Rule Britannia, another Brexit delusion

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In a speech to a UK think tank yesterday, British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson argued that leaving the European Union will open a door for Britain to pursue a renewed, muscular, interventionist, unilateral foreign and defense policy:

In an era of ‘Great Power’ competition we cannot be satisfied simply protecting our own backyard. The UK is a global power with truly global interests. … And since the new Global Great Game will be played on a global playing field, we must be prepared to compete for our interests and our values far, far from home.

That is why Global Britain needs to be much more than a pithy phrase. It has to be about action. And our armed forces represent the best of Global Britain in action. Taking action alongside our friends and allies. Action to strengthen the hand of fragile nations and to support those who face natural disasters. Action to oppose those who flout international law. Action to shore up the global system of rules and standards on which our security and our prosperity depends.

And action, on occasion, that may lead us to have to intervene alone.

Apparently, after Brexit, Britannia will once again rule the waves. Color me skeptical.

The last time the United Kingdom “had to intervene alone,” i.e. unilaterally projected military power abroad, was 1982, when Margaret Thatcher sent British troops and warships 8,000 miles to a remote colony in the South Atlantic to wrest back control of some windswept rocks that had been invaded and seized by Argentina.

By the time the Falklands War was over, 649 Argentines and 255 Brits were killed in action, including more than 300 Argentine sailors who drowned when their WWII-era cruiser, the Gen. Belgrano, was torpedoed by a British nuclear submarine.

The financial cost to liberate the 1,800 British subjects and about 400,000 sheep who at the time constituted the Falklands population? The contemporary estimate was $1.19 billion, or the equivalent of about $3 billion today.

Take away it’s nuclear arsenal and Britain would struggle to be described as a military great power. It’s land forces and navy have over the years shrunk to a shadow of their former selves, and are likely no match for the kinds of adversaries Williamson envisions by evoking a 21st century Great Game of the sort that pitted the old British Empire against its Russian imperial rival two centuries ago.

To give an idea of how wildly implausible all of this is, the plan Williamson announced includes the purchase of a pair of civilian passenger ferries or cargo ships for conversion into amphibious assault vessels. And don’t forget the “swarm fleets” of off-the-shelf drones that he envisions fielding alongside the Royal Air Force.

The idea implicit in Williamson’s speech, that membership in the European Union has prevented the UK from militarily asserting its national interests is equally farfetched. Beyond it’s own weakness, a greater constraint on British adventurism, if it really wanted to engage in such, is its membership in NATO. And that’s not going changing, at least not anytime soon.

Only 47 more days until Brexit!

If a blogger sees his shadow …

Groundhog

I’ve been kind of laying low these last few months, at least as far as the blog goes. I’ve got good reason. A couple of weeks ago political theorist Jacob Levy said on Twitter what I’ve been thinking and feeling:

The problem, as Levy points out, is the president. Dan Drezner, patron saint of blogging political scientists, summed it up this way: “All the arguments about Trump have already been made, and there is no point in thinking up new ones.” In short, there are only so many ways to write about the same nonsense.

Drezner, to his credit (and to honor his arrangement with the Washington Post) is going to soldier on and keep writing about the seemingly endless series of corruptions, missteps, mistakes, ineptitudes, outrages, cruelties, and lies large and small that characterize this present administration.

Now that I’ve poked my head out of the burrow, I’m going to try to be like Punxsutawney Phil and make an optimistic prediction for the future. Phil called for early spring. I’m predicting more frequent posts here on the blog.

Of course Phil is usually wrong. I’ll try to do better.

The curious case of Paul Whelan

(Lutz Creative)
(Lutz Creative)

 

The case of Paul Whelan, the former Marine and Michigan resident who has been charged with espionage in Russia, keeps getting stranger and stranger.

A Canadian-born US citizen, Whelan is also apparently a British citizen. Who also happens to carry an Irish passport. Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs describes him as “an Irish citizen,” and like the American and British embassies, has offered him consular assistance.

So, if you’re keeping score, that’s four countries, four separate citizenships, and four passports. Meanwhile, the Russian lawyer working on Whelan’s case, and approved by him, Vladimir Zherebenkov, has been described by human rights activists and prison monitors as likely to have been chosen by the same Federal Security Service (FSB) that arrested him in the first place.

Whelan is security chief for auto parts supplier BorgWarner, and was, according to his family, visiting Russia for a friend’s wedding when he was arrested and charged with spying. In an interview with The Daily Beast, his lawyer stated his objective in handling the case is:

to arrange a trade and bring home “at least one Russian soul.” It’s widely assumed that the intention is to exchange him for Maria Butina, who recently pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent for Moscow and signed a broad cooperation agreementwith the U.S. Justice Department. Prosecutors said she tried to build a back channel between Kremlin officials and Republican operatives during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Such spy-for-spy exchanges are pretty standard stuff. The most recent high-profile example I can come up with dates from 2010, when the Obama Administration exchanged 10 Russian sleeper agents for four Russians who had been convicted and imprisoned for spying on behalf of the United States. In a scene straight out of the movies, the swap took place on a runway at an airport in Vienna.

But is Whelan a spy? Former CIA officers have told the New York Times and other media outlets that they doubt it. US intelligence operatives typically work under some form of diplomatic cover that gives them immunity from prosecution should they be caught.

Most C.I.A. officers work in foreign countries while posing as diplomats, and if caught by a hostile government in an act of espionage, their diplomatic passports ensure they cannot be long detained, and at worst face expulsion.

Former C.I.A. officials who have operated in Moscow said the agency almost never sends officers into Russia without diplomatic protections. The United States, said John Sipher, a former C.I.A. officer who served in Moscow and ran the agency’s Russia operations, would “never leave a real intelligence officer vulnerable to arrest.”

Whelan was in Russia as a private citizen, ostensibly to attend a wedding and show visitors around Moscow. But he was also a regular visitor to the country, dating back to 2006, showing up every six months or so. He had an account on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, which is unusual for the casual visitor. And his social media contacts include ordinary Russians, but also many others, mostly men, with connections to academies run by the Russian Navy, the Defense Ministry, or the Civil Aviation Authority.

So is Whelan a spy? Beats me. But this case just keeps getting more intriguing by the day.

Praise for Donald Trump

American-Exceptionalism

President Trump’s statement on US-Saudi relations in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a perversely refreshing breath of fresh air. That sounds kind of like praise, but it really isn’t.

No, what Trump has done, in his typical barely-literate way, is to brutally expose the hypocrisy that has long marked the United States’ approach to human rights. In this, his statement represents a real service.

Other American presidents have long claimed to stand for human rights, but as human rights scholar Julie Mertus writes in her award-winning book Bait and Switch:

The United States still pretends to support universal human rights when it actually recognizes different standards for itself and its friends than those it applies to its enemies.

Mertus concludes:

For the White House … human rights talk is not supported by consistent human rights behavior. On the contrary, the United States applies a double standard for human rights norms: one that applies to the United States and one that applies to the rest of the world.

This makes Trump’s honesty that much more surprising, given his serial dishonesty. He doesn’t even bother with the human rights talk. Trump truly does not care if human rights are violated if there’s something in it for us. Like arms sales, or cooperation against our enemies, or a regional alliance, or low oil prices:

After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!

Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!

After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!

Journalist Graeme Wood sums it up like this: “In other words: our friendship is too sweet to spit out, no matter how poisonous it may be.”

By reaffirming our alliance with Saudi Arabia and standing by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, whom the CIA has determined ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, Trump shines a bright spotlight on the very hypocrisies other presidents have hidden behind high-minded human rights rhetoric. Like this from Ronald Reagan:

The American people cannot close their eyes to abuses of human rights and injustice, whether they occur among friend or adversary or even on our own shores.

And now consider the reality of Reagan’s record on human rights: condemnation for abuses in the Soviet bloc while turning a blind eye to the brutality of the Haitian government, the murder of civilians by the Honduran and Guatemalan militaries, government-backed death squads in El Salvador, and pro-US contra rebels in Nicaragua, atrocities committed by pro-American rebels in Angola, selling arms to the genocidal Suharto regime in Indonesia …

So maybe we should thank Trump for his honesty by saying out loud what foreign policy realists like Hans Morgenthau long advocated:

The principle of defense of human rights cannot be consistently applied in foreign policy because it can and must come in conflict with other interests more important than the defense of human rights.

Or, as Trump says, America First!