Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Explaining U.S. Strategy | STRATFOR

February 28, 2012 | 1033 GMT

The fall of the Soviet Union ended the European epoch, the period in which European power dominated the world. It left the United States as the only global power, something for which it was culturally and institutionally unprepared. Since the end of World War II, the United States had defined its foreign policy in terms of its confrontation with the Soviet Union. Virtually everything it did around the world in some fashion related to this confrontation. The fall of the Soviet Union simultaneously freed the United States from a dangerous confrontation and eliminated the focus of its foreign policy..

In the course of a century, the United States had gone from marginal to world power. It had waged war or Cold War from 1917 until 1991, with roughly 20 years of peace between the two wars dominated by the Great Depression and numerous interventions in Latin America. Accordingly, the 20th century was a time of conflict and crisis for the United States. It entered the century without well-developed governmental institutions for managing its foreign policy. It built its foreign policy apparatus to deal with war and the threat of war; the sudden absence of an adversary inevitably left the United States off-balance.

After the Cold War

The post-Cold War period can be divided into three parts. A simultaneous optimism and uncertainty marked the first, which lasted from 1992 until 2001. On one hand, the fall of the Soviet Union promised a period in which economic development supplanted war. On the other, American institutions were born in battle, so to speak, so transforming them for a time of apparently extended peace was not easy. Presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton both pursued a policy built around economic growth, with periodic and not fully predictable military interventions in places such as Panama, Somalia, Haiti and Kosovo.

These interventions were not seen as critical to U.S. national security. In some cases, they were seen as solving a marginal problem, such as Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega's drug trafficking. Alternatively, they were explained as primarily humanitarian missions. Some have sought a pattern or logic to these varied interventions; in fact, they were as random as they appeared, driven more by domestic politics and alliance pressures than any clear national purpose. U.S. power was so overwhelming that these interventions cost relatively little and risked even less.

The period where indulgences could be tolerated ended on Sept. 11, 2001. At that point, the United States faced a situation congruent with its strategic culture. It had a real, if unconventional, enemy that posed a genuine threat to the homeland. The institutions built up during and after World War II could function again effectively. In an odd and tragic way, the United States was back in its comfort zone, fighting a war it saw as imposed on it.

The period from 2001 until about 2007 consisted of a series of wars in the Islamic world. Like all wars, they involved brilliant successes and abject failures. They can be judged one of two ways. First, if the wars were intended to prevent al Qaeda from ever attacking the United States again in the fashion of 9/11, they succeeded. Even if it is difficult to see how the war in Iraq meshes with this goal, all wars involve dubious operations; the measure of war is success. If, however, the purpose of these wars was to create a sphere of pro-U.S. regimes, stable and emulating American values, they clearly failed.

By 2007 and the surge in Iraq, U.S. foreign policy moved into its present phase. No longer was the primary goal to dominate the region. Rather, it was to withdraw from the region while attempting to sustain regimes able to defend themselves and not hostile to the United States. The withdrawal from Iraq did not achieve this goal; the withdrawal from Afghanistan probably will not either. Having withdrawn from Iraq, the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan regardless of the aftermath. The United States will not end its involvement in the region, and the primary goal of defeating al Qaeda will no longer be the centerpiece.

President Barack Obama continued the strategy his predecessor, George W. Bush, set in Iraq after 2007. While Obama increased forces beyond what Bush did in Afghanistan, he nevertheless accepted the concept of a surge -- the increase of forces designed to facilitate withdrawal. For Obama, the core strategic problem was not the wars but rather the problem of the 1990s -- namely, how to accommodate the United States and its institutions to a world without major enemies.

The Failure of Reset

The reset button Hillary Clinton gave to the Russians symbolized Obama's strategy. Obama wanted to reset U.S. foreign policy to the period before 9/11, a period when U.S. interventions, although frequent, were minor and could be justified as humanitarian. Economic issues dominated the period, and the primary issue was managing prosperity. It also was a period in which U.S.-European and U.S.-Chinese relations fell into alignment, and when U.S.-Russian relations were stable. Obama thus sought a return to a period when the international system was stable, pro-American and prosperous. While understandable from an American point of view, Russia, for example, considers the 1990s an unmitigated disaster to which it must never return.

The problem in this strategy was that it was impossible to reset the international system. The prosperity of the 1990s had turned into the difficulties of the post-2008 financial crisis. This obviously created preoccupations with managing the domestic economy, but as we saw in our first installment, the financial crisis redefined the way the rest of the world operated. The Europe, China and Russia of the 1990s no longer existed, and the Middle East had been transformed as well.

During the 1990s, it was possible to speak of Europe as a single entity with the expectation that European unity would intensify. That was no longer the case by 2010. The European financial crisis had torn apart the unity that had existed in the 1990s, putting European institutions under intense pressure along with trans-Atlantic institutions such as NATO. In many ways, the United States was irrelevant to the issues the European Union faced. The Europeans might have wanted money from the Americans, but they did not want 1990s-style leadership.

China had also changed. Unease about the state of its economy had replaced the self-confidence of the elite that had dominated during the 1990s in China. Its exports were under heavy pressure, and concerns about social stability had increased. China also had become increasingly repressive and hostile, at least rhetorically, in its foreign policy.

In the Middle East, there was little receptivity to Obama's public diplomacy. In practical terms, the expansion of Iranian power was substantial. Given Israeli fears over Iranian nuclear weapons, Obama found himself walking a fine line between possible conflict with Iran and allowing events to take their own course.

Limiting Intervention

This emerged as the foundation of U.S. foreign policy. Where previously the United States saw itself as having an imperative to try to manage events, Obama clearly saw that as a problem. As seen in this strategy, the United States has limited resources that have been overly strained during the wars. Rather than attempting to manage foreign events, Obama is shifting U.S. strategy toward limiting intervention and allowing events to proceed on their own.

Strategy in Europe clearly reflects this. Washington has avoided any attempt to lead the Europeans to a solution even though the United States has provided massive assistance via the Federal Reserve. This strategy is designed to stabilize rather than to manage. With the Russians, who clearly have reached a point of self-confidence, the failure of an attempt to reset relations resulted in a withdrawal of U.S. focus and attention in the Russian periphery and a willingness by Washington to stand by and allow the Russians to evolve as they will. Similarly, whatever the rhetoric of China and U.S. discussions of redeployment to deal with the Chinese threat, U.S. policy remains passive and accepting.

It is in Iran that we see this most clearly. Apart from nuclear weapons, Iran is becoming a major regional power with a substantial sphere of influence. Rather than attempt to block the Iranians directly, the United States has chosen to stand by and allow the game to play out, making it clear to the Israelis that it prefers diplomacy over military action, which in practical terms means allowing events to take their own course.

This is not necessarily a foolish policy. The entire notion of the balance of power is built on the assumption that regional challengers confront regional opponents who will counterbalance them. Balance-of-power theory assumes the leading power intervenes only when an imbalance occurs. Since no intervention is practical in China, Europe or Russia, a degree of passivity makes sense. In the case of Iran, where military action against its conventional forces is difficult and against its nuclear facilities risky, the same logic applies.

In this strategy, Obama has not returned to the 1990s. Rather, he is attempting to stake out new ground. It is not isolationism in its classic sense, as the United States is now the only global power. He appears to be engineering a new strategy, acknowledging that many outcomes in most of the world are acceptable to the United States and that no one outcome is inherently superior or possible to achieve. The U.S. interest lies in resuming its own prosperity; the arrangements the rest of the world makes are, within very broad limits, acceptable.

Put differently, unable to return U.S. foreign policy to the 1990s and unwilling and unable to continue the post-9/11 strategy, Obama is pursuing a policy of acquiescence. He is decreasing the use of military force and, having limited economic leverage, allowing the system to evolve on its own.

Implicit in this strategy is the existence of overwhelming military force, particularly naval power.

Europe is not manageable through military force, and it poses the most serious long-term threat. As Europe frays, Germany's interests may be better served in a relationship with Russia. Germany needs Russian energy, and Russia needs German technology. Neither is happy with American power, and together they may limit it. Indeed, an entente between Germany and Russia was a founding fear of U.S. foreign policy from World War I until the Cold War. This is the only combination that could conceivably threaten the United States. The American counter here is to support Poland, which physically divides the two, along with other key allies in Europe, and the United States is doing this with a high degree of caution.

China is highly vulnerable to naval force because of the configuration of its coastal waters, which provides choke points for access to its shores. The ultimate Chinese fear is an American blockade, which the weak Chinese navy would be unable to counter, but this is a distant fear. Still, it is the ultimate American advantage.

Russia's vulnerability lies in the ability of its former fellow members of the Soviet Union, which it is trying to organize into a Eurasian Union, to undermine its post-Soviet agenda. The United States has not interfered in this process significantly, but it has economic incentives and covert influence it could use to undermine or at least challenge Russia. Russia is aware of these capabilities and that the United States has not yet used them.

The same strategy is in place with Iran. Sanctions on Iran are unlikely to work because they are too porous and China and Russia will not honor them. Still, the United States pursues them not for what they will achieve but for what they will avoid -- namely, direct action. Rhetoric aside, the assumption underlying U.S. quiescence is that regional forces, the Turks in particular, will be forced to deal with the Iranians themselves, and that patience will allow a balance of power to emerge.

The Risks of Inaction

U.S. strategy under Obama is classic in the sense that it allows the system to evolve as it will, thereby allowing the United States to reduce its efforts. On the other hand, U.S. military power is sufficient that should the situation evolve unsatisfactorily, intervention and reversal is still possible. Obama has to fight the foreign policy establishment, particularly the U.S. Defense Department and intelligence community, to resist older temptations. He is trying to rebuild the foreign policy architecture away from the World War II-Cold War model, and that takes time.

The weakness in Obama's strategy is that the situation in many regions could suddenly and unexpectedly move in undesirable directions. Unlike the Cold War system, which tended to react too soon to problems, it is not clear that the current system won't take too long to react. Strategies create psychological frameworks that in turn shape decisions, and Obama has created a situation wherein the United States may not react quickly enough if the passive approach were to collapse suddenly.

It is difficult to see the current strategy as a permanent model. Before balances of power are created, great powers must ensure that a balance is possible. In Europe, within China, against Russia and in the Persian Gulf, it is not clear what the balance consists of. It is not obvious that the regional balance will contain emerging powers. Therefore, this is not a classic balance-of-power strategy. Rather it is an ad hoc strategy imposed by the financial crisis and its impact on psychology and by war-weariness. These issues cannot be ignored, but they do not provide a stable foundation for a long-term policy, which will likely replace the one Obama is pursuing now.The State of the World: Explaining U.S. Strategy | STRATFOR:

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In the Age of Wireless, Can't We Do Better than Intercontinental Fiber Optic Cables? | Popular Science

This week's outage in Africa reminds us of the vulnerable physicality of the Internet

Fiber Optic Cables rpongsaj (CC licensed)
On Saturday, a ship waiting to enter the Kenyan port city of Mombasa wandered into a restricted area and dropped its anchor, inadvertently severing a major undersea Internet and phone linkto East Africa. This kind of thing happens from time to time, but Saturday’s incident represents a particular stroke of bad timing. The cable severed was already overworked, rerouting data from three other cables that were accidentally severed a week prior in the Red Sea. All said, these fiber-optic channels are the backbone of East Africa’s telecommunications infrastructure. Now one single undersea fiber-optic link is left to carry the entire load for all of East Africa, slowing internet connections in Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Sudan by 20 percent until repairs are made, a process that could take weeks.
Before plugging into the high-capacity subsea fiber optic network three years ago, most Internet traffic in East Africa moved through expensive satellite connections or painfully slow telephone lines. Since then economies in the region have come to rely on their increased connectivity, so this weekend's incident comes dangerously close to spelling a small economic disaster. It also raises a larger question: Why, when global economies and day-to-day life are so reliant on access to the Internet, are we still relying on these seemingly vulnerable undersea cables, these accident-prone physical “tubes” connecting continents across the oceans? Why, in a world that’s increasingly wireless, are we still so wired? Isn’t there a better way to connect the globe?
The answer is: Not really. Fiber optic communication, for all of its shortcomings, is actually pretty amazing, and it’s getting better by the year. Accidents do happen. In 2006 earthquakes in the Luzon Strait near Taiwan severed seven of nine cables and wrought havoc on communications networks for weeks, and twice in 2008 cables in the Mediterranean were damaged, disrupting communications in the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent (and that’s just two recent examples--there are many, many more). But there’s really no technology that can touch our current fiber optics technology. The solution to problems like those East Africa is currently experiencing is not less fiber optic cable, but more.
“It’s amazing that we’re reliant on these physical links, but the reason we are is because of the kind of quantum leaps that fiber optic technology offers,” says Andrew Blum, author of the forthcoming book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. The physical cables running along (and sometimes under) the seabed carry huge volumes of data in the form of light, orders of magnitude more data than can be packed into radio signals that might be beamed wirelessly via satellites or antenna towers. The idea of replacing those cables with some kind of through-the-air technology is tempting, but for the foreseeable future we’re stuck with fiber optics.
Fiber optic cables carry orders of magnitude more data than can be beamed wirelessly“The problem is that the volumes of data we’re talking about require a very wide spectrum of frequencies,” Marvin Sirbu, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, says. “And in order to get a wide spectrum of frequencies you need to get into very high-frequency electromagnetic waves. Light waves are very, very high-frequency. If you look at the frequencies we normally think of as radio waves, to find that much spectrum you’d have to be at frequencies so high that--like light--they fade in fog or in rain, and therefore can’t really be used to go to a satellite and back, or even over long distances on the ground.”
Instead, Sirbu says, we put those high-frequency signals into optical fiber in the form of light. The fiber is extremely transparent so the signal doesn’t fade over distance. There’s no fog or rain or other atmospheric moisture inside to interfere with the signal, so it maintains its integrity whether traveling across the room or across the Pacific. When you run out of capacity, you lay a new cable. Or, even better, you can dial up the capacity in the cables already laid.
This is where fiber optics creates those “quantum leaps” forward, says Blum. The standard operating unit for fiber optics right now is something like 10-gigabits per second. But new optical modules that are being swapped into common systems boost that capacity to 40 or even 100 gigabits per second. The same cables can then carry ten times more capacity, growing the system without laying a single new cable on the seafloor. Other tricks--involving everything fromnew ways of channeling signals to implementing lenses known as “time telescopes” to manipulate light pulses--could potentially keep that capacity growing at a rapid pace for the foreseeable future.
The key to averting disasters like the one East Africa is flirting with is redundancy, Sirbu says. “If you look at the U.S., we have cable landing sites at many different places, from Florida to Maine and all up and down the West Coast as well,” Sirbu says. “Given the interconnection of networks around the world, if fiber going into one landing location is broken there is fiber landing at other locations that will still be operational. But Africa is probably the continent least densely served by fiber optics, especially when compared to Europe, North America, or East Asia. They’re in a riskier position.”
That’s a problem for East Africa, particularly in a situation like this wherein two separate incidents have severed two of the three main fiber optic nerves feeding data into and out of the region. And while it seems that vulnerable undersea cables are the cause of the region’s current connectivity woes, the key to ensuring that East Africa doesn’t find its communications infrastructure hanging by a single fiber optic thread ever again--to ensure it doesn't end up temporarily back in the days of dial-up and satellite signals--is route diversity. In other words, the answer is more fiber optics cables, not fewer.
“These cuts are always exciting because these are the moments that remind everyone that the cables are there,” Blum says. “This cut in particular is more exciting because it’s the first time you really get to see what it means for East Africa to have fiber when three years ago it didn’t. So I optimistically look at it upside down. Its only the incredible capacity of fiber optic technology that has allowed the Internet to progress across the world. You wouldn’t have this global Internet without fiber optics--that’s what’s so amazing about it.”
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