Obama administration on the Middle East: The distance between statements and facts

The New York Times reports: Making sense of the Obama administration’s patchwork of policies “is a puzzle,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and former senior State Department official.

“But whether that puzzle reflects the lack of a coherent policy on the administration side or whether that puzzle simply reflects the complexity of the power struggles on the ground in the region — well, both are probably true,” she said.

The chaos gives regional rivals “more reasons to fight out that power struggle and more arenas to do it in,” Ms. Wittes said.

The lightning pace of events has fueled criticism that the Obama administration has no long-term strategy for the region. In picking proxies and allies of convenience, the argument goes, the administration risks making the chaos worse — perhaps strengthening terrorist groups’ hand, and deepening the chances of being drawn into fights Americans do not want.

One senior Obama administration official described the difficulty of trying to develop a coherent strategy during a period of extreme tumult.

“We’re trying to beat ISIL — and there are complications,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We have a partner who is collapsing in Yemen and we’re trying to support that. And we’re trying to get a nuclear deal with Iran. Is this all part of some grand strategy? Unfortunately, the world gets a vote.”

The administration had until recently held up Yemen as a model of a successful counterterrorism campaign, only to see the American-backed government in Sana crumble and the efforts against Qaeda operatives in Yemen crippled indefinitely. Earlier this week, American Special Operations troops stationed there had to detonate their large equipment before evacuating Yemen and flying across the Red Sea to an American base in Djibouti — concerned that the war matériel would fall into the hands of the Houthi forces.

In Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, the administration talks as if it is supporting the orderly transitions to state building, but its actions are in fact helping to dismantle the central states, said Peter Harling, a researcher with the International Crisis Group, who with the journalist Sarah Birke recently wrote an essay analyzing the regional dynamic.

In each case, local players like the Islamic State or the Houthi movement have stepped into a power vacuum to stake their own claims, but none have the credibility or wherewithal to unify or govern.

But Washington, Mr. Harling said, insisted in each case on maintaining the fiction that its favored local player had a viable chance to rebuild an orderly state — whether moderate rebels in Syria, the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad or the Hadi government in Yemen.

The Western powers “have to pretend the situation is not as bad as it is, so they don’t have to accept failure and take ownership of the situation,” Mr. Harling said. “In many years of working in the region, I have never seen such a distance between statements and fact.”

“Unfortunately, the world gets a vote,” said a senior Obama administration official who didn’t want to be named.

I can imagine those words coming from the lips of deputy national security adviser for strategic communication Ben Rhodes, and the the reason he wouldn’t want to be named would not be because of the proverbial sensitivity of the issues. It would simply be for the sake of saving himself embarrassment. And avoiding the risk of having such words quoted back to him in a Senate hearing while he seeks approval for some position in another administration.

When the question is whether this administration has a coherent strategy and the response is that unfortunately, the world gets a vote, the implication is that under the Obama administration’s unchallenged management, the problems of the Middle East could all be sorted out. The problems, so the argument goes, all come from those other pesky foreign powers.

That’s the kind of claim that can only be insinuated and must additionally be cloaked in anonymity, because if made explicitly and with attribution it would deservedly draw a derisory response.

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The dangers of the Arab intervention in Yemen

Kenneth M. Pollack writes: The news that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states along with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Sudan have launched air strikes against Houthi forces in Yemen should give every American pause. Yes, the Houthis are Shi’a who receive some degree of backing from Iran, but this is a very dangerous escalation that is unlikely to improve the situation in Yemen and risks the stability of Saudi Arabia over the medium to long term. Moreover, the Iranian role has been greatly exaggerated in what is first and foremost a Yemeni civil war.

Even with U.S. assistance, the GCC and its coalition partners lack the capacity to break Houthi ground operations the way that American air power has been able to smash ISIS ground operations in Iraq and Syria. With enough American help, they could certainly inflict some harm on the Houthis, but they are unlikely to be able to materially shift the balance of power. If the airstrikes fail, as seems more likely than not, there is a real danger that these same states will decide to intervene on the ground—and that intervention will be largely composed of Saudi forces.

As I warned in a previous post on Yemen co-authored with the highly-regarded scholar of civil wars, Barbara Walter, a compelling body of scholarly research on civil wars has found that interventions into civil wars on behalf of the losing side rarely produce a rapid, negotiated settlement. Instead, they typically prolong the conflict, producing more death and devastation. Of greatest importance in this case, they also have a bad habit of overstressing the intervening state—especially when that state has limited capabilities and internal problems of its own. [Continue reading…]

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The U.S. is providing air cover for ethnic cleansing in Iraq

Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent write: American warplanes have begun bombing the Islamic State-held Iraqi city of Tikrit in order to bail out the embattled, stalled ground campaign launched by Baghdad and Tehran two weeks ago. This operation, billed as “revenge” for the Islamic State (IS) massacre of 1,700 Shiite soldiers at Camp Speicher last June, was launched without any consultation with Washington and was meant to be over by now, three weeks after much triumphalism by the Iraqi government about how swiftly the terrorist redoubt in Saddam Hussein’s hometown was going to be retaken.

U.S. officials have variously estimated that either 23,000 or 30,000 “pro-government” forces were marshaled for the job, of which only slender minority were actual Iraqi soldiers. The rest consisted of a consortium of Shiite militia groups operating under the banner of Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Population Mobilization Units (PMU), which was assembled in answer to a fatwah issued by Iraq’s revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani in June 2014 following ISIS’s blitzkrieg through northern Iraq. To give you a sense of the force disparity, the PMUs are said to command 120,000 fighters, whereas the Iraqi Army has only got 48,000 troops.

Against this impressive array of paramilitaries, a mere 400 to 1,000 IS fighters have managed to hold their ground in Tikrit, driving major combat operations to a halt. This is because the Islamic State is resorting to exactly the kinds of lethal insurgency tactics which al Qaeda in Iraq (its earlier incarnation) used against the more professional and better-equipped U.S. forces. BuzzFeed’s Mike Giglio has ably documented the extent to which IS has relied upon improvised explosive devices, and just how sophisticated these have been. Even skilled explosive ordnance disposal teams — many guided by Iranian specialists — are being ripped apart by what one termed the “hidden enemy” in Tikrit. [Continue reading…]

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An Iran deal would begin a long process

Simond DeGalbert, a former French diplomat and former member of the French negotiating team in the P5+1 discussions with Iran, writes: A comprehensive Iran deal looks ever more likely today than it did recently, even if many issues remain to be solved. Western leaders have repeatedly stated their view that no deal would be preferable to a bad one—a point that’s yielded intense debate about what exactly would constitute a good deal versus a bad deal. Considering the highly technical nature of the issues at stake, it’s no surprise the devil will be in the details. It will be hard to assess the deal before every provision of the last annex to the comprehensive agreement is signed on, if it ever happens. But assuming we do, assessing the quality of the agreement should mostly be done in light of its objectives and of the agreement’s ability to fulfil them.

If a comprehensive deal is struck, it’s important to remember that the deal is just the beginning. As hard as the negotiations have been, the implementation and enforcement of the deal over the coming years will be an ongoing challenge—but it can be surmountable as long as the P5+1 set clear enforcement mechanisms.

To understand what a deal will mean in the years ahead, it’s important to understand how the negotiations unfolded. As a matter of fact, our expectations about what a comprehensive agreement could achieve have changed over time. Since 2002, concerns about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program have mostly been fueled by the covert development of enrichment activities, but also by their obvious inconsistency with any identifiable civilian needs and the acquisition of nuclear militarization know-how. Hence the long-term objective, enshrined in United Nations Security Council resolutions, to establish the exclusively peaceful nature of the program, through a full suspension of enrichment in Iran.

It is the assumption that this prerequisite would prevent a negotiated breakthrough that led P5+1 to alter the terms of their negotiation with Iran in the 2013 Joint Plan of Action. From that point forward, an agreement was not to be based on an unambiguous Iranian strategic shift, but rather on the insurance that Tehran’s program would not be turned from its existing dual nature to an entirely military one. Such “constructive” ambiguity about Iran’s program and intentions could be achieved through agreed upon enrichment restrictions, the conversion of the heavy-water reactor of Arak and intrusive monitoring and verification. [Continue reading…]

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New York Times: Our man in Tehran

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What George Washington would have said about Netanyahu

Mark Perry writes: Early in the afternoon of Monday, February 23–the day following the anniversary of George Washington’s birth—North Dakota Republican John Hoeven rose from his seat, walked to the podium of the U.S. Senate, and began to read George Washington’s “Farewell Address.” In his seminal good-bye to the nation, the first president condemned the rise of political parties because they “distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration,” and warned against “a passionate attachment of one Nation for another,” which “produces a variety of evils.”

What’s striking about the latest recitation of the Farewell Address—a tradition followed in the Senate since 1896—is how little has changed since Washington wrote it (helped by Madison and Hamilton). The ills and controversies that so beset the father of the nation are still on full display in early 2015, dogging the 44th man in succession, Barack Obama. President Washington was lamenting the inordinate influence and arrogance of a French diplomat he had come to detest, known as “Citizen Genet,” who had rallied cheering American supporters into backing the French war against the British and had played havoc with U.S. foreign policy. President Obama is now lamenting the inordinate influence of one Citizen Netanyahu, who according to some Obama administration officials is up to pretty much the same mischief. And very gingerly, Obama appears to trying to pry America away from its “passionate attachment” to Israel. [Continue reading…]

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Does the Obama administration have the only view worth having on the Middle East?

Reporting on the perception that “U.S. policies there are partly to blame for the spreading anarchy” in the Middle East, Michael Crowley writes:

Ultimately, senior Obama officials say, there are limits to what the U.S. can accomplish in the region. They argue that the chaos is fueled by ethnic and religious forces largely beyond America’s control.

And they warn against overreacting to the roller coaster of daily news headlines in an area that rarely knows calm.

“There’s a sense that the only view worth having on the Middle East is the long view,” said the State Department official. “We’ve painfully seen that good can turn to bad and bad can turn to good in an instant, which might be a sobriety worth holding on to at moments like this.”

The official offered a hopeful note, adding that a nuclear deal with Iran — which some reports say could come as soon as Sunday — could be a turning point for the region.

“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” the official said.

Let’s suppose that Obama seals the deal with Iran, it probably will be a legacy-setting accomplishment and true to form, like every other president facing the end of his second term, Obama is no doubt increasingly concerned about his legacy.

But if he thinks this accord is really going to be a game-changer, I’m not so sure he’s holding on to the “long view” — unless “long” is supposed to mean all the way until he leaves office. Or, to put it another way, unless inside the Obama administration what they mean when they talk about the long view is, all the way until this mess becomes someone else’s mess.

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Iran’s Rouhani intervenes as deadline for nuclear deal approaches

Reuters: Iran’s president spoke with the leaders of France, Britain, China and Russia on Thursday in an apparent effort to break an impasse to a nuclear deal between Tehran and major world powers.

He also raised the Saudi-led military operation against Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen, as did U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of nuclear negotiations in Switzerland with Tehran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The United States is pushing for a nuclear deal between Iran and major powers before a March 31 deadline, and officials close to the talks said some kind of preliminary agreement was possible.

However, a senior British diplomat acknowledged: “There are still important issues where no agreement has so far been possible.

“Our task, therefore, for the next few days is to see if we can bridge the gaps and arrive at a political framework which could then be turned into an agreement,” the diplomat told reporters on the sidelines of negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland.

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U.S. conducting military operations in Lebanon

Nicholas Blanford reports: The United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in support of Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) operations against Sunni militant groups dug into mountains along the country’s northeast border with Syria, several diplomatic and military sources have confirmed to IHS Jane’s.

Two Aerosonde Mk 4.7 UAVs are being flown out of the LAF’s Hamat Air Base on the coast, 45 km north of Beirut, the sources said.

The area of operational activity is in the northeast corner of the country, a region of arid mountainous terrain that spans the Lebanon-Syria border where militant groups such as the Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra are based.

“The LAF has been very aggressive in tasking Aerosonde [UAVs] to fly missions,” a diplomatic source told IHS Jane’s on condition of anonymity. [Continue reading…]

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Iran-backed rebels loot Yemen files about U.S. spy operations

The Los Angeles Times reports: ecret files held by Yemeni security forces that contain details of American intelligence operations in the country have been looted by Iran-backed militia leaders, exposing names of confidential informants and plans for U.S.-backed counter-terrorism strikes, U.S. officials say.

U.S. intelligence officials believe additional files were handed directly to Iranian advisors by Yemeni officials who have sided with the Houthi militias that seized control of Sana, the capital, in September, which led the U.S.-backed president to flee to Aden.

For American intelligence networks in Yemen, the damage has been severe. Until recently, U.S. forces deployed in Yemen had worked closely with President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government to track and kill Al Qaeda operatives, and President Obama had hailed Yemen last fall as a model for counter-terrorism operations elsewhere. [Continue reading…]

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White House still claims Yemen is a counter-terrorism success story

McClatchy: Yemen’s president is reportedly on the run amid rebel advances, but the White House insisted Wednesday that the country continues to be a model for its counter terrorism initiatives and that the U.S. continues to have extremists there “in the cross hairs.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he could not confirm the whereabouts of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi – “I have my hands full confirming the whereabouts of one world leader,” – but said the country remains a template for thwarting terrorism.

“We would greatly prefer to have U.S. personnel on the ground in Yemen that would enhance our efforts. But the fact that they have had to temporarily relocate does not mean that we are unable to continue to apply pressure on extremists who may be plotting against the United States and the West inside of Yemen,” Earnest said. “We do continue to have that capability. So, for as dangerous as Yemen is to American personnel, Yemen is also a dangerous place for those extremists. Because the United States continues to have the ability to place significant pressure on them.”

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Is the Shiite revival here?

Ali Mamouri writes: In the book “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future,” Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American researcher on the crises in the Middle East, came to the conclusion in 2006 that the religious struggle resulting from the rise of the Shiite identity in the region would reshape the Middle East. Developments in recent years have proved that this view seems accurate.

Today, Shiite forces are strongly present in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They are united and firmly associated with the Iranian axis. This new situation did not happen by chance or overnight. Rather, it was preceded by many arrangements that Iran has been making for decades.

The sectarian rivalry in the region began with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Saudi Arabia and Iran raced to find and endorse revolutionary groups that fought different governments based on Islamic ideology and inspired by the Quranic terms of jihad in the Middle East. These groups include al-Qaeda for the Sunnis and Hezbollah and the Houthi movement for the Shiites. While Saudi Arabia has invested in jihadist organizations in Afghanistan — such as the Afghan Arabs, or the Arab mujahedeen, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — Iran has invested in the Shiite opposition forces in the Arab countries, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hezbollah al-Hejaz in Bahrain and the Badr Brigade in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Opening new Iraq front, U.S. strikes ISIS in Tikrit

The New York Times reports: American warplanes began airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Tikrit late Wednesday, finally joining a stalled offensive to retake the Iraqi city as American officials sought to seize the initiative from Iran, which had taken a major role in directing the operation.

The decision to directly aid the offensive was made by President Obama on Wednesday, American officials said, and represented a significant shift in the Iraqi campaign. For more than three weeks, the Americans had stayed on the sideline of the battle for Tikrit, wary of being in the position of aiding an essentially Iranian-led operation. Senior Iranian officials had been on the scene, and allied Shiite militias had made up the bulk of the force.

Mr. Obama approved the airstrikes after a request from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shiite militias move aside to allow a larger role for Iraqi government counterterrorism forces that have worked most closely with United States troops, American officials said. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who has been advising forces around Tikrit, was reported on Sunday to have left the area. [Continue reading…]

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Why Iran’s Supreme Leader wants a nuclear deal

Trita Parsi writes: There are few world leaders as powerful yet mysterious as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Most of what has been written about him in English only adds to the confusion surrounding the man (Akbar Ganji’s writings are a notable exception). The most common misinterpretation of him at the moment is that he is ideologically opposed to cutting a reasonable deal with the United States — the “Great Satan,” as America is known among some Iranian leaders — over his country’s nuclear program. But Khamenei wants a deal perhaps just as much as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is widely credited with being the more moderate force behind the current negotiations. Far from betraying the Iranian Revolution, Khamenei may view the negotiations as helping fulfill its ideals.

It’s clear that Khamenei is deeply suspicious of the United States and skeptical of both its intent and ability to come to terms with Iran. When President Barack Obama first extended a hand to the Iranians in his 2009 Persian New Year greeting, Khamenei immediately shot back. In a lengthy speech from his birth town of Mashhad, Khamenei went over the entire litany of American crimes against Iran — from support for the hated shah (overthrown by Khamenei’s predecessors in the revolution of 1979), to aid to Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war, to the downing of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, to years of sanctions. He cast doubt on the intentions of the United States, even under its new president. He went on to question Obama’s ability to shift America’s position on Iran. “I would like to say that I do not know who makes decisions for the United States, the president, the Congress, elements behind the scenes?” he asked.

Understanding the depth of this suspicion requires recalling that Khamenei has not merely read about the tortuous history of U.S.-Iran relations. As a close associate of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and a former president of Iran, he was there. He lived through — as a participant, not an observer — every dark chapter he cites in his speeches, from the hostage crisis to the Axis of Evil speech. His skepticism of U.S. intentions, rightly or wrongly, is a product of the four decades of baggage he carries on his shoulders.

Yet, in the end, that’s all he is: a skeptic. He is not an ideological opponent who will undermine, or refuse to accept, any deal struck by Iran’s more moderate negotiators. [Continue reading…]

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Iran stalls U.N. probe into its atomic past

The Wall Street Journal reports: Talks over Iran’s nuclear program have hit a stumbling block a week before a key deadline because Tehran has failed to cooperate with a United Nations probe into whether it tried to build atomic weapons in the past, say people close to the negotiations.

In response, these people say, the U.S. and its diplomatic partners are revising their demands on Iran to address these concerns before they agree to finalize a nuclear deal, which would repeal U.N. sanctions against the country.

“Progress has been very limited,” Yukiya Amano, who heads the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Wall Street Journal this week. “No more new issues” have been addressed. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’s strategy in Libya

Kevin Casey and Stacey Pollard write: Early media coverage of the Islamic State (IS) in Libya has centered on the group’s swift seizure of territory and the expansion of the caliphate’s authority into an increasingly lawless Libya. Yet IS’s efforts in the North African state have not lived up to these fears, as the organization — once thought to command control of cities such as Derna and Sirte — remains only one of many factions vying for power in these areas.

This does not mean the Islamic State is failing in Libya — indeed its trajectory inside Libya is mirroring its Iraq strategy, which sought to maximize its local competitive advantages. The group’s shift of gravity from Derna to Sirte is a highly deliberate strategic decision based on the assumption that Sirte provides greater opportunities for the group than Derna does.

But unlike Iraq and Syria, Libya is missing some of the key conditions that allowed for the group’s rapid gains in the Levant last summer. Namely, it lacks enduring ties to influential Libyan tribes and social groups, and Libya has no strong sectarian divide or a common enemy around which to rally a community. Thus, the Islamic State’s strategy in Libya seems to be directed instead at hastening state failure and fracturing the population’s sense of common nationhood. Meanwhile, it is also intensifying the conditions that will allow it to deepen its influence and form a national-religious identity in line with the caliphate’s own views. [Continue reading…]

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William Hartung: Your money at war everywhere

Fifteen to 20 years ago, a canny friend of mine assured me that I would know I was in a different world when the Europeans said no to Washington. I’ve been waiting all this time and last week it seemed as if the moment had finally arrived. Germany, France, and Italy all agreed to become “founding members” of a new Chinese-created development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Great Britain, in “a rare breach of the special relationship,” had already opted for membership the week before (and another key American ally deeply involved in the China trade, Australia, clearly will do so in the near future). As Andrew Higgins and David Sanger of the New York Times reported, the Obama administration views the new bank as a possible “rival to the World Bank and other institutions set up at the height of American power after World War II.”

“The announcement by Germany, Europe’s largest economy,” continued the Times, “came only six days after Secretary of State John Kerry asked his German counterpart, Frank Walter-Steinmeier, to resist the Chinese overtures until the Chinese agreed to a number of conditions about transparency and governing of the new entity. But Germany came to the same conclusion that Britain did: China is such a large export and investment market for it that it cannot afford to stay on the sidelines.”

All of this happened, in other words, despite strong opposition and powerful pressure from a Washington eager to contain China and regularly asserting its desire to “pivot” militarily to Asia to do so. 

Whatever world we now inhabit, it’s not the twentieth century anymore. Though no other power has risen to directly challenge Washington, the United States no longer qualifies as the planet’s “sole superpower,” “last superpower,” “global sheriff,” or any of the similarly self-congratulatory phrases that were the coin of the realm in the years after the Soviet Union dissolved.

Only one small problem, highlighted today by Pentagon expert and TomDispatch regular William Hartung: the Department of Defense evidently doesn’t have a clue. As he makes clear, it’s still planning for a sole superpower world in a big way. And in the present atmosphere in Washington, it’s got real support for such planning. Take, for instance, Senator Tom Cotton — he of the “Senate 47″ — who just gave his maiden speech on the Senate floor calling for a policy of total U.S. “global military dominance” and bemoaning that “our military, suffering from years of neglect, has seen its relative strength decline to historic levels.”

It may be a new world in some places, but in others, as Hartung makes clear, it couldn’t be older. Tom Engelhardt

Military strategy? Who needs it?
The madness of funding the Pentagon to “cover the globe”
By William D. Hartung

President Obama and Senator John McCain, who have clashed on almost every conceivable issue, do agree on one thing: the Pentagon needs more money. Obama wants to raise the Pentagon’s budget for fiscal year 2016 by $35 billion more than the caps that exist under current law allow.  McCain wants to see Obama his $35 billion and raise him $17 billion more. Last week, the House and Senate Budget Committees attempted to meet Obama’s demands by pressing to pour tens of billions of additional dollars into the uncapped supplemental war budget.

What will this new avalanche of cash be used for? A major ground war in Iraq? Bombing the Assad regime in Syria? A permanent troop presence in Afghanistan?  More likely, the bulk of the funds will be wielded simply to take pressure off the Pentagon’s base budget so it can continue to pay for staggeringly expensive projects like the F-35 combat aircraft and a new generation of ballistic missile submarines.  Whether the enthusiastic budgeteers in the end succeed in this particular maneuver to create a massive Pentagon slush fund, the effort represents a troubling development for anyone who thinks that Pentagon spending is already out of hand.

[Read more…]

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Did Israel steal uranium from the U.S. to build its first nuclear weapons?

Scott C. Johnson writes: Beginning in the early 1960s, investigators from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the agency that regulated U.S. nuclear facilities at the time, began to question how large amounts of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium had gone missing from NUMEC [the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation in Apollo, Pennsylvania]. Any nuclear site had a certain amount of loss, from seepage into walls and floors, for instance. In fact, between 1952 and 1968, lax standards at 20 of the country’s commercial nuclear sites resulted in an apparent loss of 995 kilograms (2,194 pounds) of uranium-235. But investigators found that at NUMEC, hundreds of pounds went missing, more than at any other plant.

NUMEC’s founder, Zalman Shapiro, an accomplished American chemist, addressed the concern in 1978, telling Arizona Congressman Morris Udall that the uranium simply escaped through the facility’s air ducts, cement, and wastewater. Others, such as the late Glenn Seaborg, the AEC’s chairman in the 1960s — who had previously helped discover plutonium and made key contributions to the Manhattan Project — have suggested that the sloppy accounting and government regulations of the mid-20th century meant that keeping track of losses in America’s newborn nuclear industry was well near impossible. Today, some people in Apollo think that at least a portion of the uranium might be buried in Parks [Township], contaminating the earth and, ultimately, human beings.

But a number of nuclear experts and intelligence officials propose another theory straight out of an espionage thriller: that the uranium was diverted — stolen by spies working for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. In the 1960s, to secure nuclear technology and materials, Israel mounted covert operations around the world, including at least one alleged open-ocean transfer of hundreds of pounds of uranium. Some experts have also raised questions about Shapiro himself. He had contacts deep within Israel’s defense and intelligence establishments when he ran NUMEC; several of them even turned up at his facility over time and concealed their professional identities while there.

Fifty years after investigations began — they have involved, at various times, the AEC and its successors, Congress, the FBI, the CIA, and other government agencies — NUMEC remains one of the most confounding puzzles of the nuclear era. [Continue reading…]

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