July 24, 2008

Middle East trip an eye-opener for Obama

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Middle East trip an eye-opener for Obama
Opinion: Reality of problems in Israel, Iraq now more apparent to candidate

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

Barack Obama’s recent trip to the Middle East was a learning experience for him. Often criticized for a lack of national security and foreign policy experience, he was exposed to the vexing issues facing the U.S. in the world’s most volatile and strategically important region.

In Iraq, he was able to get a glimpse of an improving situation and meet with some of the American troops responsible for that turn-around. Despite this, he still continues to use the phrase “end the war” as opposed to what the troops have asked for: An opportunity to “win” the war. Ironically, thanks to their efforts, his arbitrary timeline of withdrawing American combat forces within 16 months of taking office is probably achievable.

It was in Israel that he probably got his biggest dose of Middle East reality. Speaking to the Israelis, he reiterated his stance that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel. Of course, Palestinians of all stripes bristled at this since they demand that Jerusalem, or a part of it, be recognized as the capital of the future state of Palestine. The presidential candidate fell into the same trap as many American politicians who fail to realize the extreme sensitivity of the Jerusalem issue, and used the same avoidance tactic by declaring it a “final status” issue. In other words, “I don’t have a solution and don’t want to discuss it anymore.”

Probably no less educational was the visit to the Israeli town of Sderot. Sderot is located on the border with the Gaza Strip and is subjected almost daily to rocket and mortar attacks at the hands of Iranian supported terrorist groups. The 6000 rocket casings launched over the years provide a powerful visual aid to the reality of living in Israel.

Face-to-face with Israel and Iran's conflict
The Israelis have claimed for years that Iranian uranium enrichment efforts are the first steps toward the development of a nuclear weapon, a weapon they believe may be used on the Jewish state. Israeli analysts postulate that three nuclear weapons detonated over the small coastal strip from Tel Aviv to Haifa could effectively destroy their country. They define the Iranian program as an “existential threat.” The senator, in his public remarks, appears to agree with this assessment.

Armed with this newfound knowledge and supposedly a great appreciation for the realities of the situation in the region, it will be interesting to watch the development of the candidate’s policy toward Iran. Will he still be willing to sit down with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions? How far will he be willing to go to insure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon? When and if the Israelis decide that the rest of the world will not solve the Iranian issue and attempt to solve it themselves, will the senator be in their corner?

At the end of the day, the lesson is clear. The real issue in the region facing the next president is Iran. Stopping both Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and its support for the three major terrorist organizations in the Middle East should be critical American foreign policy goals.

July 20, 2008

End the war or win the war?

Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is committed to withdrawing American military forces from Iraq. He plans to have this action completed within 16 months of taking office.

That time line, through no prescience on his part, is probably achievable. It is achievable because of the surge - which he said would not work, by the way. Thanks to the increase in the number of troops, changes in tactics and increased capabilities of the Iraqi military and security forces, we may be able to bring most of the troops home even before his artificial deadline.

The time line is really not the issue - it is his characterization of what he hopes to accomplish. Let's look at his words (taken from his official campaign website).

“So when I am Commander-in-Chief, I will set a new goal on day one: I will end this war. Not because politics compels it. Not because our troops cannot bear the burden- as heavy as it is. But because it is the right thing to do for our national security, and it will ultimately make us safer.”

The problem is not the plan to withdraw American forces - the senator has said he will consult with the military commanders and assess the security situation in Iraq. That's pretty much what the President and Senator McCain have been saying without adding artificial time lines.

The problem is his choice of words. The senator, as we all know, is a gifted orator and talented speechwriter, so we have to assume he has chosen his words carefully. The offending phrase is "end the war."

We should not "end" the war, we need to "win" the war. Packing up and going home is not a good idea unless we have accomplished some key objectives. Just because we can leave on a a particular date does not mean that we should. Although the "security situation" may allow us to safely withdraw, the assessment should be based on making sure we do not leave a failure waiting to happen.

I guess the question the senator needs to answer is, "Do you want to win in Iraq?" If you think that is not as important as merely "ending" the war, you do not deserve to be the commander in chief of the fine young men and women who want to win in Iraq.

July 18, 2008

Finally, U.S., Iran diplomats will meet

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Finally, U.S., Iran diplomats will meet
Opinion: Saturday meeting could be a turning point in nuclear debate

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

In a surprising reversal of its longstanding policy towards Iran, the Bush administration has sent its No. 3 diplomat to Geneva for a weekend meeting with the top Iranian nuclear negotiator. Since the administration is on record as refusing to hold senior-level talks with the Islamic Republic unless certain conditions are met, one might ask what conditions the Iranians have agreed to for this meeting.

The fact that the Iranian representative at the upcoming meeting has the nuclear portfolio is significant. The bottom lines for the two countries have been quite clear. The U.S. has demanded that Iran stop its uranium enrichment efforts, efforts many believe are actually the first steps in the development of a nuclear weapon. For its part, Iran has stated that its right to enrich uranium is not negotiable, and has given no indications that it is willing to compromise on this stance — despite a host of sanctions and incentives.

What has changed? What has changed? It has been just a week since Iran launched a series of ballistic missile launches near the Straits of Hormuz and issued a string of verbal threats against both Israel and the United States. Now a representative of that government will sit down with a American representative. To the Iranians, this is a victory, a vindication of their strategy: Continue to enrich uranium, refuse to compromise on the issue, conduct military exercises and tests, threaten to close the oil flow from the Persian Gulf, and refuse to engage with the Europeans. Do these things long enough and the U.S. will eventually come to the table.

On Saturday, America is coming to the table.

Did U.S. set requirements?
What were the conditions demanded by the U.S. for this meeting? Did they demand any conditions? There does not appear to be any change in Iran’s position, so in the absence of any indications that there will be any progress on the key issue, why meet?

I say meet with the Iranians and explain to them that time is running out. After years of patient and what I consider half-hearted attempts at a diplomatic solution, the Europeans are finally growing weary of Iran’s refusal to address the nuclear issue seriously. The Israelis have already determined that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon and that it presents an existential threat to the Jewish state. Vice President Dick Cheney has stated that the U.S. “will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”

Most of the western world seems fairly united on this issue, but Tehran does not seem to get it. Up until now, the U.S. has been content to let the Europeans try the diplomatic route, to no avail. The Iranians have wanted to talk with the U.S. all along. Here’s their opportunity.

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns is an accomplished diplomat - perhaps someone of his seniority and stature can convince the Iranians that this issue is not going away, that they cannot delay and obfuscate forever, that if this issue is not resolved diplomatically, it will be resolved “by other means.”

If the Europeans can’t solve it, and the Americans won’t solve it, the Israelis will try to solve it. The message to the Iranians should be pretty simple. Stop enriching uranium.

July 17, 2008

Iran - Information Operation?

Over the past few years, Iran has repeatedly demonstrated its improving military capabilities in a series of tests and exercises. Most of these receive prominent coverage in the Iranian media. Some of the most extensive coverage is provided by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) Arabic-language network.

Click for larger image
This is a screen shot of MSNBC's coverage of the event - it is a feed from IRIB's Arabic-language channel. The logo in the upper right is that of al-‘Alam (The World). The white lettering on red banner reads in Arabic “pictures of the launch…” The grey box to the right is cut off, but it appears to be the top portion of the Arabic word for “Urgent” (like Breaking News).

Given the intense coverage of the Iranian nuclear research and development program as well as all of Iran's military exercises and tests, one must assume that the intended audience is the other side of the Persian Gulf - the Arab states that are very concerned about the ascendancy of Iranian power and influence in the region.

It would appear that the coming issue in the region is not about Sunni versus Shi'a, it is about Arabs versus Persians.

July 10, 2008

Iran missile test sends defiant message to West

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Iran missile test sends defiant message to West
The country continues to raise the stakes in an already tense situation

Iranian missile launcn reported on Iranian television Arabic language channel

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

Iran’s firing of nine ballistic missiles on Wednesday was neither a test nor an exercise. It was a message to the West, United States and Israel. The message is that Iran has no intentions of halting its uranium enrichment program, which most observers believe is the first step in Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. The missile launches are the symbolic equivalent of thumbing your nose at the world.

Despite the findings of the recent National Intelligence Estimate report that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons development program in 2003, both presidential candidates have stated that Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons. The Iranians claim they are merely exercising their legal right to develop a nuclear energy capability. A look at their nuclear research and development facilities, hardened and buried structures dispersed over the breadth of the country, would suggest otherwise. It has all the earmarks of a weapons research and development program and the fact that much of it is underground and hardened indicates that the Iranians believe it must be defended. Defense is not an issue for a peaceful energy program.

The Israeli intelligence agencies strongly disagree with the American assessment that Iran has suspended its nuclear weapons program. They believe that Iran is working deliberately and with a sense of urgency toward the development of a nuclear weapon. The Iranians already have a delivery system that puts all of Israel in range and they demonstrated that capability once again on Wednesday. This comes just weeks after Israel conducted what many believe was a “profile mission” hundreds of miles out into the skies over the Mediterranean, replicating a flight from Israel to targets in Iran.

The so-called Iranian missile “tests” were carried out near the Straits of Hormuz, an interesting venue. At a time of record oil prices, conducting missile launches at the spot that overlooks the waterway that carries 25 percent of the world’s daily oil supply is sure to attract attention. It highlights the vulnerability of the sea lanes out of the Persian Gulf. The threat of closure of the straits prompted the commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet to remark that the U.S. would not allow Iran to close the waterway — strong words.

Good for U.S. plan?
One possible unintended outcome of the continued Iranian intransigence and continued demonstration of log-range ballistic missile capability is more acceptance of an American missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Despite angry rhetoric from Moscow, Russia’s allies in Tehran are doing more for the installation of the American program than Washington can hope to do.

In the past when confronted by the West, Iran has offered to voluntarily suspend uranium enrichment for a short period of time to allow diplomatic efforts to proceed. This is merely a tactic to buy time to continue the program. They again made this same offer, and at the same time demonstrated their ballistic missile capabilities. No one trusts the Iranian leadership, nor should they.

Iran will continue this cat-and-mouse game, demonstrating military capabilities intended to put the Israelis on notice that they are in range, and to put the rest of the world on notice that its oil supply may be put at risk. Iran has no intention of abandoning its quest for nuclear weapons, despite the stream of denials from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

These missile demonstrations are yet another step that is bringing the West, Israel, the U.S., or all of the above, closer to a confrontation with Iran. Instead of trying to lower tensions, the Iranians seem intent on inflaming the situation. They may push Israel to the conclusion that Iran is indeed an existential threat to the Jewish state. Once Israel believes that, they may exercise the military option.

If Israel decides to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, it will be probably the riskiest military operation they have ever undertaken. They will not attempt it until they have made the assessment that there is no other option and their survival as a nation and a people are at risk. With Ahmadinejad continuing his verbal assaults on Israel, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps flexing its military might, Iranian intransigence on the uranium enrichment issue, Israel may be nearing that conclusion.

Launching nine ballistic missiles at the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz does not advance the dialogue.