From the “Guns of August” to the “Serenity of September?”

Wow!  What an amazing 30 days going from the “Guns of August” to the “Serenity of September!”  Instead of discussing whether U.S. cruise missile attacks as punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons against rebels on 21 August would deter their future use or lead to a wider regional conflict, I am wondering why Assad chose to give up his chemical weapons in response to a Russian/US brokered United Nations Resolution.   Even more startling was Iran’s new President Russan Rouhani launching a “charm offensive” in the midst of Iran’s ally Syria bending to international pressure to give up its chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).  In interviews with several western journalists, Rouhani said Iran was enriching Uranium for legitimate energy purposes and not for weaponization.  Relative to his predecessor, President Rouhani’s speech to the United Nations’ General Assembly was moderate and again eschewed the pursuit of nuclear weapons.  Within a day of this speech, Secretary of State Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart to discuss lifting sanctions against Iran in return for verification that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program.  Then prior to departing New York for Tehran, President Rouhani’s agreed to a 15 minute telephone conversation with President Obama – the first time the leaders of both countries have spoken since the Carter Administration in 1979 when the Shah was in power!

Hallelujah!  Noble Peace Prizes for all our “friends” (i.e. Putin, Assad, and Rouhani).

So how did we get from the U.S. being backed into a trap between two bad choices of either not responding to Syria killing over 1,400 people with chemical weapons or launching an ineffective military response that the President said he would take only with the concurrence of the Congress?  My guess is that Vladimir made Bashar an offer that he along with his Iranian and Hezbollah cronies couldn’t refuse.  Since there is no way you can ever use chemical weapons again without the international community coming after you and your Alwite regime, why not give them up?  Russia will broker the a deal with the UN that will keep the U.S. and Israel out of Syria’s internal affairs regarding the turn over the weapons. Russia will also stand firm against any international action to take down the Assad government.   Rouhani and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah will endorse the deal and assure Assad they will help him win the civil war with the rebels so the “Assad Dynasty” can continue.  Everybody wins:  the U.S. gets Syria to give up its chemical weapons in response to a UN resolution without resorting to force; NATO doesn’t have to be concerned about supporting U.S. military action against Syria; Russia shows the world that it still matters while holding the line on the international community bringing about regime change;  Iran keeps one of its few allies; Hezbollah retains its Syrian sanctuary;  and Assad gets to stay in power – all because Syria agreed to turnover chemical weapons that it could never use again anyway!

OK, I suppose this could explain what is going on with Putin and Assad, but why is Iran overtly signaling at the same time its interest in discussing with the U.S. whether or not it will pursue nuclear weapons as Syria agrees to give up its chemical weapons?  Rather than events in Syria driving what Iran is doing they are just serving to have a megaphone effect on what Iran is trying to achieve.  I see Rouhani’s actions being part of an independent Iranian strategy to take advantage of the world stage provided by the annual opening of the UN General Assembly to change Iran’s standing in the world while protecting its nuclear weapons options.   First there are the economic sanctions Rouhani needs to get relief from before they create an “Arab Spring effect” in Persian Iran.  This means showing the world that he really does represent the moderate Iranians who legitimately elected him.  Next there is the important message that unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Rouhani Administration wants Iran accepted as a rational player by the international community.   Then there is the potential that Iran is not as close to having a deliverable nuclear weapon as U.S. and Israeli intelligence believe them to be.  Finally, the Iranian religious leadership may also be recalculating the value of having nuclear weapons (where could they be used, to what effect;  would Iran’s Islamic Revolution survive the overwhelming retaliation in kind from their use; would U.S. containment of a nuclear Iran cripple Iran’s economy and regional influence?).  No matter; what Rouhani did achieve at the UN is to buy Iran time to keep the U.S. and Israel from acting against its nuclear program while talking about talks.  If sanctions are relaxed in order to reward Iran for being more moderate in tone without agreeing in a verifiable way to cease pursuing nuclear weapons then Rouhani will have accomplished a strategic success for the cost of being no more than polite and well behaved!

Of course, the serenity of September was violently pierced by a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on September 16th that resulted in 13 dead and raised considerable concern about the “insider threat.”  Then there was the Nairobi Westgate Mall seizure/hostage situation between 21 and 24 September that saw 68 killed by al Shabab terrorists bringing to life again the fears about how committed radical jihadists can wreck havoc in urban areas with nothing more than automatic rifles.

While Aaron Alexis had no terrorist connections, al Qaeda will recognize, that as with Major Hassan at Fort Hood, insiders can access secure military bases with weapons and “punish” those they see as responsible for killing their jihadist warriors.  Even more chilling, the Nairobi Mall attack shows how local terrorists can make what is common place fearful to the point of negatively impacting quality of life and economic activity.

Perhaps law enforcement and intelligence assessments are correct that al Qaeda and its franchises like al Shabab or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are not capable of executing a Nairobi mall attack inside the U.S., but media headlines about the Washington Navy Yard shootings at least make me think otherwise.

That’s what I think; what do think?

Can We Figure Out How to Value the IC’s Worth?

I really was looking forward to a Snowden-free discussion this month but then the Washington Post on the last Wednesday in August published its “Black Intelligence Budget” story so we are going to divert there briefly before turning to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in rebel held regions of Syria.

I suspect to its great disappointment the Washington Post story outlining with interactive web-technology the budgets of each major national intelligence agency based on information provided from a top secret codeword document Snowden accessed and downloaded failed to create much of a buzz amongst the beltway chattering class.  The reasons for this collective yawn seem attributable to Syria sucking most of the air out of Washington; Congress being in recess; the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have Dream” speech activities; and the jaded sense that $70 billion spread over numerous agencies sounds like chump change in a federal budget that exceeds $3.5 trillion.

The chattering and the damage though is coming – – – –  when the budget debates begin again this fall as those seeking more money for social welfare programs as well as those looking for dollars for DoD will both say “can’t we take it from the NIP or MIP ?”   Zachery Keck has already advised readers of “The Diplomat” that based on the Post’s reporting the US IC’s budget is larger than the defense budgets of all but three nation states, while in a September 1st  OpEd IC-friendly David Ignatius commented that “the United States has been spending an awful lot for intelligence, especially at the CIA, without getting enough in return.”

It will be interesting to see if anybody believing they now know what the IC spends by INT/Agency knocks the wheels off of the IC wagon, but I expect democracy and the IC will continue as we know it, though with a muted but intense argument amongst civil libertarians and protectors of national security about whether we are safer or not because this information has been revealed.  As for me I am not sure.  Since I don’t know (nor do I know anybody who claims to know) what a pound of IC capability is worth, I never have been able to establish even a crude objective criterion for determining how much the US should spend annually for intelligence.

As for getting value from its investment in intelligence, President Obama is relying on the IC to make the case to the world at large, the US Congress, and the American people that Syrian President Assad wittingly used chemical weapons against rebel held areas on 21 August killing over 1,400 civilian non-combatants.  As with Iraq in 2003, apparently the decision again to use military force will be dependent on the IC showing beyond a reasonable doubt that a secular autocrat of an Arab state with interests opposed  to the United States’ is a dangerous possessor of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).  While that is a meaningful function for the IC to perform, Assad has been killing Syrians for years now and if that is dangerously destabilizing to a region that matters to US security, then an armed response should be justified on that basis, and not on whether we have intelligence to prove he gassed women and children.

There are other important intelligence questions though that go beyond determining if Assad used chemical weapons, such as indications and warning (I&W) and motivation associated with this attack.

Based on the way the Obama Administration has shifted its policy decisions regarding the chemical weapons attack that Secretary of State Kerry says the IC has confirmed, I am surmising there was no “actionable” I&W indicating that Syrian military forces were preparing to launch chemical weapons.  Given the President’s red line warning, I at least would like to believe that with sufficient I&W he would have had capabilities ready to pre-empt or at least interrupt such an attack if calling these preparations out to the world did not deter it.  To Ignatius’ point about not getting what we should from the IC in terms of money spent, operational I&W is an intelligence shortfall that can be traced back to the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing in 1983 and runs through Kohbar Towers, the East Africa Embassy Bombings, USS Cole, and 9/11.

OK, I&W is hard and everybody is trying to improve it.  However, now that Assad has used chemical weapons in a way that is not plausibly deniable even by diplomatic standards, I believe a more important question for the IC is not whether Assad used chemical weapons, but why used them with the world watching and with an explicit warning on the table from the US president?  The simplest and therefore must plausible reason is Assad and his “Alawite Posse” in Damascus – not wanting to end up like Mubarak (or Morsi) in Egypt and Kaddafi in Libya – decided in frustration and anger that it was time to dramatically force an end to the rebellion against their rule.  But I can’t discount that the decision to employ chemical weapons was more calculated with patrons in Iran providing to Assad most of the numbers.  Use chemical weapons and if the US doesn’t act it loses creditability in the ME.  If the US does act then there is the likelihood of it being sucked into another expensive protracted conflict that saps power and diverts attention from Iran and its ambitions. A military response also adds to the drum beat in the Muslim World that US is always ready to act against countries with Muslim populations. Weathering the attack will show the ineffectiveness of US military force and the staying power of the Assad regime. The potential for a divide between the legislative and the executive branch over the use of military force is a benefit nobody in the autocratic ME seriously considered!   If this calculating scenario is what is happening, then the smartest politicians in this story are not in Washington or Damascus but in Tehran.

With regard to the question of whether the US is getting its money’s worth from the $70 billion dollars or so it spends on intelligence each year, the value proposition for American national security is the degree to which its IC can both warn and accurately inform decision makers beyond “what” is happening to “why” events are unfolding the way they are.

That’s what I think: what do you think?