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New Article: The NSC is Broken and it’s Time to Fix It

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The Chicago Progressive

I have a new article up at The Chicago Progressive, where I look at facets of the current exasperating disarray in national security.

The NSC is Broken

American presidents, particularly in their second term, tend to emphasize foreign and defense affairs in establishing their legacy because it is where our political system and the Constitution give them the greatest freedom of action. Success or failure here for their administration emanates from two distinct but related areas: formulating good, effective, policy ideas and secondly, policy execution by strategy and implementation with our allies and adversaries. Lacking good policies, an administration is simply a caretaker government on autopilot; lacking competent execution, good policies will be frustrated, then discredited and potential opportunities lost. The primary tool the POTUS has to see his foreign policies carried out is the National Security Council and the inter-agency process it supervises; while membership of the NSC was set into law in 1947, every president is free to establish and staff the national security decision making process that suits them best. Unfortunately, this means that while every president gets exactly the NSC he wants, too few of them get the one they most need or deserve. [….]

….Furthermore, no president, not even the highly secretive Richard Nixon, can run a one-man foreign policy (though Nixon, it must be said, certainly tried) nor should President Obama be expected to do so. The Obama administration is closest to using the “Operational NSC” model, which worked relatively well during the first term. While not friction-free, Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, John Brennan and several others were very experienced senior officials and political heavyweights accustomed to working closely with the Oval Office who were able to counterbalance the excessive influence of a relatively junior White House staff whose primary experience was and remains domestic politics. No such check and balance exists today. Brennan departed his post as counter-terrorism adviser to the President to head the CIA, Hillary Clinton left to prepare to run for president, while Panetta and Gates returned to private life. When the dean of the American foreign policy community, Leslie Gelb, the respected former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Democrat who is no conservative, called for the firing and replacement of the entire senior White House staff, it was unprecedented but not surprising. A staff that cannot get little things like a photo-op right are not of the caliber to serve the president in questions of war and peace [….]

Read the rest here.

New Article up at The Chicago Progressive

Friday, November 28th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

As I mentioned previously, I was invited to be a contributor to the new (and evolving) e-zine The Chicago Progressive   where I will tackle much the same subjects that we do here, albeit for a general audience attuned toward music, culture and the arts instead of for the natsec nerds, strategy wonks and milblogger crowd. here’s my latest piece:

The Nature of the Menace 

While the 2014 election results which gave Republicans control over the next Congress promise a change of direction and increased conflict in Washington over hot-button issues like immigration reform and Obamacare, one issue that is not likely to change: American policy  toward Syria and ISIS. Republicans, no less than Democrats are deeply divided over what to do, as are key figures in the administration. Part of the problem is the nature of the menace posed by ISIS itself – violently barbaric, growing in strength and implacably hostile to the West, yet only indirectly threatening to America at best. The steady-stream of ISIS atrocities keep it on the front pages – along with demands that the Obama administration “do something” – without ISIS taking actions threatening enough to Americans justify the risk of a major US response.

The truth is that despite lurid stories of ISIS operatives infiltrating over the Rio Grande leaving a trail of prayer rugs and jihadi literature in their wake, the threat of acts of major domestic terrorism by ISIS foreign fighters is remote. Unlike al Qaida, which was always primarily an elite transnational terrorist group looking to strike America, ISIS is predominantly a regionally based mass-movement insurgency rooted radicalized Sunni Arab theology and anti-Shia grievances. ISIS gains political traction for its brand of extreme religious violence outside of Iraq and Syria only where similar ethnic and sectarian demographics and anarchy prevail – like in the Sinai and Libya, as Der Spiegel reported last week.

The strategic threat posed by ISIS to the United States is fairly limited and mostly indirect, coming mostly from secondary or long term effects that are adverse to longstanding American interests:

a) Ideological – Every ISIS success helps inspire a hyper-radicalization of young, angry, Sunni Arab males into a generation of crypto-mahdist revolutionaries akin to the radical wave of terrorism and revolt inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 (ex. Bela Kuhn, Mao, Ho, the Bavarian Soviet, Comintern etc.). This potential fallout is the most serious threat to regional stability in the Mideast and is already happening.

b) Destabilization – The fragile and authoritarian Gulf monarchies and Saudi Arabia with a large generation of idle, well-off, underemployed youth are acutely vulnerable to subversion byISIS (which they ironically helped fund). Any serious effort by ISIS to militarily challenge these states is likely to be accompanied by vicious anti-Shia pogroms and atrocities, possibly provoking Iran to intervene. This risks whipping up a “Muslim Thirty Year’s War”  from Pakistan to the Mahgreb. While this likelihood is modest and its effects on US interests secondary, were Pakistani nukes to get loose or an Iranian-Saudi war to be triggered, it would become an urgent threat of the first order.

c) Terrorism -, Terrorism against regional American/western targets by ISIS s a certain eventuality, it has not happened yet because doing so is not a priority. ISIS leaders have demonstrated a remarkable strategic focus and discipline (more than we do, to be blunt) and have bigger fish to fry fighting local rivals right now. Terrorism against the continental United States by ISIS is not very probable (except by internet self-radicalized amateurs) and if it happened, while awful for the victims, most likely far less significant than 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing. I wouldn’t stay awake at night worrying about foreign ISIS fighters nuking Manhattan. […]

Read the rest here.

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