An abundance of national security challenges await the next administration the minute the new president takes the oath of office. Three, are of particular concern: 1) a possible Iranian nuclear test, 2) an ISIS attempt to detonate a chemical or radiological device on U.S. shores, and 3) a Russian invasion of Ukraine through the Moldovan territory of Transnistria.
Each has the potential to profoundly alter the four-year agenda of the new president just as the 9/11 attacks did for the 43rd president, George W. Bush. Whether or not the new commander in chief has the capacity in place to anticipate, assess, and react appropriately to a game-changing event, will be the first indication of whether the country is capable of changing its current downward trajectory. The inauguration of a new president and the perception of vulnerability could make Jan. 20, 2017, more than just a day of national celebration.
The president’s response to each of the aforementioned provocations, were they to occur, must be clear-eyed, resolute and muscular. Swift and decisive action needs to replace the feckless incompetence and obfuscation that has characterized the last eight years of the Obama administration.
Fear of a persistent American retaliatory response is the only way the U.S. can hope to restore a modicum of deterrence in a world beset by weapons proliferation and unrestrained savagery. The next commander in chief will need to be steeled against political correctness and diplomatic nicety in naming and describing the enemies we face. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, Americans must once again hold certain “truths to be self-evident”; today, one such irrefutable truth is that Islamic terrorism is Islamic.
No one should be surprised if the Iranian regime times a low yield nuclear detonation to coincide with the presidential inauguration or its immediate aftermath. It would be another in a long list of provocations intended to skirt the spirit, if not the letter, of the recent U.S-Iran deal to temporarily halt Tehran’s breakout as a fully operational nuclear power. The Iranian mullahs never have lacked for sardonic theatrics as a way of displaying their contempt for the U.S. and its Western allies.
Experts suspect that Iran already is accessing North Korean nuclear test data and have warned that Pyongyang may have even secretly tested an Iranian device. Whether or not this is true, the muted response of the world community to Pyongyang’s own nuclear tests may yet embolden the Iranians to follow suit with their own public demonstration.
For years Iran and North Korea have maintained close ties in both their nuclear and their ballistic missile development programs. Media reports earlier this year disclosed that the head of Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and other Iranian technicians attended Pyongyang’s nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 and quite possibly, the one conducted most recently on Jan. 6, 2016.
Six months after Iran agreed to a deal with Washington that allowed it to keep its nuclear infrastructure and reclaim $150 billion in frozen assets, the regime brazenly test-fired several ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload as far as Israel, and possibly southern Europe where the U.S. shares military installations. It mattered little that the tests were in defiance of Security Council Resolution 2231. What counted was that the West was left helpless and that the American “Great Satan,” was made to look like a paper tiger.
Then, just as the 2016 Republican National Convention was getting under way, the head of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, urged the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization to make plans to reopen nuclear enrichment facilities that had been shuttered as part of the West’s effort to constrain Tehran’s research into atomic weapons technology.
It is an all too familiar Iranian play. Anyone alive in 1981 will remember how Ayatollah Khomeini nefariously timed the release of 52 U.S. diplomats held hostage for 444 days to coincide with the exact moment when Ronald Reagan concluded his 20-minute inaugural address. The act was meant to humiliate Jimmy Carter, the departing American president, and to shame the United States in a moment of national celebration.
The next mass casualty attack by ISIS could well eclipse the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, if, as many experts fear, the terror group were to detonate one or more shipping containers outfitted with radiological or chemical “dirty bombs” in U.S. seaports. For the global Islamic jihadi movement, a strike of this magnitude would be viewed as a spectacular triumph.
In 2015, approximately 12 million shipping containers were offloaded at U.S. ports. Of these, only 4.1 percent underwent full X-ray and gamma-ray scans. For those living within the would-be blast zone, it is small comfort since any significant release of radiological contamination could leave large portions of New York, Philadelphia, Miami, or Seattle uninhabitable for years.
To truly be effective, shipping containers bound for U.S. ports should be inspected thoroughly at their points of origin and their chain of custody guaranteed through to their destinations. Yet, as of 2013, the White House acknowledged that only 19 percent of all containers arriving in the U.S. and tagged by Customs as high risk for weapons of mass destruction were scrutinized at their ports of origin.
As part of the SAFE Port Act of 2006, Congress mandated that within five years, 100 percent of all cargo at American ports should be scanned. Under the Obama administration, that deadline has been postponed twice. Under apparent pressure from shipping interests, Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security, has called publicly for the law’s repeal.
The WMD threat is real and growing. According to media reports, in recent years police have arrested numerous individuals in Moldova attempting to sell radioactive material to ISIS agents. ISIS could be planning one or more strikes on the U.S. with the object of leaving Chernobyl-like dead zones on American soil.
Time and opportunity are on the side of those who would harm America. The next president must act swiftly and in partnership with both parties in Congress to more aggressively address the “dirty bomb” detection problem.
The volume of international shipping traffic is increasing annually with the capacity of container ships doubling every seven years. The latest generation of megaships now can carry as many as 18,000 containers on a single voyage. Finding the one crate carrying a dirty bomb capable of leveling a medium-sized American city would make finding a needle in a haystack an enviable task. Leadership on this issue cannot wait another election cycle.
The next American president should be concerned that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, may move quickly to use the semi-autonomous region of Transnistria as his springboard to reassert Russian control over the Ukraine and beyond.
It is an open secret that Putin long has viewed the breakaway Moldovan Republic of Transnistria as an important ally in helping to bring the Ukrainian state back into the Russian orbit. Its location astride the Western border of Ukraine could provide a valuable staging area for efforts to further destabilize this resource-rich country that for the last two decades has looked to Europe, and not Russia, for its protection.
The population of Transnistria is 500,000 of which 200,000 are ethnic Russians, staunchly loyal to their ancestral motherland.
It is unlikely that Putin has finished with his conquest of Ukraine. So far his gamble has paid off. President Obama threatened no military action and has repeatedly declined demands from Kiev for heavy weapons. The Germans and the French shrugged off Moscow’s aggression, issuing little more than stern rebukes.
Today, America’s attention is focused on its national elections and an anemic economy. European leaders are struggling for a way to stop ISIS terrorist attacks and staunch the flow of Middle Eastern refugees. The spirit of Neville Chamberlain is alive and well. The Russian bear remains on the prowl.
Similarly, Putin would risk little if he suddenly decided to recognize the independence of the renegade Transnistria republic. Few countries would notice; even fewer would care as evidenced by the fact that the deployment to Transnistria of Russian special operations “reconnaissance groups” for military exercises last year raised no eyebrows.
At this point, nothing would stand in the way of a Kremlin decision to massively reinforce the 2,000-strong Russian garrison in Tiraspol, the region’s capital, with additional troops, combat aircraft, heavy armor, and mechanized field artillery. Putin’s successful intervention in the Syrian Civil War provides the perfect blueprint.
The purpose behind such a Russian move is simple: to further intimidate the Ukrainian Government, regain control over its territory and end its evolving relationship with NATO and the European Community. Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest city, is a scant 78 miles from the Transnistrian border. The city boasts one of the country’s largest and most important Black Sea ports. A Russian blitzkrieg of this strategic city is not difficult to imagine. Reports in recent days that Russia has launched bomber strikes on Syrian rebel targets from bases in Iran could portend a similarly bold move by Putin from bases in Transnistria.
Putin knows that Western attention is focused on the vulnerable Baltic States, which for years have pressed the E.U. and Washington to help boost their defenses. Transnistria, by contrast, is a continental backwater, best known to the world as the home to a multitude of ruthless criminal syndicates involved in everything from gun-running and human trafficking to contraband smuggling and money laundering. Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union it remains locked in a Bolshevik time warp, impoverished, lawless and dangerous. Putin’s maritime provocations in the Baltic in recent years could be just a feint.
For Moscow, Transnistria is the high priority, a stepping stone on the road to bringing the strong-willed, insubordinate Ukrainians back into the Kremlin’s orbit. Indeed, the process may well be underway.
On June 27, 2016, a new law passed in Transnistria made it illegal for any individual or media outlet to make public statements that disparaged the peace-keeping mission of the Russian Army. The punishment for each offense carries a prison sentence of from 3 to 5 years.
It was Thomas Jefferson who once wrote that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” As voters prepare to elect a new president that vigilance should be reflected in a heightened operational status for both military and law enforcement authorities across the nation.
America’s enemies understand the power of symbols and how to catch the U.S. in its least guarded moments. One needs only to study the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the United States’ mission in Benghazi to understand the consequence of not heeding Jefferson’s wise admonition.
Rand Fishbein is president of Fishbein Associates, Inc., a public policy consulting firm based in Potomac, Md. He is a former member of both the U.S. Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations and Defense Appropriations subcommittees. Fishbein served as one of two Foreign Policy/Intelligence Analysts on the U.S. Senate Committee investigating the Iran-Contra Affair and its only Middle East specialist. He also served as a fellow at the North Atlantic Assembly, the inter-parliamentary forum for NATO. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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