminal phase over the target hundreds (or thousands) of miles away. We still have no evidence, for instance, that DPRK has produced a single deliverable warhead.

Iran could be bluffing all the way – playing with the West while extracting as many concessions as it can before we find out nothing’s behind the curtain. This would fit the Middle Eastern mindset as how to manipulate what they view as a weak adversary. Iran could be setting up to produce fissile uranium to use as terror weapons against the West, using Hizbollah or others to actually carry out dirty-bomb or contamination raids. Iran could be gaining the expertise to get a screw away, breaking out with an actual nuclear weapon only if existentially threatened with destruction. Iran could be in a full-fledged rush to clandestinely develop a deliverable nuclear weapon. Evidence to date supports any of these scenarios, needing more insight into the intent of the ruling mullahs to strengthen or weaken arguments favoring each possibility. My own personal view is that Iran is trying to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon to use in their campaign to dominate the Greater Middle East – not to use by deployment, rather using it to intimidate Sunni states to accept Iranian regional hegemony.

Another problem area with Iran is our use of diplomatic negotiations. In this arena, the West is from Venus and Iran is from Mars – we just don’t understand the Middle Eastern mind. A large part of the problem is that, culturally, the Arab/Persian mindset is still Old Testament while the Western mindset is more Alice in Wonderland. We try to contractually bind a rogue state to more normative behavior through a series of give-and-take agreements. Arabs/Persians try to buy time to complete the objected-to task by negotiating with their adversary. They don’t, by Western definition, negotiate in good faith. We saw this in the European-led five-year effort to negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear activities. As we were talking, they were accelerating their efforts.

The West has never negotiated from a position of strength – neither Europe nor the United States trusts Iran not to retaliate violently if pressed – and Tehran knows it. Iran has always been the stronger party at the negotiating table, and the strongest always wins. International negotiations are contests of will, and Iran knows that the West is weak-willed. This is especially true of Arab/Persian adversaries, who disdain the Western tradition of negotiation as a sign of weakness. Their culture sees no moral wrong in lying or ignoring obligations to “outsiders.” The only way to successfully negotiate with a hostile interlocutor is when the hostile interlocutor is the one who needs to negotiate.

Just as negotiating with Iran is a waste of time, our fixation on sanctions is inappropriate given the closing window on accomplishing the goal – getting Iran to forego their nuclear program. Again, DPRK demonstrates the futility of trying to target sanctions when dealing with a despotic authoritarian regime. The people always bear the brunt because the goods flow to the people through the hierarchy, and the hierarchy isn’t going short themselves in such a regime.

Iran has to be slicker with it than DPRK because the Iranian people are better educated and more sophisticated than the public in DPRK, but nonetheless, sanctions aimed at the Revolutionary Guard will not hurt them, only create shortages in the marketplace. This is balanced by the aforementioned populace, which has already rioted in the recent past (2009), and could do so again, bringing on brutal repression. This would have the same chilling effect that Tiananmen Square had on Chinese relations for years. The West also has to be cautious to see that the Iranian people don’t resent the West more for imposing hardship than resenting the regime for bringing it on.

Sanctions take a long time to actually pressure a regime, more so if they can’t be enforced – if there’s a Russia or PRC willing to penetrate the sanctions, supplying contraband to the regime. Part of the problem is that the West always begins with symbolic sanctions (rather than ones that will actually punish the target state), and work their way up to meaningful ones, and it’s the meaningful ones that take time to work. So the first few years of sanctions are actually wasted, only serving to let the target state to continue the objected-to behavior while the sanctioning states feel good about taking action. We should have targeted gasoline imports and banking activity years ago, but we didn’t, and so we are in the position of implementing sanctions that can’t work before Iran could develop a workable nuclear device. Style over substance has cost the West any chance of having sanctions work.

We are out of non-kinetic means of persuading Tehran to do something they see as being in their strategic national interest. Not going to happen.

And finally, the Iranian political structure gives them an additional ploy unavailable to most states – the Iranian President is only a figurehead used by the ruling mullahs as the “face of Iran.” They can sacrifice the president to public opinion or international pressure without affecting policy in any way. Style over substance. This “dramatic” change would, again, give Iran time in the public domain before the West figures out that nothing has changed. As noted above, time is what we are running out of. There is a growing consensus that Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium (LEU, or ~3% reactor grade) to further enrich into enough high-enriched uranium (HEU ≥90% weapons grade) to build four warheads. Tehran announced last month that they had successfully enriched some HEX (uranium hexafluoride) to 20% enrichment, a level used for medical applications, demonstrating their ability to enrich beyond the reactor fuel level.

Iran is led by an extreme warrior sect of a minority sect of Islam. They are engaged in a religious war against Sunnis, in particular, and the infidel West, in general, and see America as a decadent oaf that lacks the savvy or political will to protect itself. Nothing we are doing negates that impression.

The ruling mullahs practice an apocalyptic flavor of Shi’ite Islam that awaits the promised return of “the Twelfth Imam,” Muhammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Mahdī, who was born in 869 but believed not to have died but “hidden” by God to return someday in order to bring the world to Islam and peace to all. This, they believe, will be brought about by cataclysmic upheaval around the world. A dangerous religious dogma for a nation clandestinely seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

This isn’t about a nation’s rights any more than preventing a delusional psychotic from acquiring a gun is about the Second Amendment. A nation’s sovereignty, ultimately, is permitted by the other sovereign nations. This is a state led by a ruling council that entertains a defining religious justification for worldwide mayhem and sees a geopolitical advantage in regional instability. They are technically rational – adhering to a philosophically consistent behavior – but that philosophy is utterly alien to us, and thus they appear to act in unpredictable ways. We don’t understand them, and that is saturated with miscalculation.

Iran’s rhetoric is bellicose but their actions tend to be rather conservative – they see no advantage (religious or geopolitical) in being destroyed without the conflagration going worldwide. They covet being able to control the price of oil, but the Saudis do that through their dominance of OPEC. They know they can’t really close the Strait of Hormuz because America and Europe would annihilate their navy and air force. But all is answered (in their eyes) if they were nuclear-armed. Western retaliation would be all but eliminated if Iran had nuclear weapons, even more so if they had demonstrated the willingness to use them – favoring a public test as soon as they have developed a testable device, and open threats to use them in regional disputes. They could, in their view, close the Strait at will with impunity, thus controlling the price of oil, thus gaining regional dominance.

Iran is not going to be talked or sanctioned out of developing nuclear weapons. If anyone is actually serious about Iran “not being allowed” to acquire them, they are gong to have to be stopped. Containment and deterrence of a nuclear Iran is as misguided as are negotiations and sanctions, because, again, we simply do not understand how they think.

Israel has two dogs in this fight – Iran has repeatedly proclaimed its intention to “wipe Israel off the map;” and, they are convinced that President Obama isn’t going to do anything whatsoever to stop Iranian from getting a bomb. This plays into the situation because, again, we are running out of time, and our timeframe is different from that of Israel. We see the red line as producing a workable device; Israel sees the red line as moving their production facilities into Qom (or some other buried facility impervious to air attack). Israel’s window is closing faster than ours. Any action taken against Iran on Iranian soil will be interpreted by them as being an American-Israeli operation and will unleash retaliation against both.


[1] It is now assumed that Israel has ~200 assembled warheads, probably stored separately from their delivery vehicles.

[2] Although the same amount of uranium was used in Little Boy as in the Gadget, the actual bomb utilized the simpler, linear gun type of bringing the fissionable material into critical mass – the beginning of the chain reaction. The Gadget used the implosion method of compressing a hollow sphere of fissionable material into critical mass. The difference in detonation “stretch” – the amount of time the material was critical before it blew itself apart – was only micro-seconds, but enough to reduce the yield by 29%.