Category Archives: Commentary

GAZA THROUGH A STRATEGIC PRISM

Viewed through a strategic prism, the Israeli military campaign against Hamas in Gaza may be much more ambitious than appears in the public dialogue.

Publicly, the Israelis say they must halt the firing of rockets aimed at their population centers. This requires destroying rocket factories, arms depots and launch sites. An ancillary objective is to demolish tunnels from Gaza that allow gunmen to sneak into Israel, and tunnels from Sinai that allow fresh weapons and key supplies into Gaza.

Were it not for the Iron Dome air defense system, the 1500 rockets that have already been fired from Gaza would by now have caused hundreds if not thousands of casualties.

The Israelis have felt forced to stage Gaza military operations repeatedly but that only buys a respite of two or three years.

They need to attempt a strategic game-changer. Although Israeli leaders do not say so, it appears they may have decided to stay in Gaza long enough to decimate the Hamas leadership and infrastructure so decisively, that the Palestinian Authority might be capable of winning popular control over the Gaza Strip as it already possesses over the
West Bank.

If that could be accomplished, not only would there not be a periodic threat of massive rocket launches, but it conceivably might open the way in time to a two-state negotiated peace settlement.

There are three new factors that have not been in play during previous Israeli campaigns in Gaza.

First, there was the attempted establishment of a unity government between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which some Western states were beginning to pressure Israel to work with. But the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, allegedly by Hamas, undermined that prospect, and the retribution killing of a Palestinian youngster helped to trigger the war that is currently underway.

Secondly, for the first time in history, the Egyptian government is neither neutral toward or actively supportive of Hamas. The new government in Cairo is attempting to obliterate the Moslem Brotherhood and regards Hamas as an offshoot of the Brotherhood and thus an enemy.

And finally, the downing of a Malaysian commercial airliner by a sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine has understandably taken the focus of the news and world attention away from the bloodshed in Gaza. Who would have imagined that this week’s Sunday New York Times would not have a single story on the Gaza operation on page one?

What that means is that as world leaders and opinion makers argue about what additional economic and diplomatic pressures can be applied against Vladimir Putin to attempt to get him to pull in his horns in Ukraine, there will be considerably less pressure on Israel to cut short its operations in Gaza. Thus it may be afforded more time to try to accomplish its strategic objectives.

Is this the course that Israeli military and political leaders are covertly following? They can’t say so publicly, because if they fall short, the whole campaign would be labeled a serious defeat. But to pursue a game=changing strategy would seem to make a lot of sense.
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This blog was also published in the blog of the World Policy Institute.

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OBAMA, THE COWARDLY LION

It’s one thing to be a reluctant warrior.  Given his natural instincts and the American public’s war-weariness, that’s understandable under the circumstances.

But after checking with Congressional leadership in both parties, and being told there may well not be sufficient support for military action against the Syrian government’s horrific use of nerve gas, and then going ahead and daring Congress to take the Commander-in-Chief’s war powers out of his hands, that’s not leadership. That’s sophistry.

President Barak Obama, in withholding military action at the eleventh hour, and shocking his own closest aides in the process, is risking telling the American body politic and an amazed world of friend and foe, that he does not have the inner strength to be a leader in crisis.

He gives a new meaning to the expression “red line.” If you dare cross it, who knows what might befall you?   If anything.

Putting aside the  reactions at home for the moment, how do you think the ayatollahs in Iran will react to his repeated threats not to allow Tehran to possess nuclear weapons?

How will Vladimir Putin react to the warnings that Obama will make Russia pay a price for harboring Edward Snowden and not cooperating in US efforts in Syria and Iran?

How will the leaders of France, who deployed warships alongside those of the US navy offshore Syria, react to the appearance that Obama has lost his courage?  In point of fact, it was shaping up as merely a military slap on Bashar Assad’s wrist–in the President’s words, “a shot across the bow” not aimed at weakening his hold on power.

How will Israeli planners, who wanted to believe that Obama was not bluffing when he warned Iran that “all options” are on the table if it proceeds to build nuclear weapons? Will the Israelis, who have existential worries, decide to go it alone–and soon?

This is America that is supposed to be a world leader?

This is how the Leader of the Free World exercises his leadership?

Or, is this the personification of the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Ox?

The civil war in Syria started two-plus years ago as a spontaneous challenge to a brutal regime. But without meaningful intercession by the United States and other Western powers, it has increasingly evolved into a sectarian war pitting Sunnis against Shiites, with Kurds and Christians caught in the crossfire.

And within the Sunni community, where outside jihadi extremists aligned with al-Qaeda have introduced fighters with better weapons, the long-term outcome becomes increasingly problematic. The struggle has already spread into Lebanon, and could readily expand into Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

Before she retired at Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, supported  by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of Central Intelligence, went to Obama and and tried to convince him it was in both our strategic and humanitarian interests to provide arms to moderate Syrian secularists. He rejected their argument, contending the insertion of more arms into the conflict would only add to the bloodshed.

Now the bloodshed tops 100,000, with millions of Syrians displaced.  Now Assad has unleashed all the weapons in his arsenal, including poison gas, against his own people.

By revealing details of the planned military operation, Obama has allowed Syria to hide or relocate the principal delivery systems of terror–including missiles, helicopter gunships and jet bombers–so they will not be destroyed. When the President says he’s been assured it makes no difference when an attack may occur–whether in a few days or weeks–that’s poppycock.  The jets and helicopters could be temporarily moved to Iran , for example.  Missiles could be hidden under highway overpasses.

Any military planner worth his salt will tell you that surprise is crucial to potential success. By telegraphing the full panoply of his intentions, presumably he was trying to convince Iran, and its proxy Hezbollah, not to overreact.

It’s possible, of course, that a majority in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, will decide after considerable debate, that they cannot vote in effect to sanction the use of poison gas. But if not, would Obama order the cruise missiles to fire anyway?  Not very likely.

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William Beecher is a Pulizter Prize-winning former Washinigton correspondent for the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He also served as an Assistant Secretary of Defense.  This was also carried in the blog of the World Policy Institute.

The Iraq War in Retrospect

Ten years after the start of the Iraq War, the general perception of American public opinion is that it was the wrong war fought for the wrong reasons. It cost more than $800 billion, cost the lives of 4,400 brave young US troops and left 3200 wounded.

And today, instead of an essentially democratic, pro-American nation, Iraq verges on being a Shiite dictatorship under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, lording it over the minority Sunni and Kurdish peoples, and leaning toward Iran in its foreign policy.

Whether one thinks the war was good or bad, however, had Saddam Hussein remained in power to this day, the world would likely be facing two incipient nuclear threats in the Persian Gulf, from both Iraq and Iran.

Retrospective logic holds that while President George Bush won public support for the war by falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed threatening stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it turned out that none could be found in post-war Iraq.

And yet in the run up to hostilities, it was not only the Central Intelligence Agency that felt Iraq’s possession of such worrisome weapons was “a slam dunk,” in the words of CIA Director George Tenet, but that also was the widespread consensus in the Western intelligence community, including that of Britain, France and Israel.

US intelligence had identified a specific list of 946 suspected locations for various kinds of weapons of mass destruction, primarily chemical and biological weapons (CW and BW).

Among the leaders of the Democratic Party in the Senate, concern was also raised about his having reconstituted his WMD programs.  For example, Sen. Al Gore declared in September of 2002 that Iraq had “stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country.” Sen. Hillary Clinton asserted that Saddam Hussein hoped to increase his supply of BW and CW and “to develop nuclear weapons.”  Sen. John Kerry claimed that “a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and great threat of our security.” And Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed the conviction that Saddam Hussein would “likely have nuclear weapons within the next five years.”

As he was preparing public opinion for his decision to go to war, President Bush declared: “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof–the smoking gun–that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

It turns out that Saddam Hussein wanted others to believe he possessed stocks of such weapons and was prepared to use them, as he had against Iran in their seven year war, and against Iraqi Kurds who were not involved in the war.  It was a strategic deception on his part, and he refused to give United Nations inspectors access to prove otherwise. Eventually that deception cost him his country and his life.

The US lacked supportive evidence of the threat. What it did have was the evidence of what had been found 12 years earlier after Desert Storm, the Persian Gulf War to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.

UN inspectors had found hundreds of gallons of VX nerve gas and hundreds of liters of such biological weapons as anthrax and botulinum toxin–all loaded into bombs and artillery shells.

It was not even suspected that Iraq had a relatively advanced nuclear weapons development program underway at that juncture. The Israelis believed that after their destruction of Iraq’s lone nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, that had essentially eliminated the program.

But UN inspectors were amazed to discover that Iraq had a sophisticated crash program, involving about 5,000 physicists and engineers, testing and building the wherewithal for a nuclear bomb. This included cal citrons, centrifuges, neutron initiators, high-explosive lenses and enriched uranium bomb cores.

By some estimates, it was on the verge of successfully developing a weapon.

Had Bush not gone to war in 2003, but banked on UN economic sanctions effectively dealing with the Iraqi threat, at some point it’s likely the sanctions would have been lifted, as Russia and others had long advocated.  And then Saddam Hussein would have been free to use his oil income to reconstitute his costly WMD programs.

We don’t have to speculate; that was indeed his expectation. After he was pried from his spider hole, Saddam Hussein was interviewed at length by an Arabic-speaking FBI interrogator.  He bragged that he was banking on the UN eventually ending its sanctions, after which he intended to “reconstitute” all of his weapons of mass destruction programs. For his dream was to become the hegemon of the Persian Gulf and thus a world power.

Had that result come to  pass, instead of Israel worried about Iran’s oft-repeated threat to wipe it off the face of the earth, and President Barak Obama’s vow not to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, leaving all options including the military one on the table, the world would today in all likelihood face two incipient nuclear threats in the volatile Middle East.

This analysis also was published in the blog of the World Policy Institute.

Commentary-False START

START Is Not a Beginning

The Obama Administration hailed the strategic arms reduction agreement just concluded with Moscow as signaling a newly “strong partnership” with Russia, an initiative to curb or reverse the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea, and a step toward what the President called “a world without nuclear weapons.”

Politically ambitious? Yes.  Likely to accomplish any of those aims?  Absolutely not. In point of fact, either sadly delusional or misleading.

The question is: Does President Barak Obama actually believe any of this rhetoric?

Let’s consider the points in sequence.

  • Early in this Administration, Vice President Joe Biden said the President was determined to “reset” the relationship, an obvious reference to frosty relations under President Bush.The biggest and earliest test was to be a new, upgraded version of the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START), which was to expire in December. It was considered a piece of cake, since the Russians had already unilaterally cut back their long range missiles because of severe budgetary constraints and a new treaty bringing the US down to the same level would enable Moscow to boast strategic parity.

But by all accounts, the Russians decided to attempt to roll Obama into significantly constraining anti-missile defenses as part of the offensive weapons deal, figuring he’d need to make that concession in order to have the new treaty in his pocket when he went to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Peace Prize. But Obama refused to cave and instead the Russians did, very reluctantly and belatedly.

And the day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Moscow, among other things, to try to persuade the Russians to support tougher sanctions against Iran in order to press for an end to its nuclear weapons program, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced plans to help Iran make its nuclear power plant operational, with Russian fuel. What kind of signal did that send Tehran about the seriousness of tougher worldwide sanctions?  And how did that bolster the “partnership” with the new Administration?

  • “By upholding our own commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), we strengthen our global efforts to stop the spread of these weapons, and to ensure that other nations meet their own responsibilities,” Obama declared.

Does he really believe that Iran, seeing the US and Russia moving forward on their NPT commitments, would then fall into line and abandon a weapons program it denies pursuing?  Or that North Korea would agree to surrender its small stock of nuclear weapons?  NPT “commitments” are the least of the concerns of Tehran and Pyongyang  in their weapons calculus.  Nor does the relative size of the American and Russian arsenals figure into their nuclear acquisitiveness either.

  • As for Obama’s shining objective of “a world without nuclear weapons,” which he first uttered in Prague at the start of his tenure, which he repeated in accepting the Nobel Prize, and which again he reiterated in hailing the new strategic agreement with Moscow, does the President believe that Russia would agree to dismantle its nuclear arsenal when it distrusts the designs of the US and China?

Or that Pakistan and India, which have fought three wars, would trust the other to actually abandon its nuclear stockpile?  Or that Israel, feeling beleaguered by neighboring enemies and frenzied about a threatened existential threat from Iran, would give up its nuclear arms?  Or that China, or indeed Britain or France, would do so?

Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the other day: “I don’t think anyone expects us to come anywhere close to zero nuclear weapons anytime soon.”   It could be seen as a gentle rebuke to his President.

Why then does Obama keep waving that flag?  He’s well aware that nations make strategic decisions based on their perceived national self-interest. With so much mistrust in the world, none of them are about to disarm when to do so would make the cheaters the strongest bullies on the block.

This commentary first appeared on the World Policy Institute web site—www.worldpolicy.org—on March 30, 2010.

Commentary-Poor Nuclear Startegy

Obama’s Nuclear Strategy

By William Beecher

President Obama’s newly formulated nuclear strategy is entirely consistent with his call for a “world free of nuclear weapons.”  But is it sensible? Is it prudent?

Putting aside for the moment the achievability of every country beating its nuclear weapons into radioactive medical isotopes, there’s the question of whether Obama is justified in assuming that could happen one day in the distant future and thus he should forswear the development by the US of any new nuclear weapon?  Reportedly Defense Secretary Robert Gates and much of the military establishment would like to create a new missile warhead as insurance against the failure of our aging arsenal.

If the Administration’s objective is to rid the world of nuclear weapons, it’s presumably illogical to build any new models  Why waste the money?  Besides, it would send the wrong signal to those we hope would join in the crusade to eliminate the nuclear menace.

The “fundamental role” of our nuclear weapons, Obama contends in the Nuclear Posture Review, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. .

But what if the attack is by unconventional weapons—such as biological or chemical weapons?  The response, he contends, should not be with nuclear weapons, but overwhelming use of conventional ones.  Does he not recall that during the first Gulf War, the US quietly passed the word to Baghdad that if it employed gas weapons against our troops, we were prepared to respond with nuclear retaliation?

US policy makers were mindful of the fact that Saddam Hussein had used such weapons against some of his own restive population during the war with Iran.  Our troops went into battle in the searingly hot desert sands of Kuwait and Iraq wearing gas masks and other weighty protective gear.  But Hussein apparently was convinced the nuclear retaliation threat was genuine and he did not unleash his formidable store of tactical gas weapons, even though he was losing the war.

In that instance, deterrence worked. Deterrence must, at all costs, always be credible.

If challenged about not needing a new nuclear weapon, Obama could point to the findings of the so-called Jason panel, an independent group of scientists which advises the government on issues of science and technology, that programs designed to extend the life of the nation’s nuclear arsenal were sufficiently effective to guarantee their potency for decades to come.

But the Jason panel’s judgment has been challenged by the directors of the three nuclear weapons labs—Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore. Asked for their comments by Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), the ranking minority member of the Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, they disputed the Jason conclusions.

George H. Miller, director of Lawrence Livermore, wrote the main findings of the panel “understated in my view, the challenges and risks encountered in ensuring a safe and reliable nuclear force.”

Michael R. Anastasio, the Los Alamos lab director, said he “did not agree” with the panel’s conclusion about maintaining the country’s nuclear force with existing methods.  “Some materials and components in the current stockpile cannot be replicated in a refurbishment,” he declared, adding that available methods to mitigate the effects of aging were “reaching their limits.”

Were they only feathering their own nuclear nests?  The Administration has allocated another $624 million in next year’s budget for the weapons labs and promises another $5 billion  over the next five years to improve their aging infrastructure. But no new warhead, if you please, even if you use technology tested in the past.

But what about the realism of Obama’s quest for a world without nukes? Ever?

Would Israel agree to demolish its nuclear weapons, facing what it sees as an existential threat from Iran?  It long ago attacked the Iraqi nuclear facility and more recently Syria’s.

Would Pakistan and India, which have fought three wars, trust one another enough to believe, whatever treaty they might one day sign, that they would in fact destroy all their nuclear weapons?

.What about Russia, with whom the US is about to sign another nuclear arms reduction treaty? How good is its word in such awesome matters?

In 1975 Moscow ratified the Biological Weapons Convention, a treaty that required all signatories to demolish their biological and toxin weapons.  Yet it has been well established that thereafter the Soviets constructed huge plants to manufacture tons of anthrax and other biological weapons.

In briefing reporters on the new nuclear strategy, Obama declared: “I am going to preserve all the tools that are necessary in order to make sure that the American people are safe and secure.”

It depends on his definition of what “necessary” means.

This commentary first appeared on the web site of the World Policy Institute.

Commentary-Non Restart with Moscow

START Is Not a Beginning

The Obama Administration hailed the strategic arms reduction agreement just concluded with Moscow as signaling a newly “strong partnership” with Russia, an initiative to curb or reverse the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea, and a step toward what the President called “a world without nuclear weapons.”

Politically ambitious? Yes.  Likely to accomplish any of those aims?  Absolutely not. In point of fact, either sadly delusional or misleading.

The question is: Does President Barak Obama actually believe any of this rhetoric?

Let’s consider the points in sequence.

  • Early in this Administration, Vice President Joe Biden said the President was determined to “reset” the relationship, an obvious reference to frosty relations under President Bush.The biggest and earliest test was to be a new, upgraded version of the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START), which was to expire in December. It was considered a piece of cake, since the Russians had already unilaterally cut back their long range missiles because of severe budgetary constraints and a new treaty bringing the US down to the same level would enable Moscow to boast strategic parity.

But by all accounts, the Russians decided to attempt to roll Obama into significantly constraining anti-missile defenses as part of the offensive weapons deal, figuring he’d need to make that concession in order to have the new treaty in his pocket when he went to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Peace Prize. But Obama refused to cave and instead the Russians did, very reluctantly and belatedly.

And the day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Moscow, among other things, to try to persuade the Russians to support tougher sanctions against Iran in order to press for an end to its nuclear weapons program, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced plans to help Iran make its nuclear power plant operational, with Russian fuel. What kind of signal did that send Tehran about the seriousness of tougher worldwide sanctions?  And how did that bolster the “partnership” with the new Administration?

  • “By upholding our own commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), we strengthen our global efforts to stop the spread of these weapons, and to ensure that other nations meet their own responsibilities,” Obama declared.

Does he really believe that Iran, seeing the US and Russia moving forward on their NPT commitments, would then fall into line and abandon a weapons program it denies pursuing?  Or that North Korea would agree to surrender its small stock of nuclear weapons?  NPT “commitments” are the least of the concerns of Tehran and Pyongyang  in their weapons calculus.  Nor does the relative size of the American and Russian arsenals figure into their nuclear acquisitiveness either.

  • As for Obama’s shining objective of “a world without nuclear weapons,” which he first uttered in Prague at the start of his tenure, which he repeated in accepting the Nobel Prize, and which again he reiterated in hailing the new strategic agreement with Moscow, does the President believe that Russia would agree to dismantle its nuclear arsenal when it distrusts the designs of the US and China?

Or that Pakistan and India, which have fought three wars, would trust the other to actually abandon its nuclear stockpile?  Or that Israel, feeling beleaguered by neighboring enemies and frenzied about a threatened existential threat from Iran, would give up its nuclear arms?  Or that China, or indeed Britain or France, would do so?

Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the other day: “I don’t think anyone expects us to come anywhere close to zero nuclear weapons anytime soon.”   It could be seen as a gentle rebuke to his President.

Why then does Obama keep waving that flag?  He’s well aware that nations make strategic decisions based on their perceived national self-interest. With so much mistrust in the world, none of them are about to disarm when to do so would make the cheaters the strongest bullies on the block.

This commentary first appeared on the World Policy Institute web site—www.worldpolicy.org—on March 30, 2010.

Commentary-Unlikely Nuclear-Free World

START Is Not a Beginning

The Obama Administration hailed the strategic arms reduction agreement just concluded with Moscow as signaling a newly “strong partnership” with Russia, an initiative to curb or reverse the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea, and a step toward what the President called “a world without nuclear weapons.”

Politically ambitious? Yes.  Likely to accomplish any of those aims?  Absolutely not. In point of fact, either sadly delusional or misleading.

The question is: Does President Barak Obama actually believe any of this rhetoric?

Let’s consider the points in sequence.

  • Early in this Administration, Vice President Joe Biden said the President was determined to “reset” the relationship, an obvious reference to frosty relations under President Bush.The biggest and earliest test was to be a new, upgraded version of the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START), which was to expire in December. It was considered a piece of cake, since the Russians had already unilaterally cut back their long range missiles because of severe budgetary constraints and a new treaty bringing the US down to the same level would enable Moscow to boast strategic parity.

 

But by all accounts, the Russians decided to attempt to roll Obama into significantly constraining anti-missile defenses as part of the offensive weapons deal, figuring he’d need to make that concession in order to have the new treaty in his pocket when he went to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Peace Prize. But Obama refused to cave and instead the Russians did, very reluctantly and belatedly.

And the day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Moscow, among other things, to try to persuade the Russians to support tougher sanctions against Iran in order to press for an end to its nuclear weapons program, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced plans to help Iran make its nuclear power plant operational, with Russian fuel. What kind of signal did that send Tehran about the seriousness of tougher worldwide sanctions?  And how did that bolster the “partnership” with the new Administration?

  • “By upholding our own commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), we strengthen our global efforts to stop the spread of these weapons, and to ensure that other nations meet their own responsibilities,” Obama declared.

 

Does he really believe that Iran, seeing the US and Russia moving forward on their NPT commitments, would then fall into line and abandon a weapons program it denies pursuing?  Or that North Korea would agree to surrender its small stock of nuclear weapons?  NPT “commitments” are the least of the concerns of Tehran and Pyongyang  in their weapons calculus.  Nor does the relative size of the American and Russian arsenals figure into their nuclear acquisitiveness either.

  • As for Obama’s shining objective of “a world without nuclear weapons,” which he first uttered in Prague at the start of his tenure, which he repeated in accepting the Nobel Prize, and which again he reiterated in hailing the new strategic agreement with Moscow, does the President believe that Russia would agree to dismantle its nuclear arsenal when it distrusts the designs of the US and China?

 

Or that Pakistan and India, which have fought three wars, would trust the other to actually abandon its nuclear stockpile?  Or that Israel, feeling beleaguered by neighboring enemies and frenzied about a threatened existential threat from Iran, would give up its nuclear arms?  Or that China, or indeed Britain or France, would do so?

Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the other day: “I don’t think anyone expects us to come anywhere close to zero nuclear weapons anytime soon.”   It could be seen as a gentle rebuke to his President.

Why then does Obama keep waving that flag?  He’s well aware that nations make strategic decisions based on their perceived national self-interest. With so much mistrust in the world, none of them are about to disarm when to do so would make the cheaters the strongest bullies on the block.

This commentary first appeared on the World Policy Institute web site—www.worldpolicy.org—on March 30, 2010.