Fumbling and stumbling


  • Opinion
  • Sunday, 29 Apr 2018

THE Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a term for operations that backfire: blowback.

This happens when a field project stumbles and produces an untoward, often opposite result of the intended outcome, blowing back into their faces.

The venturesome CIA apparently conducts so many operations, with so many blowing backwards up the wrong tubes, that its own distinct language is required.

Multiply that 16 times for the various US intelligence or covert agencies, plus the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and “information overload” becomes something of an understatement.

Then comes the task of sifting through the continual torrent of information, misinformation and disinformation to make sense of the data, whether raw, simmered over, cooked or cooked up – and then evaluating the relative merits of each strand.

Sometimes fake data planted for use by an adversary goes around and is picked up by one of the 16. That could approximate to “cancest”, denoting both cannibalism and incest.

There is never any guarantee that a coherent narrative will emerge from the mass of data, or even exist. But a coherent narrative is always needed as basis for policy, and one will always be provided somehow.

Even with a maverick President like Donald Trump, all sides play along despite knowing the limits of intelligence informing policy.

Trump prefers to watch Fox News and other media for inputs. He spurned intelligence briefings initially, then went along in playing along.

The Establishment that he snubs has been reasserting itself and holding firm. As Trump is tethered and gradually cowed, talk of impeachment has subsided.

This Establishment has no special access to a coherent narrative even if the 16+1 institutions are part of it. So they tend to go by tried and tested conservative hunches.

If these agree with Trump’s own views of the moment, a semblance of a policy is assured. If they do not, it would take longer.

All of this does not reduce the prospects of blowback but may instead increase them.

Trump and the Establishment privately bicker over the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal.

He gave the other signatories Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the EU – with Iran – the impossible deadline of May 12 to “fix” the agreement.

The deal took 20 long months to reach. It is a complex and delicate document that cannot be tinkered with and still survive even with a later deadline.

The deal requires Iran to stop further development of uranium enrichment, curtail operations at the Arak facility and open up sites for daily checks by IAEA inspectors.

In return, Iran would be allowed what all sovereign countries are entitled to, plus an easing of sanctions placed against it. Iran had problems agreeing to the terms but eventually did.

Any deal demanding more of Iran is destined to fail, even if agreement on terms approved by the US can be reached by the other six parties.

French President Emmanuel Macron tried to persuade Trump to stick with the deal but came away disappointed. Trump seems set to torpedo it and provoke Iran, with Israel’s blessings.

The result is virtually assured: freed from the terms of the deal Trump has dumped, Iran would accelerate development of its uranium enrichment with more centrifuges and greater capacity.

It has already warned it may pull out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed in 1970. It would then also be free to trade nuclear technology with anyone with nuclear ambitions.

Oil prices would spiral skywards, unnerving the US administration and vexing the Establishment as high prices benefit Russia. Meanwhile billions in sales to Iran by Boeing, General Electric and other US corporations already in the pipeline could be scrapped.

The consequences of abrogating the JCPOA would be worse than any dissatisfaction Trump imagines it contains. The sequence of events, though, may be deliberate in setting Iran up as a target for bombing.

Trump has already made a U-turn on Syria by seeking to get further stuck in, against his better judgement earlier of pulling out. It is another opportunity for the sole superpower to lose more blood and treasure, and possibly also something of its superpower status.

And thus one blowback follows close on the heels of another.

Trump has called the JCPOA “the worst deal ever.” Earlier it was Nafta and then the TPP that was supposed to have that status, so competition for that title seems keen.

At the Apec summit in Vietnam last November, Trump declared his “America First” policy while denouncing trade partners for “cheating”. Soon, not only China but US allies in Europe and Japan saw US barriers to trade.

In contrast, China stood out by championing free trade. There was little doubt which country was seen positively by the rest of the world.

Thus, one more blowback strikes again.

The Trump White House is now considering joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (the CPTPP or revised TPP), after having exited the TPP on its first day.

An administration team is now studying the implications of membership and may recommend it. When that happens, the US would have to negotiate with the other 11 members to return - so the terms may not be as favourable to it than if it had stayed put.

A potential blowback is already in place.

Washington has also bought into Japan’s idea of the “Indo-Pacific” as a regional concept. Basically this involves drawing India into an Asia-Pacific that Japan, the US, possibly India and sometimes Australia see as being dominated increasingly by China.

With India the other Asian giant in the picture, notionally diluting China’s aura and influence, Japan would feel more confident. And the US would also feel more secure, maybe.

The latest US National Security Strategy, released last December, replaced “Asia-Pacific” with “Indo-Pacific,” and placed this renamed region as the most vital in the world for the US.

The most important region for US interests used to be West Asia, mainly because of Israel, but no longer. Now it is the Indo-Pacific, which the White House knows little about and understands even less.

Many expected China to make a fuss, but the opposite was exactly what happened. Beijing is not at all disturbed by a notional Indo-Pacific since that equally allows China to spread its wings from the Asia-Pacific to the Indian Ocean region.

Few doubt that China has more capacity than India to spread further afield. One more blowback is firmly in place.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also proposed an “alternative” to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC). The US is excluded from both geographically, so it is left high and dry over in left field. However, since Japan is an ally and India is being wooed as one, the US is likely to support the AAGC as pronouncements indicate.

Nonetheless the BRI dwarfs the AAGC just as China dwarfs Japan and India. If and when the AAGC is complete, it will only connect with the larger BRI like a “tributary” since all infrastructure eventually connects and complements rather than competes.

By then US support for the AAGC would effectively end up supporting China’s BRI.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

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World , Politics , Bunn Nagara , BTH column

   

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