2016: A Year of Living Dangerously

Well, it only took China and Saudi Arabia 48 hours to remove the “happy” from new years for 2016!  As Saudi Arabia was executing 47 on January 2nd, the Chinese stock market was tanking sending financial shock waves into an already unsettled world.  Wanting to extend its “best wishes” for the new year, North Korea tested what it falsely claimed to be a hydrogen bomb, while China flew a military aircraft to Fiery Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as Iran released video footage of its second underground missile depot in seeming violation of its nuclear agreement with the United States.  These events in the first week of the New Year make predicting that 2016 will be dangerously tumultuous unnecessary.

Economic trouble in China will have the most immediate impact on the average American in terms of access to consumer goods and their IRAs’ bottom line with the Dow Jones average down over 900 points in the first week of trading.  The Chinese stock market sell off was precipitated by  the release of the Caixin/Markit Purchasing Managers’ Index which showed that China’s manufacturing sector contracting for the 10th-straight month in December. The continued weakness in this private survey, contrasted with robust official numbers for industrial output, indicates that the overall economy is expanding only in the low single digits. China’s economy is also struggling with demands for higher wages, accommodating an aging population, and shifting to a new growth model based on raising internal consumption of goods and services produced.  Equally as disturbing, imports (a good indication of both manufacturing and consumption trends) fell 8.7 percent in November in dollar terms, for a record 13 straight months of decline. Exports that month were off 6.8 percent, the fifth-straight month in negative territory. This litany of economic challenges means China is headed into a serious recession that will likely result in the Chinese people questioning whether the Chinese Communist Party is governing in their best interests.  Economic woes may well cause Xi Jinping and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party to turn to a “wag the dog” strategy appealing to Chinese nationalism against “foreign devils” asserting sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas.  Such a nationalist approach and/or China being seen as the cause of weakness in the American economy, will only encourage those running for President to take a more confrontational stance towards China.

Not helping the Chinese stock market recover are increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  North Korea’s claims to have conducted on January 6th an underground detonation of a hydrogen bomb, which has not been confirmed and is viewed as unlikely, has increased the pressure on both China and the United States to restrain Kim Jong Un’s brinkmanship.  North Korea’s “boy leader” apparently sees the US’ inability to control the Hermit Kingdom’s behavior with sanctions and isolation as pushing China to insure the security of North Korea or risk South Korean and US forces conducting military operations/occupation nearer the Chinese frontier.  Besides a B-52 fly over, Washington and Seoul are already engaged in discussions about the US bringing more “strategic assets” to South Korea. This last atomic test has also brought Japan, South Korea, and the United States closer together diplomatically and militarily, causing China to feel more isolated if not threatened.  Beyond pushing China to be more protective of North Korea’s security, it probably wouldn’t surprise too many if Tehran was actually funding part of Pyongyang’s nuclear program as a hedge while Iran’s nuclear program is on hold to get economic sanctions lifted.

Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 shocked the American people with its ISIS-like brutality and infuriated Iran because among those executed was the well-known Shiite cleric Nemer al Nemer.  “It looks like an extremely irrational and ill-considered decision to do this,” said Christopher Davidson, a professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in Britain. “In my view, it speaks more about the local dynamics in Saudi Arabia itself that are shifting steadily away from the ruling family’s control.”  The House of Saud, however, was motivated by at least three reasons for going forward with this controversial execution of a large number of internal dissidents.

  • Declining oil prices means that the Saudi government will need to cut back on subsidies for housing, education, medical care, jobs, and gasoline that ordinary Saudi citizens have come to expect. The mass execution of dissidents on January 2nd demonstrates the absolute power the royal family holds and will use against those who question it rule let alone oppose it.
  • These executions play to Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative Sunnis, who support the monarchy as ISIS inspires young Saudis to see the royal family as not protecting fundamental Muslim beliefs. As confrontation with Iran becomes more manifest, conservative Saudis are also increasingly seeing the Kingdom’s 10% to 15% Shiite minority population as a “fifth column.”
  • The executions signal that Saudi Arabia’s tolerance for Tehran’s Shiite meddling in the Arab world has reached its limit. Resisting Iranian military involvement in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen’s civil wars is costing Saudi Arabia billions of dollars and, as oil revenues decline, is forcing the royal family to spend sovereign wealth fund money. This will create dissention within the royal family and may eventually threaten the kingdom’s internal stability.  More ominously, the Saudi leadership feels abandoned as the US seeks an accommodation with Iran.

The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran is now out in the open, exposing the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as proxy conflicts between the dominant Sunni and Shia theocracies for the soul of Islam.  As a secular nation, this is a holy war the US does not understand and would be ill advised to take sides in as this would preclude the next administration in Washington from serving as an honest broker to prevent a bloody regional war that could involve outside powers.

A deep economic recession in China, a growing North Korean nuclear arsenal, and an open conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran are each disruptive in their own unique ways, but what they share in common is the potential to impact regional and global events in significantly and unpredictably.  Not yet a month into the new year, 2016 is showing that already this will be a year of “living dangerously” for the national security community.

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

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A Holy War on the Arabian Peninsula?

When we last engaged I was opining that the Intelligence Community (IC) seems least prepared to warn effectively against what it perceives as the most immediate and likely threat to the homeland – – –  the self-radicalized Islamic Jihadi “lone wolf” already residing  in the United States.  Then in the midst of the sentencing phase of Boston Marathon Bomber Tamerian Tsarnaev trial and the 20th Anniversary of Timothy McVeigh’s destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, an eccentric Tampa area mailman flew his homemade gyrocopter down the Mall to a landing on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.  This act witnessed by thousands and seen by millions on TV seems to have more than anything else galvanized national concern about the threats “lone wolves” (whether foreign or domestic) can pose to national security.  Perhaps Postman Pat (a.k.a Doug Hughes) literally flying his gyrocopter under the radar into the restricted airspace of Washington D.C. after posting his intentions to social media and informing the press will make it obvious that DHS’ Intelligence and Analysis Directorate (I&A) needs to be aggressively applying modern analytics to the big data sets of human terrain information it has access to for discerning potential “lone wolves” in order to nominate them for investigation.   And yes, those charged with stopping the “lone wolves” among us should expect a high false positive rate from these DHS profiles.  Such is the nature of this threat.

Turning to the Iranian “nuclear agreement.” you won’t find me taking any kind of public stance on whether I think the “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program” (a.k.a “The Framework Agreement”) is a good deal or a bad deal, as it is just too early, at least for me, to tell.  What is clear though is that Tehran is anxious to have the economic sanctions imposed against it for its pursuit of a nuclear weapon lifted as soon as possible.  When asked about whether Iran “can be trusted” to formally agree to the provisions of “The Framework Agreement” and then not cheat on its implementation in return for sanctions being lifted, the President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense all have stated for the record that “verification” not “trust” is what the US will depend on for assuring Iran’s compliance.

The Framework agreement certainly puts the IC in the political and policy cross hairs of national security. Despite an excellent track record of keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear development, and if the New York Times is to be believed for having even slowed it down with STUXNET malware, there will be many ready to assert that the Iranians can hide from IC sensors their continuing enrichment of fissile material to weapons grade levels.  Moreover, the IC will be put in the position of having to prove a negative where the absence of evidence that Iran is not enriching uranium doesn’t mean they aren’t.  Even with international inspectors in country, there is the reasonable potential that Iran could move its nuclear weapons enrichment capabilities to undetected locations inside of Iran or off shore to North Korea.  Given these circumstances, the stage is set so that if the Framework Agreement keeps Iran from going nuclear with the benefit of IC monitoring it will be a policy success, but if Iran can continue its nuclear enrichment program without detection it will be an intelligence failure.

Before wrapping up, I want to take note that war has broken out between Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Houthi proxies in what is now the failed state of Yemen, where Aden also remains the home base of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  As in Iraq where Tehran is supporting Shite military action against Sunni ISIS, Iran is providing military equipment and “advisers” to its Shia Houthi allies in Yemen.  More ominously, the Iranian Navy has deployed the destroyer ALBORZ and the logistics support ship BUSHER to the Gulf of Aden “to protect the Islamic Republic of Iran’s interests on the high seas.”  Subsequent reporting indicates Iran is sending a convoy of merchant ships to Yemen, presumably bringing war supplies for the Houthis.

The presence of Iranian naval forces in the region leads to the open question of whether Saudi Arabia will challenge them, and if so will the US Fifth Fleet become directly involved?  Having spent some tension filled time in this region (Iranian Hostage rescue 1979; Tanker War/Ernest Will escorting reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers 1987) the potential for the unexpected to happen at sea is considerable.  The standing USN order post STARK to “defend yourself” makes for a volatile situation that can turn strategic almost immediately because of tactical decisions made by ship captains operating under almost constant stress.  It is probably premature, but you don’t need to be Robert Kaplan to see that Iranian military success at rolling back ISIS in Iraq and establishing Houthi control over at least part of Yemen looks like a pincer that could envelope Mecca and Medina wresting them from Saudi Arabia’s Sunni control for the Shia Mullah’s in Qom.  Extrapolating from the current situation it is not farfetched to infer the likelihood for a bloody religious war been Sunnis and Shiites playing out on the Saudi Peninsula before the next US Presidential election.

Assuming no outside intervention, I would expect a “holy war” on the Arabian Peninsula to settle into a drawn out stalemate between the Sunni forces of Saudi Arabia and the Shia forces of Iran that will negatively impact the supply and price of oil.  The more discouraging option, of course, is Iran over time becoming the dominant power on the Arabian Peninsula and reestablishing the Persian Empire with control of all the significant energy resources from the Red Sea to Afghanistan.  Such a greater Persia, with or without nuclear weapons, would shift Iran from being a regional actor to a strategic competitor with global economic and religious clout.

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

October Surprises?

Since my last interaction with you just before the 4th of July quite a bit as transpired – – – – most of it troubling to me – – – –  but the Olympics, the preseason début  of the Redskin’s RG III, and the Nationals pennant run, all seem to be acceptable diversions in the swelter of the dog days of July and August in DC. 

The most visceral and immediately painful events, of course, are the mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin perpetrated by troubled lone gunmen.  Both tragedies should be stark reminders to those involved with homeland security of the threat posed by “lone wolf” radicals looking to make some political point.  Of greater concern to me is a transnational terrorist group encouraging either would-be martyrs or disaffected individuals to conduct some type of “lone wolf terror campaign” geared at either interrupting our political processes or slowing our economic recovery.  Surely, there is more intelligence can do to identify potential “lone wolfs” to law enforcement before they strike – such as investigating when 6,000 rounds of ammunition are delivered to a one bedroom apartment.  That doesn’t mean I am in favor of the government interfering with my Second Amendment Rights to bear arms; I just want the government doing all it can to protect me from others building an arsenal in their homes… is that so too hard or to much to expect?!  Again the conflicting issues of security and civil liberties.

The Federal Reserve dutifully confirmed the obvious in July that the US economy is barely growing.  There are lots of causes for this, but the still expanding national debt continues to impact all aspects of the economy.  In the long run our nearly $16 trillion deficit is both the largest and surest threat to the United States’ national security and our standard of living; however, in the short run it is also impacting what spending for national security will be in FY 13.  The Congress adjourned the first week in August telling us the check was in the mail for passage of a Continuing Resolution (CR) in September to avoid a government shutdown on 1 October.  That leaves only the lame duck session of Congress after the election to find and allocate $50 billion in defense cuts for FY 13 that both sides can agree to or sequestration will spread that $50 billion in cuts across all national security accounts on a pro rata basis – something the Congress, the Secretary of Defense, and the defense industry all agree will wreak havoc on the national security landscape.   

The violence in Syria is continuing and escalating but stalemated, where both the government and rebel forces are killing each other with considerable collateral damage in the absence of either side being able to defeat the other.  The United States for its part is war weary and broke (see above), and while it wants Basher Assad out it is also rightly concerned about supporting rebel forces it knows very little about.  Ironically as the Congress and the security apparatus of the IC work to limit contact with the press it seems from nightly news that reporters like Richard Engle have unique access to at least certain factions battling Assad.  In neo-Cold War fashion both Russia and China have vetoed UN sanctioned international action to remove Assad because they want to avoid (for obvious reasons) the precedent of external intervention to remove authoritarian governments.  Continuing the Cold War metaphor (and hopefully not the “Guns of August”) the situation in Syria is creating a volatile de facto alignment between Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Damascus with Pyongyang as a junior partner. 

Speaking of reporters with access and insight, David Ignatius warned in a 6 August OpEd  http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/david-ignatius-is-saudi-arabia-on-the-edge/2012/08/05/6758c1e0-dd91-11e1-8e43-4a3c4375504a_story.html that “by appointing Prince Bandar bin Sultan as its new intelligence chief, Saudi Arabia has installed what looks like a war cabinet at a time of rising tensions with Iran and growing internal dissent from its Shiite minority.”  He goes on to say the Saudi military is also quietly canceling leave in order to increase military readiness.  Ignatius speculates that all this is in reaction to increasing concerns by both King Abdullah and the new Crown Prince Salman that Iran does not just want to keep Assad in power but also wants to weaken the monarchy’s ability to rule Saudi Arabia.  Knowing nothing beyond what I read in newspaper (yeah I still read them) and lacking access to even David Ignatius, I would also think that Riyadh has legitimate concerns that  the Shia Ayatollahs would retaliate against the Saudi Sunni Monarchy if there is an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Amazingly (at least to me) none of these macro issues impacting the well being if not the security of the United States has yet to become a matter for debate in what has so far been an issue-free Presidential campaign by both sides.  Based on Presidential campaign tomes such as Game Change and Primary Colors, I am confident both campaigns have subject matter experts writing policy papers on the lone wolf threat, the impact of the deficit on national security, courses of action for Syria, and threats to Saudi Arabia, but neither campaign obviously sees any electoral value in raising these subjects while the voters are not listening in the pre-convention August heat.   Each of these circumstances though, has the potential to deliver an “October Surprise” that neither the Presidential campaigns, our security agencies nor the nation at large are considering seriously enough.

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