Assessing the Obama Administration

Question: What do you think of Obama’s plan to withdrawal from Iraq?

 

Richard Haass: I just come back from Iraq. I was there about 2 weeks ago.

My own view is that the various timelines of getting the United States out of [Iraq city] say by this summer ceasing all combat operations by Europe this summer and beginning all US forces out of Iraq over the next 2 and a half or so years.

I believe that there’s no way those timelines can be met and have Iraq not once again really descend into a lot more disorder. I simply do not believe that Iraq, the Iraqi police and military forces will be able and willing to take on those kinds of responsibilities. I don't believe that the Iraqi, Iraqi society has reached the point where we could be a self-sustaining orderly place without American forces there.

So, my hope and my prediction is, that sometime after next January‘s Iraqi national elections, the new Iraqi prime minister, and the president of the United States, are going to have to work out a new arrangement. So, essentially the reductions or draw downs in US forces will move more slowly.

And secondly we will keep some kind of residual force in Iraq that where there will not be a withdrawal. For my view is if we stick slavishly or automatically to this timelines, I don’t believe Iraq would be ready for the responsibilities that it would inherit if and when we left.

 

Question: Was “The Surge” the beginning of the end of the Iraq war?

 

Richard Haass: Well, not exactly.

The surge which really consisted of several pieces - there was the increase in US combat forces, there was the change of strategy, which is probably even more significant, away from offensive so called kinetic combat operations much more into a traditional counter insurgency strategy of clearing out the enemy, and then providing security to the citizenry, there was the diplomatic part of it of buying off a lot of the Sunni tribesmen and fighters, who had been directly or indirectly supporting radicalism and terrorism.

So all of these came together and indeed it was probably the most orderly decision making process of George W. Bush’s presidency and it showed. We’re a large outside disciplined force that it adapted its tactics and strategy, in this case to counter insurgency, could make a real difference.

In retrospect I think it was a smart thing to do. The problem now is whether we can use the time and space that the surge have created to help the Iraqis build up a self-sustaining police and military capability. And the jury is out. And I would simply say that probably the best we can hope for with Iraq is a somewhat messy future, not a future that looks like civil war, but it also won’t be a shining city on the hill.

And my view is that the best way to keep a floor under Iraq’s future, so it looks okay, is probably by keeping a residual American force for years to come or even longer. Now, this could become a fateful set of decisions for the Obama administration. It’s ironic that Barack Obama run against Iraq, said it was a terrible war of choice. He is going to probably face some fateful choices with Iraq about whether to continue with his timelines and then if he does, my fear is that then things will begin to unravel and any could face again some terrible decisions about whether to recommit US forces into a messy situation.

 

Question: How do you grade Obama on Iran?

 

Richard Haass: Well, he’s doing things that I support. I believe in diplomacy, I don’t believe in talking to…that talking to Iran somehow constitutes a concession or a favour. I think he’s right to drop the preconditions. What matters in the negotiation is not so much where you begin but where you end. So, I think all that is to the good. The problem is that he faces an extraordinarily difficult situation where the Iranians have gotten quite far, they’ve obviously already produced a large amount of low-enriched uranium.

If they were to put it back in their centrifuges and reinforce those centrifuges they could produce the basic stuff of a nuclear device and they would have to weaponize it. So my hunch is he is offering to change American foreign policy at a time when the Iranians are already pretty far down the path of having produced a raw material for a nuclear weapon and it’s not clear to me that the pace of the diplomacy can match the pace of technology and what’s slowing diplomacy down even more is the upcoming Iranian election.

But I think he’s right to try this because the two alternatives to negotiating a shilling, an acceptable shilling on the Iranian program one that we could conceivably live with.

The two alternatives are not attractive. The idea of using military force against Iran is unbelievably unattractive option because it’s not clear whether what would accomplish and it’s also clear the Iranians will retaliate in some expensive ways.

It also would drive the price of oil up dramatically, it’s something we don’t need. And it’s not at all attractive to live with in Iranian nuclear capability given Iran’s retorect, given its support for terrorism and giving that old place the Middle East on hair trigger and giving that other countries in the region could well follow suit and as bad as Middle East is right today, one can imagine a situation that will grow worse to say Iran, Israel, and half a dozen Arab countries over the next 25 years had nuclear capabilities so that would be a nightmare. So, I believe the president is exactly right to try to negotiate our way out of this.

I don’t think though negotiations can be expected to solve this if by solution you mean, come up with an Iran that is not rich in Uranium. My own hunch is that we would have to be prepared potentially to allow Iran to have an amount of Uranium. We could talk about the amount of Uranium, they’ve got the production capacity but it will depend upon I believe the level of inspections. We would have to be able to convince ourselves to a high degree that this is was all they had and what they had was not the sort of stuff that was so called weapon’s grade but rather it was the shortest stuff that you would need for a reactor to produce electricity.

Now, I would feel better if Iraq had the means and place to produce electricity and they don’t. So again you’ve got to be wildly suspicious but so far at least they haven’t cross that red line, they’ve not taken the so called low-enriched Uranium up to high enrichment but if they do, then Barack Obama could face one of the fateful days of his presidency considering that the Israeli’s might decide that isn’t tolerable or he himself might be pressured to declare it intolerable and then act upon it.

 

Question: Who is the Dick Cheney of the Obama administration?

 

Richard Haass: It’s a good question and after less than 4 months, it’s a little bit hard to tell. But, this is a president who obviously listens carefully to his own counsel. He’s got people like Bob Gates as the Secretary Defense who is I believe a lot of influence, he’s got a retired general as his national security adviser in the person of Jim Jones, you’ve got someone like David Petraeus, the Central Commander who obviously has tremendous influence both still over Iraq but also over the conflict in Afghanistan, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mike Mullen, is probably spending more time in Pakistan these days than he is in Washington, you’ve got a Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who is active plus you got any numbers of special envoys.

I would think the difference with the Bush administration is you actually have more players here that you don’t have necessarily any single person who might have quite the weight say of Dick Cheney but what you have is a large number of people and the real challenge with the administration I would think will be coordinating all these people and making tradeoffs because in addition to Iraq, Afghanistan, you do have the challenge in Pakistan, you do have the challenge coming because of Iran’s nuclear program and you’ve got all the issues that arise from everything with dealing with great powers, to North Korea, to the global economy, to climate change, to swine flu so it’s an enormously crowded foreign policy inbox and determining tradeoffs, priorities, sequencing, and so forth is going to be a real challenge for the administration.

 

Recorded on: May 08, 2009

 

Richard Haass grades the administration on Iraq and Iran and speculates on who is really running the show.

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One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
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Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

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