Opinion

The Great Debate

The robots of war

Air Force airman performs tests on a Talon robot in Afghanistan in 2011. Photo from Air Force.

Here are just a few of the robots assigned to the U.S. Army’s last combat brigade in Afghanistan: Tractor-size robots that trawl ahead of foot patrols, probing for buried bombs. Smaller ‘bots that help blow up the uncovered incendiary devices. Unmanned aerial vehicles — from tiny, hand-thrown models to a high-endurance version the size of a Cessna. Silent robot sentries that watch over sleeping U.S. troops.

The automaton warriors of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, deployed to volatile Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan since December represent the highs and lows of more than a decade of military robot development.

Highs because they potentially save many lives — replacing people in some of the most dangerous tasks. Lows because many robots were designed specifically for the Iraq War but are now being used in Afghanistan — where the unique enemy and terrain sometimes makes them ineffective.

Some of the robots, however, have proved indispensable, even life-saving. Others work — but only when conditions are perfect. A few are total duds, locked away in storage containers while battle rages all around. As a group they offer a glimpse of the future of military robotics — as the Pentagon digests the final technological lessons of the Afghanistan war and prepares for the possible wars of the coming decades.

Civil wars and Syria: lessons from history

A man at a site recently hit by what activists said was a Scud missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighborhood, February 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

Most of the international debate about Syria policy focuses on how to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power.

Options for NATO states and key Arab League partners include everything from enlisting Russia’s help in a diplomatic approach, with a conference now envisioned for early June, to arming the rebels to perhaps even supporting them with limited amounts of airpower. Removing Assad, however, would no more end the Syrian conflict than overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought stability to Iraq. The United States must create a more integrated overall strategy.

Drone coalition: Key to U.S. security

The Pentagon’s biggest, most high-tech spy drone aircraft — one of the hottest items on the international arms market — is the key to a burgeoning robotic alliance among the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk, a $215 million, airliner-size Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) built by Northrop Grumman, could help this four-nation coalition monitor both China, as it increasingly flexes its military muscles, and North Korea, as it develops ever more sophisticated nuclear weapons.

If, and when, Canberra, Tokyo and Seoul acquire their Global Hawks — all three sales negotiations are still at an early stage — they could all share intelligence with Washington and vice versa. For all would be using the same hardware and software system. The resulting network could monitor millions of square miles of land and sea around the clock and in real time.

Assessing the resiliency of Hillary Clinton

As Hillary Rodham Clinton finished her last few weeks on the job, after a month of convalescence, how can we assess the secretary of state’s contributions?

The question is worth asking simply because of the job’s importance and its significance for U.S. national security. It is also relevant given Clinton’s unprecedented role in our national life over the last two decades.

She is probably the most politically powerful woman in U.S. history — at least in terms of positions held. She has come closer to being elected president than any other woman. She may well try again, and her record as secretary may be the best way to judge her candidacy for the highest job in the land. So how has she done?

New Afghan war over U.S. troop levels

The stubborn war in Afghanistan, which has spanned a decade and cost more than 2,000 American lives, has now faded to one key question: How many U.S. troops will remain after 2014?

This is the issue that will likely occupy President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai when they meet at the White House on Friday. Officials are already batting numbers about, ranging from zero to 20,000.

But how many Americans are still paying attention?

For many voters, and those they elect, the war is over. Only brief and irritating interruptions, like the scandal the led to the resignation of CIA director and retired General David Petraeus, serve to remind the public that the United States remains at war. In the presidential campaign, candidates in both parties mentioned the war only in passing. GOP nominee Mitt Romney didn’t even say “Afghanistan” in his convention acceptance speech, while Obama and Vice President Joe Biden referred to the war only to discuss its “responsible end.”

Obama faces only hard choices in Mideast

The conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that a newly empowered president, freed from the political constraints of reelection, will have more discretion, drive and determination to take on the Middle East’s most intractable problems.

Don’t believe it. This looks a lot more compelling on paper than in practice. Should President Barack Obama be tempted to embrace it, he may well find himself on the short end of the legacy stick.

Once again many on the left are summoning up the spirit of Obama unchained. Those who saw a new kind of American president in the Middle East – tough on Israel; sensitive to the Islamists and the Arabs (see his March 2010 Cairo speech), and bent on engaging the world in a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect – hope for his return.

Petraeus: A loss of real military standards

 The sudden departure of General David Petraeus from the CIA probably tells us more about the state of our nation than it does about Petraeus. President Barack Obama should not have accepted his resignation.

We now seem to care more about the sex lives of our leaders than the real lives of our soldiers. We had years of failed generalship in Iraq, for example, yet left those commanders in place. Petraeus’s departure again demonstrates we are strict about intimate behavior, but extraordinarily lax about professional incompetence.

“A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war,” Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling wrote in the Armed Forces Journal in 2007.

Why ‘peace’ was catchphrase in presidential debate

Foreign policy attempted to take center stage at the presidential debate Monday evening but failed resoundingly. For the candidates agreed to agree on a number of key issues — the timeline for ending America’s longest war, support for Israel, and the importance of diplomacy and sanctions in Iran. Nation-building at home trumped nation-building abroad, and small business won as many mentions from the nominees as the death of Osama bin Laden. It was no accident that the contenders talked about teachers more than Libya.

What both President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney made clear to a nation exhausted by one decade of two bloody wars: The era of big military interventions is over. Romney, who earlier in the campaign sounded poised to embrace a more activist foreign policy, embraced a loudly centrist worldview that eschewed saber-rattling in favor of promoting entrepreneurship and civil society.

“Peaceful” was the night’s catchphrase for Romney, who told the president, “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” This key word is likely to resonate with the women voters his campaign now sees as both critical to victory and open to his more centrist message.

Can Romney put foreign policy in play?

This piece was updated after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s major foreign policy address on Monday. It reflects Romney’s remarks.

In the first foreign policy speech following his momentum-gaining debate against President Barack Obama, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney expanded on his vision of an “American century,” a view he tied to the legacy of leaders like General George Marshall as he outlined a muscular, moral U.S. foreign policy with American exceptionalism at its core.

Romney aimed to distinguish his world view from the president’s, as he has in far-lower-profile foreign policy speeches, promising to “change course” in the Middle East by helping to provide arms to Syrian rebels and talking and acting even tougher on Iran.

Are we deluding ourselves about Afghanistan?

Over the past month, a veritable who’s who of American opinion makers have been on the major television networks and in the most prestigious print media strongly reinforcing the notion that America’s mission in Afghanistan is “on track.” To be sure, they admit, there are “challenges” and “rough patches,” but the overall trajectory of the war is going according to the timelines laid out in the 2010 Lisbon Agreement. With so much star power locked virtually arm in arm, there are few who would publicly contend with such a group; most accept their stance without challenge.

But regardless of the titles, positions and resumes they cumulatively possess, if the evidence on the ground does not support their theory, it must be challenged. I contend the evidence overwhelmingly argues that our Afghan strategy has failed, continues to fail, and, absent a major course correction, will end in failure.

When the fundamentals of this war are examined, it doesn’t take long for common sense to kick in. With it comes the recognition that absent major change, we are very likely to suffer a strategic defeat by the end of 2014. Here are a few pertinent facts and hard questions:

  •