Permit me to indulge today in a bit of speculation, for which I don't have a lot of hard evidence. As I read this article yesterday on Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war, I began to wonder whether U.S. involvement in that conflict isn't more substantial than I have previously thought. And then I did a bit of web surfing and found this story, which seemed to confirm my suspicions. Here's my chain of reasoning:
1. The Syrian conflict has become a proxy fight between the opposition and its various allies (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey, etc.) and Bashar al-Assad's regime and its various outsider supporters (Iran, Russia, Hezbollah).
2. For Washington, this war has become a golden opportunity to inflict a strategic defeat on Iran and its various local allies and thus shift the regional balance of power in a pro-American direction.
3. Israel's calculations are more complicated, given that it had a good working relationship with the Assad regime and is concerned about a failed state emerging next door. But on balance, a conflict that undermines Iran, further divides the Arab/Islamic world, and distracts people from the continued colonization of the West Bank is a net plus. So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't object if the United States gets more deeply engaged.
4. Consistent with its buck-passing instincts, Barack Obama's administration does not want to play a visible role in the conflict. This is partly because Americans are rightly tired of trying to govern war-torn countries, but also because America isn't very popular in the region and anyone who gets too close to the United States might actually lose popular support. So no boots on the ground, no "no-fly zones," and no big, highly visible shipments of U.S. arms. Instead, Washington can use Qatar and Saudi Arabia as its middlemen, roles they are all too happy to play for their own reasons.
5. Since taking office, Obama has shown a marked preference for covert actions that don't cost too much and don't attract much publicity, combined with energetic efforts to prosecute leakers. So an energetic covert effort in Syria would be consistent with past practice. Although there have been news reports that the CIA is involved in vetting and/or advising some opposition groups, we still don't know just how deeply involved the U.S. government is. (There has been a bit of speculation in the blogosphere that the attack on Benghazi involved "blowback" from the Syrian conflict, but I haven't seen any hard evidence to support this idea.)
6. In this scenario, the Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks' demands for airstrikes, "no-fly zones," or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is.
To repeat: The above analysis is mostly speculative on my part. I have no concrete evidence that the full scenario sketched above is correct, and I don't know what the level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war really is. But that's what troubles me: I don't like not knowing what my government is doing, allegedly to make me safer or to advance someone's idea of the "national interest." And if you're an American, neither should you. If the United States is now orchestrating a lot of arms shipments, trying to pick winners among the opposition, sending intelligence information to various militias, and generally meddling in a very complicated and uncertain conflict, don't you think the president owes us a more complete account of what America's public servants are or are not doing, and why?
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If you're troubled by the Justice Department's recent decision to secretly investigate the Associated Press and other journalists in an overzealous attempt to ferret out the source of some leaked information, you should be. But lost amid the outcry about this attempt to squelch press freedom is its connection to the broader thrust of U.S. foreign policy and our deeply ingrained tendency to exaggerate foreign threats. That tendency goes back at least to the early Cold War, when Dean Acheson told President Harry Truman to sell a proposed aid package to Greece and Turkey by going to Capitol Hill and giving a speech that would "scare the hell out of the American people." And he did.
When people are scared, they are more willing to let their government keep lots of secrets, lest supposed enemies find out about them and exploit them. Never mind that most of the mountains of classified information would be of little value to our foes, even if they got access to them. A population that is scared is also more willing to have the government go after anyone who tries to inform them by leaking information, even when knowing more might help ordinary citizens evaluate whether government programs were working as intended.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support U.S. intervention in other countries, to prevent supposedly bad things from happening there or to prevent leaders we don't like from gaining or retaining power. In most cases, of course, neither U.S. prosperity nor security is directly affected by what happens in these various minor states, but threat-mongers are always good at inventing reasons why the outcome of some local struggle thousands of miles from our shores might actually threaten our prosperity or security. Remember domino theory? Fear, not greed, was the primary motivation behind U.S. interventions in the Korean War, in Iran, in Guatemala, in Lebanon, in Indochina, in the Dominican Republic, in Nicaragua, and in many other places, including more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that same fear that global trends might turn against us leads the United States to maintain a globe-encircling array of military bases and other installations, most of them completely unknown to the citizens whose taxes are paying for them. No other country -- not one! -- seems to think that its security depends on being able to wield lethal force on every single continent.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support various sorts of covert operations, ranging from normal spying to the increasingly far-flung campaign of targeted assassinations and extra-judicial killings that the United States has been conducting for many years now. Never mind that a significant number of innocent foreign civilians have died as a result of these policies or that the net effect of such actions may be to make the problem of terrorism worse over time. It's impossible to know for certain, of course, because the U.S. government won't say exactly what it is doing.
Notice, however, that this cycle is self-reinforcing. The more places the U.S. intervenes, and the dirtier our methods, the more resentment we tend to generate. Sometimes entire populations turn against us (as in Pakistan), sometimes it may only be a small but violent minority. But either possibility creates another potential source of danger and another national security problem to be solved. If a local population doesn't like us very much, for example, then we may have to jump through lots of hoops to keep a supposedly pro-American leader in power.
To make all this work, of course, our leaders have to try to manage what we know and don't know. So they work hard at co-opting journalists and feeding them self-serving information -- which is often surprisingly easy to do -- or they try to keep a lot of what they are really doing classified. And when the country's national security policy is increasingly based on drone strikes, targeted killings, and covert operations -- as it has been under the Obama administration -- then the government has to go after anyone who tries to shed even partial light on all that stuff that most U.S. citizens don't know their government is doing.
Needless to say, it is all justified by the need to keep us safe. As Attorney General Eric Holder put it when asked about the investigation of AP, these leaks "required aggressive action ... They put the American people at risk."
The greater but more subtle danger, however, is that our society gradually acclimates to ever-increasing levels of secrecy and escalating levels of government monitoring, all of it justified by the need to "keep us safe." Instead of accepting that a (very small) amount of risk is inevitable in the modern world, our desire for total safety allows government officials to simultaneously shrink the circle of individual freedoms and to place more and more of what they are doing beyond our purview.
Don't misunderstand me. Civil liberties and press freedoms in the United States are still far greater than in many other countries, and the outcry over the Department of Justice's recent behavior reveals that politicians in both parties are aware that these principles are critical to sustaining a healthy democracy. My concern is that the trend is in the wrong direction and that the current drift -- under the leadership of a supposedly "liberal" president who used to teach Constitutional law! -- is an inevitable consequence of the quasi-imperial global role we have slid into over the past five decades.
In December 1917, in the middle of World War I, British Prime Minister Lloyd George told the editor of the Manchester Guardian that "if the people really knew, this war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship would not pass the truth." I sometimes wonder how Americans would react if we really knew everything that our government was doing. Or even just half of it.
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Many people believe that the United States is incapable of bold and ambitious responses to contemporary policy problems, largely because its political institutions aren't designed to act decisively. In this view, the United States is saddled with a federal system where government power is divided, with multiple veto points and various "checks and balances" that help prevent excessive concentrations of power. Add to that free speech, an intermittently vigorous press corps, a vast array of interest groups, and a degree of political partisanship, and you have a recipe for gridlock.
Or so it is said. There is a grain of truth in this caricature: the men who designed the U.S. Constitution were wary of centralized power (and standing armies!), and it is not at all surprising that they designed a system that seems to make radical change difficult. But there are some important exceptions to that general rule, and the exceptions themselves are instructive.
For example, during World War II the Manhattan Project assembled much of the world's most eminent scientific talent in a crash program that produced an atomic bomb in less than five years. Moreover, at its peak the Project was consuming ten percent (!) of the electricity produced in the entire United States, and its facilities contained more floor space than the entire U.S. auto industry. Despite this vast effort, only a handful of Americans were even aware of the project until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
More recently, the 9/11 attacks produced a similarly rapid and far-reaching U.S. response, whose full dimensions are still not completely known by the U.S. public. In addition to the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent lame-brained decision to invade Iraq, the United States also passed the Patriot Act and launched a wide-ranging global effort to track down and kill as many al Qaeda members as it could find. In the process, it has created a large infrastructure of government and contractor agencies and shifted the CIA's focus away from intelligence gathering and toward a global effort to eradicate al Qaeda and its affiliates through mostly lethal means.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from these observations is that the U.S. system of government is quite capable of swift and ambitious policy initiatives when the public and key officials are really scared (as we were in 1941 and after 9/11). One might add the response to the invasion of South Korea in 1950 and to Sputnik's launch back in 1957. And this tendency in turn helps explain why threat-inflation is such a common tool within the foreign policy establishment. When Americans are feeling safe and secure, gridlock prevails. But when they are frightened, politicians are both able to launch big initiatives and motivated to do so by the fear that the public will punish them if they don't do enough to defend the nation.
The other important lesson is that big and bold initiatives are far easier when they are kept secret. Nobody knew about the Manhattan Project, and to this day nobody knows the full extent of what our national security machinery has been up to do since 9/11. Books like Mark Mazzetti's new The Way of the Knife and the Washington Post's important articles on "Top Secret America" have peeled back the veil to a degree, but there are undoubtedly many things being done in America's name (and with U.S. tax dollars) about which taxpayers are still unaware.
The danger is two-fold. First, if secrecy makes it easier to do big things, then policymakers will be tempted to make many issues as secret as possible. Classification will run amok, not to keep valuable information from our enemies but mostly from citizens who might object. And with secrecy comes a greater danger that foolish policies won't be adequately debated or scrutinized. This problem is widespread in authoritarian regimes where dissent is squelched and open debate is impossible, but it can also happen in democracies if the circle of decision is tiny and the public is kept in the dark.
The second danger stemming from popular ignorance is blowback. If Americans don't know what their government is doing (or has done), they won't fully understand why other societies view the United States as they do. In particular, Americans won't understand why others are sometimes angry at the United States, and they will tend to interpret anger or resistance as evidence of some sort of primordial or culturally-based hatred. The result is a familiar spiral of conflict, where each side sees its own actions as fully justified by the other's supposedly innate hostility. And I'd argue that spiral dynamics are at the heart of a number of difficult foreign policy challenges, especially in our dealings with the Arab and Islamic world. Unfortunately, unwinding spirals is not easy, and all the more so if a country still doesn't understand exactly why others are ticked off.
Addendum: By a strange coincidence, my colleague Larry Summers has published a column in today's Financial Times, making a somewhat similar argument about the ability of the U.S. government to act more decisively than many people often believe. You can find his views here.
Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons
Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that's just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong.
Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I'm not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren't worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn't worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.
First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan -- defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul -- would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.
Second, victory was elusive because Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, and its territory provided them with effective sanctuaries. When pressed, they could always slip across the border and live to fight another day. But Washington was never willing to go the mattresses and force Pakistan to halt its support, and it is not even clear that we could have done that without going to war with Pakistan itself. Washington backed off for very good reasons: We wanted tacit Pakistani cooperation in our not-so-secret drone and special forces campaign against al Qaeda, and we also worried about regime stability given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these factors made victory even harder to achieve.
Third, we couldn't get Karzai to reform because he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Unless the U.S. and NATO were willing to take over the whole country and try to govern it ourselves -- a task that would have made occupying Iraq seem easy -- we were forced to work with him despite his many flaws. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners, however, and we never had one.
In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn't go all-out to win, and it shouldn't have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America's main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan's importance did not justify a substantially larger effort.
By the way, I am not suggesting that individual commanders and soldiers did not make enormous personal sacrifices or try hard to win, or that the civilians assigned to the Afghan campaign did not do their best in difficult conditions. My point is that if this war had been a real strategic priority, we would have fought it very differently. We would not have rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theatre as often as we did, in effect destroying institutional memory on an annual basis and forcing everyone to learn on the job. In a war where vital interests were at stake, we certainly wouldn't have let some of our NATO partners exempt the troops they sent from combat. And if the war had been seen aa a major priority, both parties would have been willing to raise taxes to pay for it.
Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader than the internal squabbles that Nasr and Chayes have addressed. The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. Winning would have required us to spend much more than winning was worth, and to undertake exceedingly risky and uncertain actions towards countries like Pakistan. U.S. leaders wisely chose not to do these things, but they failed to realize what this meant for the war effort itself.
Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images
So the Beltway world is a-twitter (literally) with the rumor that President Obama will nominate former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb) to be the next secretary of defense. This is a smart move that will gladden the hearts of sensible centrists, because Hagel is a principled, intelligent and patriotic American who believes that U.S. foreign and defense policy should serve the national interest. Here are my top five reasons why Hagel would be an excellent choice for the job.
1: He's a Republican realist. Like former defense secretary Robert Gates, Hagel is a realist from the moderate wing of the Republican party. He's a staunch advocate of a strong defense, yet he's clearly opposed to squandering U.S. power, prestige, and wealth on misbegotten crusades. He's also not prone to threat-inflation, which makes him almost unique.
Hagel's candidacy is also something of a no-lose appointment for Obama. By nominating a well-known Republican, Obama can again demonstrate a genuine commitment to bipartisanship. And if Republican senators try to torpedo the nomination of one of their own, it merely underscores how petty, extreme, and out of touch they are. Either way, Obama wins.
2: He thinks for himself. Unlike the usual inside-the-Beltway careerists with jelly for vertebrae and weathervanes for a conscience, Hagel is an independent thinker who wasn't afraid to challenge his own party when it started heading off the rails under President George W. Bush. Hagel showed real courage when he said that the Bush administration was the "most arrogant and incompetent administration"; he was telling it like it was. Washington could use more plain speaking these days, especially where foreign and defense policy are concerned. That's what Obama liked about Gates, and that's what he would get with Hagel.
3: He knows the subject. Hagel is a decorated Army veteran who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, and he's remained involved with defense matters throughout his public career. More importantly, he's also well-versed on intelligence issues, having served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the President's Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). In an era where DoD and the intelligence community increasingly intersect, that's a valuable pedigree. And if his personal experience in war has made him less inclined to intervene than eager civilians with no military experience, so much the better.
4: He's got good judgment. Although Hagel erred in voting for the Iraq War resolution in 2002, he figured out the war was a blunder a lot faster than most of his colleagues did. He wisely opposed the "surge" in 2006, and called instead for an immediate U.S. withdrawal. In terms of U.S. interests, getting out earlier would have saved us tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of soldiers' lives, and it would produced essentially the same outcome we have today. Remember: we stuck around long enough to cement Nuri al-Maliki's hold on power, only to watch him align his country with Iran, tell us to leave, and then obstruct our efforts in Syria. With the benefit of hindsight, Hagel's judgment looks sound.
5: He's got the right enemies. Hagel does have one political liability: Unlike almost all of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, he hasn't been a complete doormat for the Israel lobby. In the summer of 2006, for example, he incurred the lobby's wrath by calling for a joint ceasefire during Israel's war with Hezbollah. Pressed by the lobby, Bush & Co. rejected this advice and let the war drag on, even though prolonging it made Hezbollah more popular in Lebanon and cost additional Israeli lives. Hagel has also been outspoken in calling for the United States to be more evenhanded in its handling of the peace process, and he's generally thought to be skeptical about the use of military force against Iran. Needless to say, such positions are anathema to Israel's hard-line supporters, some of whom are already attacking Hagel's suitability for SecDef. For the rest of us, however, Hagel's views are not only sensible -- they are in America and Israel's best interest.
Having lost out on Susan Rice, Obama is unlikely to put forward a nominee he's not willing to fight for or whom he thinks he might lose. So if Hagel is his pick to run the Pentagon, you can bet Obama will go to the mattresses for him. And what better way for Obama to pay back Benjamin Netanyahu for all the "cooperation" Obama received from him during the first term, as well as Bibi's transparent attempt to tip the scale for Romney last fall?
For what it's worth, I hope Obama nominates Hagel and that AIPAC and its allies go all-out to oppose him. If they lose, it might convince Obama to be less fearful of the lobby and encourage him to do what he thinks is best for the country (and incidentally, better for Israel) instead of toeing AIPAC's line. But if the lobby takes Hagel down, it will provide even more evidence of its power, and the extent to which supine support for Israel has become a litmus test for high office in America.
Of course, it hard to know how effective a manager of the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy Hagel would be. But he would inherit a seasoned team of deputies to help him handle the day-to-day administrative tasks, and he certainly knows how the sausage gets made in Washington. Obama reportedly has confidence in Hagel's judgment, and could rely on him both for sage advice and political cover when needed. It is therefore easy to see why the president might find him an appealing pick. Equally important, he'd be an excellent choice for our country, which has a crying need for effective and principled leaders.
FP colleague Tom Ricks wonders why CIA director David Petraeus had to resign in the wake of revelations that he had an extramarital affair with his biographer. In fact, the reason is quite straightforward, and independent of any questions about his judgment, or the security of his email account.
In the world of intelligence, extramarital dalliances are dangerous because they create the obvious potential for blackmail. If some foreign intel service found out that a mid-level intelligence analyst or operative was cheating, they might be able to extract sensitive information by threatening to disclose the indiscretion.
Obviously, if the director were caught in a similar indiscretion but remained in his post, it would send exactly the wrong message to the rest of the organization. Petraeus clearly understood that, which is why he was correct to submit his resignation.
One can take no pleasure from such a fall from grace, especially given that President Obama was reportedly happy with Petraeus' performance in a difficult job. But there's no real mystery why Petraeus felt he had to step down, or why Obama ultimately agreed.
Ricks also thinks the government's loss may be Princeton's gain, meaning that Petraeus might be in line for Princeton's presidency (soon to be vacant). I've got news for him: This is not the sort of publicity that university boards of trustees welcome.
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One of my favorite Cold War stories is the tale of the Moscow air show of 1955, when Western observers were awed by a flyover of what seemed to be hundreds of Mya-4 Bison long range bombers. The CIA later determined that this was a Potemkin armada: Visibility was low that day and the Soviets in charge just had the same group of planes fly out of sight and then circle back over the field, creating the impression that they had a much larger arsenal than they did. Such antics helped fuel fears of a bomber gap, much as Khrushchev's later missile rattling fueled fears of a so-called missile gap. Neither existed, and neither did the Stanley Kubrick's infamous "mine shaft gap."
I thought of this episode when I read about the launching of China's first "aircraft carrier." I put those words in quotation marks because the vessel isn't carrying any aircraft, because China has yet to build any that can land on a carrier deck. For the moment, in short, it's just a big vessel that doesn't add to China's actual military capability at all. Even so, this development is being interpreted as a sign of China's growing military muscle, and the New York Times story quotes officials in Asia describing the launching itself as an act of intimidation.
China is obviously growing wealthier and stronger, but the United States and others have a powerful interest in assessing this trend as accurately as possible. If we are complacent and understate China's capabilities, we might unpleasantly surprised at some point in the future. But if we inflate the threat and overstate China's power, we'll waste money trying to stay ahead and we might even end up deterring ourselves. Exaggerating Chinese power could also convince some of Beijing's weaker neighbors that standing up to it is just too hard. So the United States (and others) have a big incentive to get this one right, despite the unavoidable uncertainties that military assessments entail.
Unfortunately, there are lots of people and groups with an incentive to distort public discourse on this broad issue. Some of our Asian allies are likely to cry wolf every time China does anything remotely worrisome, in the hope of scaring Washington and getting us to do even more to protect them. Defense contractors and think tanks that depend on their largesse are likely to threat-inflate as well, in order convince the Pentagon to fund new weapons. Politicians from both parties will offer their own worst-case assessments if they think they can make their opponents look bad on this issue. For all these reasons, developing and maintaining a reasonably accurate sense of what China can and cannot do is going to be hard.
You might say that we can just let the "marketplace of ideas" operate, and over time competing views about China's capabilities will contend with each other and we'll gradually converge on a more-or-less accurate appraisal. It would be nice if things worked like this, but this is sort of issue where intellectual market failure is likely. Why? Because there will be a lot more money supporting the hawkish side of this debate, and lots of bureaucratic interests committed toward worst-case appraisals. That view might be the right one, of course, but it's going to be hard to be sure.
Of course, my remedy for this problem (and some others) is to get a lot of smart people who don't have a professional or financial stake in this debate involved in the discussion. I don't want the debate on China's capabilities to be dominated by people working for the U.S. Navy, the Air Force, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, or D.C.-based think tanks funded by such groups. I don't want to exclude them either, but I'd like to see a lot of other disinterested voices too. And to follow up on yesterday's post, this is another reason why we want a healthy, diverse, and engaged set of scholars in the academic world, who aren't directly beholden to anyone with a dog in particular policy fights.
That participation won't occur if universities don't support training and teaching in security studies, or if university-based scholars disengage from the public sphere and spend their time debating minor issues that are mostly of interest only to each other. In this issue, as in many others, getting academics and other independent voices to be an active part of public discourse is essential to making accurate assessments and reasonably smart decisions.
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Over at FP's new National Security Channel, reporter Gordon Lubold has a lengthy interview with U.S. Afghan commander John Allen. Allen offers a pretty upbeat assessment: He says the Afghan National Security Force "is really taking over much more of the fighting than it has done in the past," adding that our Security Force Assistance Teams are "really accelerating that." He doesn't actually come out and say we're going to win (or even try to define what "victory" would look like), but his bottom line is simple: "the campaign is on track."
But to where? I thought Obama made a bad mistake when he decided to escalate in Afghanistan, but this is another one of those issues where I'd love to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, I've heard nothing but upbeat assessments from U.S. commanders ever since Obama took office, which makes me more than a little skeptical about Allen's testimony now. Back in January 2010, for example, former U.S. commander Stanley McChrystal told ABC's Diane Sawyer that he "believed we had turned the tide." His successor, General David Petraeus, issued a similarly optimistic assessment a year later, though it was at odds with U.S. intelligence assessments and followed by a major increase in the overall level of violence.
Well, it's déjà vu all over again: Today, despite a dramatic increase in "green on blue" attacks (i.e., attacks by Afghan security forces on U.S. or ISAF personnel) and the announced departure of other U.S. allies, the latest American commander continues to portray our efforts in a positive light, especially with respect to the progress made by Afghan security forces. But you might have missed the fact that the DoD quietly lowered the bar for the latter, by eliminating the category of "independent" (meaning that a unit that can operate on its own) from the ratings system used to assess Afghan forces. Now the top ranking is "independent with advisors," which allows us to describe more Afghan units as "top rated." And even with these lower standards, less than ten percent of Afghan units are rated as capable of being able to operate semi-independently.
In one sense, Allen's optimism is neither surprising nor objectionable. You're not going to hear the U.S. commander tell a reporter that things aren't going well, because that is hardly the best way to inspire your troops to greater effort. Plus, the "surge" in Afghanistan was not designed to fix all of that unfortunate country's problems; it was intended either to 1) provide a fig leaf for a U.S. withdrawal, 2) inflict enough pain on the Taliban so that they'd cut a deal, or 3) buy a bit of time to build up Afghan security forces, at which point we'd get the hell out. Notice that these various goals aren't mutually exclusive, but none of them constitutes "victory."
And that's been the problem in Afghanistan all along. The original rationale for being there disappeared once Al Qaeda fled the country and metastasized to other areas. It never made much sense to spend $100 billion plus per year on a country whose entire GDP was less than 20 percent of that figure, especially once it became clear that the Karzai government was irredeemably corrupt and mostly incompetent and equally clear that we had no idea how to "nation-build" there ourselves. Plus, our main adversaries could always avoid us by slipping over the border into Pakistan or melting back into the local population. They knew we'd eventually go home, at which point Afghanistan's future will be determined by the Afghans themselves. As it should be.
In short, General Allen's testimony is precisely what you'd expect him to say, and thus doesn't really doesn't tell you much of anything at all. But his optimism stands in sharp contrast to the assessment you'll find in a book like Rajiv Chandraksekaran's Little America, which I've just been reading. I hope Allen is right, that the ANSF really is making headlong progress, and that it will be up to the task of providing security once we are gone. But I wouldn't bet on it.The only consolation -- if you're not Afghan, that is -- is that it won't matter much to us one way or the other.
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Remember how the London Olympics were supposedly left vulnerable to terrorists after the security firm hired for the games admitted that it couldn't supply enough manpower? This "humiliating shambles" forced the British government to call in 3,500 security personnel of its own, and led GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to utter some tactless remarks about Britain's alleged mismanagement during his official "Foot-in-Mouth" foreign tour last month.
Well, surprise, surprise. Not only was there no terrorist attack, the Games themselves came off rather well. There were the inevitable minor glitches, of course, but no disasters and some quite impressive organizational achievements. And of course, athletes from around the world delivered inspiring, impressive, heroic, and sometimes disappointing performances, which is what the Games are all about.
Two lessons might be drawn from this event. The first is that the head-long rush to privatize everything -- including the provision of security -- has some obvious downsides. When markets and private firms fail, it is the state that has to come to the rescue. It was true after the 2007-08 financial crisis, it's true in the ongoing euro-mess, and it was true in the Olympics. Bear that in mind when Romney and new VP nominee Paul Ryan tout the virtues of shrinking government, especially the need to privatize Social Security and Medicare.
The second lesson is that we continue to over-react to the "terrorist threat." Here I recommend you read John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart's The Terrorism Delusion: America's Overwrought Response to September 11, in the latest issue of International Security. Mueller and Stewart analyze 50 cases of supposed "Islamic terrorist plots" against the United States, and show how virtually all of the perpetrators were (in their words) "incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational and foolish." They quote former Glenn Carle, former deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats saying "we must see jihadists for the small, lethal, disjointed and miserable opponents that they are," noting further that al Qaeda's "capabilities are far inferior to its desires."
Further, Mueller and Stewart estimate that expenditures on domestic homeland security (i.e., not counting the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan) have increased by more than $1 trillion since 9/11, even though the annual risk of dying in a domestic terrorist attack is about 1 in 3.5 million. Using conservative assumptions and conventional risk-assessment methodology, they estimate that for these expenditures to be cost-effective "they would have had to deter, prevent, foil or protect against 333 very large attacks that would otherwise have been successful every year." Finally, they worry that this exaggerated sense of danger has now been "internalized": even when politicians and "terrorism experts" aren't hyping the danger, the public still sees the threat as large and imminent. As they conclude:
... Americans seems to have internalized their anxiety about terrorism, and politicians and policymakers have come to believe that they can defy it only at their own peril. Concern about appearing to be soft on terrorism has replaced concern about seeming to be soft on communism, a phenomenon that lasted far longer than the dramatic that generated it ... This extraordinarily exaggerated and essentially delusional response may prove to be perpetual."
Which is another way of saying that you should be prepared to keep standing in those pleasant and efficient TSA lines for the rest of your life, and to keep paying for far-flung foreign interventions designed to "root out" those nasty jihadis.
Which university is more likely to defend academia's basic commitment to sharing ideas and knowledge in an open and unconstrained way, West Point or Yale? You'd probably think it would be Yale, that well-known bastion of tweedy academics and liberal values. How wrong you'd be.
As West Point faculty member Gian Gentile outlines in a fascinating piece in the Atlantic, former U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal has been teaching a course at Yale's Jackson Institute of Global Affairs on strategy and leadership. Nothing wrong with that: Plenty of universities (including my own) hire practitioners to share insights from the real world with students. And I've got no problem having a former general teach a course. But in a shocking departure from normal academic practices, Yale requires students taking the course to sign a non-disclosure form, pledging that they will not divulge what is said in the course to outsiders. In other words, McChrystal is teaching an "off-the-record" course.
This restriction is so contrary to the normal practice of universities that it is hard to know where to begin. Academic institutions exist to pursue knowledge, to teach what we know to our students, and to instill in them an appreciation for free and open inquiry. The whole principle of academic freedom rests on the idea that knowledge is best advanced by allowing ideas to blossom and to be shared without restriction. In this way, good ideas can be validated and retained and bad ideas or conjectures can be scrutinized and eventually excluded. By telling students in McChrystal's class that they cannot share what they learn with others, Yale is artificially constraining the normal give-and-take of ideas. There may be vigorous discussions inside that particular classroom, but the rest of Yale (and the larger world) won't know about them. Secrecy of any kind is fundamentally at odds with the principles that universities stand for, yet here Yale has enshrined it in one of their courses.
A commitment to free and open discussion also keeps the focus on the ideas themselves, rather than on the identity or the supposed prestige of the faculty member leading the course. Giving McChrystal a special exemption immediately tells Yale students that the general is a "Very Important Person" who gets to be treated differently from other members of the faculty. Again, that's not how universities are supposed to work: People taking my courses aren't supposed to accept what I tell them because I am the professor and they are mere students. They are supposed to accept what I tell them only if I've successfully convinced them it is useful and makes sense. And they are free -- even encouraged -- to disagree with me, especially if they have good reason to do so and can make their objections stick. And I want them to talk about my courses outside of class; maybe someone they know will point out a new way to think about an issue or identify a mistake I've made. But if I made my students sign a non-disclosure form, I would limit their capacity to hold me accountable.
Requiring students to sign a non-disclosure form also sends the subtle but unmistakable signal that the instructor is imparting secret knowledge that is too hot or potentially controversial to be shared with the outside world. I can easily imagine students lapping this up -- we all like thinking we're getting info that others aren't privy to -- but this is just not how universities are supposed to work.
Yale officials might argue that McChrystal is a unique asset for their teaching program, and that the only way they could convince him to teach there was to promise him that some student wouldn't blab about the course to the Yale Daily News or the New York Times. But that argument won't wash: If McChrystal really believes what he's teaching, then he should be willing to have it openly discussed. He shouldn't be able to win arguments in the classroom by saying, "Now let me tell you about some really secret stuff I did in Afghanistan, stuff you won't find out about in books. Trust me." He should be willing to be held accountable for what he says to his students, and not just by those who happen to be sitting there (and whom he might eventually be grading). If some students disagree with him, he should be willing to have them voice their disagreements to the rest of the class, but also to their roommates, friends, parents, other faculty members, and yes, even to reporters. That's the same risk that all of us run when we teach: All of our students are free to talk about what they learn with anyone they want. What's General McChrystal so afraid of?
Yale's abandoning of its principles is itself a symptom of the growing deference that Americans now grant the professional military (and to a lesser extent, top members of the broader national security establishment). The country has been at war for over a decade, and there's an inevitable tendency for civilians to start treating those who've been fighting these wars with kid gloves. This tendency is not healthy, however, because the professional military has its own interests and world view -- as such, it is not necessarily the best judge of what is in the overall interests of the nation. National security is a topic that affects all Americans, and it is more likely to be openly and intelligently debated when we don't give any of the participants (and especially not those with particular interests in the subject) a free pass.
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Apologies if I've blogged about this before, but reading Micah Zenko's excellent post on "ten things you didn't know about drones" reminded me of something I've pondered a bit over the past couple of years. To be specific: I wonder if we are reaching a moment in which traditional "surprise attacks" are less and less likely, at least between major powers.
Genuine "surprise attacks" are pretty rare already -- at least at the strategic level -- for the simple reason that mobilizing large military forces is a huge undertaking and hard to conceal. Hence, opponents are likely to see what you're doing and know that you're coming. The United States fought Iraq twice, for example, and though Saddam apparently clung to the hope that we wouldn't actually fight, it can't have been a complete surprise to him when the bombs started falling. After all, in both cases we'd been talking about it for months while building up our forces right next door.
To be sure, in some cases information may be ambiguous and you can imagine how one side might be able to mask its intentions or create sufficient ambiguity so as to pull off the surprise. And it helps if the victim is complacent or misreads the available intelligence (as Israel did in 1973), or if it stubbornly refuses to believe that an attack is coming (Stalin in 1941). And surprise may be achieved if the attacker is both lucky and surveillance is hard (Pearl Harbor), or if the target doesn't "connect the dots" (the US on 9/11). But in a world where communications are instantaneous and surveillance is increasingly widespread, pulling off a genuine strategic surprise is bound to get more difficult.
This is not to say that unexpected and small-scale attacks cannot occur when the necessary forces are already in place, which is why North Korea could suddenly shell a South Korean island in 2010. Surprise can also work if the target is undefended and it doesn't take a lot of mobilization, which is how Argentina could seize the Falklands in 1982. Similarly, tactical surprise is commonplace once forces are engaged in the field.
But for today's major powers, it is hard to imagine conventional forces inflicting a genuine strategic surprise attack. Reconnaissance satellites can monitor global hotspots on a more-or-less real-time basis and let leaders know if forces are being moved and prepared for combat. Drones can provide even more detail, and electronic surveillance capabilities of various sorts can monitor message traffic. And the victim doesn't have to be the party that detects the preparations, if the party that does is willing to blow the whistle. It is possible that these capabilities could be disrupted by countermeasures or a cyber-attack, but a large-scale effort of that sort would itself be a warning sign.
This means that large-scale surprise attacks may be increasingly rare, except in certain special circumstances. What might those circumstances be? First, states that lack advanced surveillance capabilities are still vulnerable, unless someone tips them off in advance. Second, we will still see surprise attacks by airplanes, drones, or missiles, particularly if the attacks don't require a lot of advanced preparation and/or involve short distances. A third possibility are cyber-attacks or attacks by terrorist groups, especially because the latter operate in clandestine fashion. Nor can one rule out really elaborate efforts at deception (such as staging an attack in the context of a previously announced exercise, or something like that).
But notice that most of these scenarios depict attacks of rather limited effect. Air strikes can destroy specific facilities (e.g. Osirak, or the Syrian reactor site), but can't topple a government all by themselves or enable an attacker to take over territory.
None of this is to say that major power war is gradually becoming obsolete (though some have argued that it is for other reasons). Rather, I'm just suggesting that the sort of "3 AM phone call"/bolt-from-the-blue scenarios much beloved of strategists may be less and less relevant, because global transparency has made it very hard to mask the preparations.
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If you are someone who is inclined to favor hawkish responses to foreign policy problems, then your choice for president should be Barack Obama. Not because Obama is especially hawkish himself, or interested in prolonging costly and failed commitments in Iraq or Afghanistan. For that matter, his administration is making a modest and fiscally necessary effort to slow the steady rise in Pentagon spending, and they seem to understand that war with Iran is a Very Bad Idea. (It is of course no accident that military action there is being promoted by the same folks who thought invading Iraq was a Very Good Idea. But I digress.)
So why should hawks vote for Obama? As Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent have argued most forcefully, it's because Obama can do hawkish things as a Democrat that a Republican could not (or at least not without facing lots of trouble on the home front). It's the flipside of the old "Nixon Goes to China" meme: Obama can do hawkish things without facing (much) criticism from the left, because he still retains their sympathy and because liberals and non-interventionists don't have a credible alternative (sorry, Ron Paul supporters). If someone like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush had spent the past few years escalating drone attacks, sending Special Forces into other countries to kill people without the local government's permission, prosecuting alleged leakers with great enthusiasm, and ratcheting up sanctions against Iran, without providing much information about exactly why and how we were doing all this, I suspect a lot of Democrats would have raised a stink about some of it. But not when it is the nice Mr. Obama that is doing these things.
The key to making this work, as Andrew Bacevich suggests here, is to insulate the vast majority of the American population from the effects of this effort. Obama understands that there's no stomach for big, costly, and inconclusive wars like Iraq and Afghanistan (he's right, and there's also little to be gained from them). But he and his advisors are betting that the American people will tolerate active efforts to hunt down and kill perceived bad guys, provided that the costs are low and occur far away and mostly out-of-sight. And it is in this context that one has to view recent proposals to give U.S. Special Forces greater presence, autonomy, and capability, an idea that remains controversial within military circles.
In other words, we are engaged in a grand strategic experiment: can the United States make itself more secure by dispatching troops and drones to various corners of the world, with the explicit mission of killing anyone we think might be a "terrorist?" At first glance, this approach certainly looks better than the debacle in Iraq, and it consistent with the "laser-like focus on Al Qaeda" that some of us recommended way back in 2001. But it is not without its own dangers, of which the following strike me as especially paramount.
The first danger lies in the secrecy with which these activities are now shrouded. We don't really know who is being targeted for attack, or what the error rates are. Is it really true that U.S. forces have targeted not just suspected terrorist but also the people who seek to provide medical or rescue assistance after an attack, on the assumption that the rescuers are in cahoots with original targets? How often do we make honest mistakes? How reliable is the information on which targeting is being conducted?
The second danger -- "blowback" -- follows from the first. What if we end up creating more new terrorists than we kill? What if aggressive efforts to hunt down Al Qaeda in Pakistan ends up destabilizing the nuclear-armed Pakistani state and convinces lots of people there that the United States is inherently hostile? Are we going to understand that such hostility didn't emerge solely because these people "hate our values," but rather because a cousin, brother, or fellow countrymen was targeted by an American drone, and maybe in error? The less we know about what U.S. forces are doing, the harder it will be for us to understand why some people don't like us that much.
A third danger is imitation. There is every reason to assume that other states, as well as some non-state actors, will decide to follow us down this particular path. The United States used to say that it opposed "targeted assassinations," but now we we are legimitizing this practice and others are bound to get into the act too. Similarly, by paying less and less attention to the old norm of sovereignty, we are making it more difficult to object when other states start interfering in each other's internal affairs. If we can send drones and/or special forces into any country we choose, why can't other states violate national borders in order to advance some policy objective of their own? What are we going to say then?
Fourth, is this a temporary expedient or a slippery slope? A case can be made that Obama's approach is a smart response to the dangers posed by Al Qaeda and its progeny, and that his policies reflect a temporary necessity. In this view, groups like Al Qaeda arose in a particular historical and political context, and they are gradually being attrited by an increasingly precise and effective strategy. If you believe this, then you might also believe that eventually the war on terror will be won, and that eventually we will be able to ratchet back these activities, shut down Guantanamo, rescind the Patriot Act, get rid of those demeaning scanners at airports, and cut back or quit those drone strikes. One could even argue that what we are really seeing is a last flurry of activity as we exit Iraq, prepare to exit Afghanistan, and start pivoting toward East Asia.
I'd like to believe that, but as Bacevich suggests, it is at least as likely that we have entered a new phase in American strategy from which it may be difficult to extricate ourselves. The problem is that we have these new capabilities (i.e., drones), and Obama and Bush have established the precedent of a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to warfare that keeps most of what we are doing in the dark. My fear is that future presidents are going to find those capabilities and that precedent very hard to resist. When hammers (drones?) are cheap, it's tempting to buy a lot of them and you'll tend to see a world full of nails. Drug lords in Mexico causing trouble? Let's just take 'em out. Tired of Hugo Chavez and his shenanigans? We've got an app for that. Sickened by the carnage in Syria? Let's give Assad and his underlings the same treatment we gave Ghaddafi. And so on. But most actions generate unintended consequences, and I suspect that trying to be the global policeman -- or in the minds of some, the global vigilante -- on the cheap may be a decision we'll eventually regret.
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I had planned to write about something else this morning, but the simmering confrontation with Iran keeps intruding. For starters, President Obama is standing firmly behind the administration's allegations, but without offering any new evidence to support them. This approach isn't going to wash, however, especially if journalists do their job, start asking a lot of probing questions, and don't allow themselves to get spun by "anonymous" sources and inside leaks.
Add to the mix a New York Times story -- clearly based on briefings from U.S. officials -- that "militants trained and financed by Iran's Quds Force attacked United States forces in Iraq on Wednesday." As Time magazine's Tony Karon notes on his own blog, "Washington certainly seems to be scooping up everything it can find on alleged Iranian malfeasance to throw into the p.r. battle. U.S. and Saudi intelligence officials told the Washington Post that they believe that Iran was behind the May 16 killing of a Saudi diplomat in the Pakistani city of Karachi."
Put it all together, and it looks like the Administration is making a concerted campaign to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran. Countries like Britain, Saudi Arabia and France are going along with that program, and no doubt Israel is happy to see this development too. But so far other countries appear to be at best agnostic about the whole business, which is still the only sensible response in light of the paltry public evidence offered to date. And as I said yesterday, if Obama & co. can't produce some smoking gun support for their assertions, the backlash could be formidable.
More to the point: what's the endgame here? What is the positive purpose to be gained from this new campaign? If there really is hard and reliable evidence of a serious Iranian plot to bomb buildings in the United States and to kill foreign emissaries on our soil, then that's one thing. But if this turns out to be a much more ambiguous business -- either a rogue Iranian operation, a false flag scheme, or a case of FBI entrapment -- then what are we trying to accomplish by rolling out a seemingly well-orchestrated round of new accusations, especially when there's little chance of getting the sort of "crippling sanctions" that might actually alter Iran's behavior? Are we just trying to divert attention from other issues (the economy, the "Arab Spring," the failed diplomacy on Israel-Palestine, etc.), or is this somehow linked to the 2012 campaign?
Last point: as one would expect, Obama is already facing pressure from the right to do more. He's resisted their calls to attack Iran before, and if I had to bet I'd say he'll do so again. But the overall pattern of his presidency has been to accommodate hardline pressure on a variety of fronts, without necessarily adopting their entire agenda. And if you believe half of what Ron Suskind and Bob Woodward have written about Obama, he is a president who is prone to being played by his advisors, especially on national security matters. He escalated in Afghanistan, extended the deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, ramped up the drone war, ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, kept Gitmo up and running, and went spineless on Israel-Palestine after a promising start. There was an obvious domestic payoff to this approach: by tilting so heavily to the rightwing status quo, he's pretty much taken foreign policy off the table in the 2012 campaign. The GOP candidates can carp in various ways, but there's so little daylight between their views and his policies that he's not really vulnerable there.
But all that still leaves the more important question: where is this one headed? Like the alleged assassination plot itself, I'm still scratching my head on that one.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Unless the Obama administration (and in particular, Attorney General Eric
Holder), has more smoking gun evidence than they've revealed so far, they are
in danger of a diplomatic gaffe on a par with Colin Powell's famous U.N.
Security Council briefing about Iraq's supposed WMD programs, a briefing now
known to have been a series of fabrications and fairy tales.
The problem is that the harder one looks at the allegations about Manour Ababasiar, the fishier the whole business seems. There's no question that Iran has relied upon assassination as a foreign policy tool in the past, but it boggles the mind to imagine that they would use someone as unreliable and possibly unhinged as Ababsiar. I won't rehash the many questions that can and should be raised about this whole business; for compelling skeptical dissections, see Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Tony Karon, and John Glaser.
As I said yesterday, I don't know what actually happened here, and I remain open to the possibility that there really was some sort of officially-sanctioned Iranian plot to assassinate foreign ambassadors here on U.S. soil. But the more I think about it, the less plausible whole thing appears. In particular, blowing up buildings in the United States is an act of war, and history shows that the United States is not exactly restrained when it responds to direct attacks on U.S. soil. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and we eventually firebombed many Japanese cities and dropped two atomic bombs on them. Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and we went out and invaded not one but two countries in response. When it comes to hitting back, in short, we tend to do so with enthusiasm.
Iran's leaders are not stupid, and surely they
would have known that a plot like this ran the risk of triggering a very harsh
U.S. response. Given that extraordinary risk, is it plausible to believe they
would have entrusted such a sensitive mission to a serial bungler like
Ababsiar? If you are going to attack a target in the United States, wouldn't
you send your A Team, instead of Mr. Magoo?
Hence the growing skepticism, including the possibility that this might be some sort of "false flag" operation by whatever groups or countries might benefit from further deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations. If the Obama administration can't back up their allegations in a convincing way, they are going to face a diplomatic backlash and they are going to look like the Keystone Cops. They could even face a situation where rightwing war-mongers seize on their initial accusations to clamor for harsh action (a development that has already begun), while moderates at home and abroad lose confidence in the administration's competence, credibility, and basic honesty.
So my advice to Holder & Co. is this: you better show us what you've got, and it had better be good.
Photo courtesy of Nueces County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images
Glenn Greenwald has a couple of must-read posts over at Salon, and I want to highlight the connection between them. The first post deals with the familiar issue of anti-Americanism, and Glenn makes the obvious but often-forgotten point that foreign animosity to the United States is largely a reaction to things that the United States does. In other words, they don't hate us for our freedoms, or for our values, or even our supposedly decadent TV shows. Rather, people who are angry at the United States -- and this includes most anti-American terrorists -- are opposed to different aspects of U.S. policy. Whether those U.S. policies are the right ones can be debated, of course, but the key point is that anti-Americanism doesn't come out of nowhere.
His second post draws on a just-published New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, detailing the Obama administration's unprecedented campaign to preserve official secrets and to prosecute leakers and whistleblowers. We've already seen the outlines of this campaign in the administration's overheated response to Wikileaks and its harsh treatment of alleged Wiki-leaker Bradley Manning, but Mayer offers a typically thorough account of just how widespread the administration's campaign is and I recommend you read it for yourself. The irony, of course is that candidate Obama used to be a loud advocate of greater transparency in government. But now that he's president, not so much.
The point I want to highlight, however, is that these two phenemona are tightly linked. America's global military presence, and its penchant for intervening in other countries for various reasons, inevitably generates a hostile backlash in lots of places. We tend to see our actions as wholly benevolent, in part because we take our leaders' rhetoric at face value and assume that if our stated purpose is noble, then the people whose countries we are meddling in will see it that way too. But no matter how noble our aims may be, military intervention and occupation inevitably creates winners and losers, and some of the losers aren't very happy about it. And because force is a crude instrument, even well-intentioned actions often have unfortunate unintended consequences (like civilian deaths). And so some people plant IEDs, or organize suicide attacks on our troops or our clients, and the most extreme of them even fly airplanes into buildings.
When things like this happen, Americans begin to see the world as increasingly hostile and dangerous, and so they naturally demand that the government do more to protect them. And as both Joseph McCarthy and Dick Cheney understood, the easiest way to convince people to give up their civil liberties is to magnify foreign threats. Once people are sufficiently scared, they will be more than happy to compromise civil liberties, especially if they think this is necessary for their protection (see under: Patriot Act).
No doubt foreign policy wonks will be all a-twitter for a day or so, chewing over the news that President Obama is going to move CIA head Leon Panetta over to DoD to replace outgoing Secretary Robert Gates, and then replace Panetta with Afghan commander General David Petraeus. This is the sort of event that Washington-watchers tend to see as Very Significant, but I'm sticking with my original view: this sort of reshuffle doesn't matter very much.
Why? Because there's no reason to suppose that Panetta or Petraeus will be bringing either new ideas, new political clout, or substantially different managerial expertise to their jobs. The only way to get a dramatic change in U.S. national security policy would be if either man were going to recommend fundamentally different policies, or if either man was going to be substantially more effective at implementing policies that were already in place. But there's no reason to assume that either of these conditions will hold.
Mind you, I'm not knocking Panetta or Petraeus. The former is a consummate Washington insider, and presumably will be reasonably effective at maneuvering in the Beltway jungle. So was outgoing SecDef Gates, however, so Panetta's move into the Pentagon doesn't really change anything. Moreover, is there any evidence that he has new, original, or creative ideas about either defense management or national strategy? If so, I haven't seen them. As for Petraeus, he's been an energetic defender of the basic thrust of U.S. military policy for more than a decade, including our emphasis on fighting costly wars in the periphery. More importantly, for all the talk of winning hearts and minds through a more sophisticated counterinsurgency strategy, he's also been a big fan of using CIA drones to fight the AfPak war. So there's no reason to expect a significant shift in how the CIA operates.
In short, there's less here than meets the eye, but that won't stop Washingtonians (and bloggers like me) from talking about it.
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I keep thinking about the Wikileaks affair, and I keep seeing the double-standards multiplying. Given how frequently government officials leak classified information in order to make themselves look good, box in their bureaucratic rivals, or tie the President's hands, it seems a little disingenuous of them to be so upset by Assange's activities.
Or consider the case of the most famous of all "insider" journalists: Bob Woodward. Over the past several decades, he's built a highly-lucrative career on his ability to get Washington insiders to talk to him. Less charitably, you could say he's gotten rich giving politicos a vehicle to make their case in print. Just think about how many insiders spill their guts to Woodward, and even provide him with key memos, which are sometimes published as appendices in his opuses. It is apparently entirely acceptable for Woodward to publish remarkably detailed stuff on the most sensitive deliberations of the U.S. government, including the nasty things our officials say about one another and about foreign officials. This well-established practice warrants no adverse comment whatsoever; instead, the usual result is a front page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and a #1 position on the best-seller list.
Has anybody proposed arresting Bob Woodward? Has anyone looked into applying the 1917 Espionage Act to his revelations of the most secret deliberations of the national security establishment? Is the State Department telling employees not to buy or read his books, the same way they are telling employees not to look at any of the Wikileaks materials? And remember: Woodward isn't writing about minor issues or even the trivialities of diplomacy; his books deal directly with core issues of war and peace. One could argue that what Woodward digs up and displays-information drawn from the highest and innermost counsels of the U.S. government-is more important and more potentially damaging than zillions of often-trivial memcons by mid-level bureaucrats in overseas embassies. How can these leaks be more sensitive or troublesome than a detailed, blow-by-blow account of Obama's secret Afghanistan decision-making?
I'm not for a minute suggesting that somebody ought to threaten Woodward with prosecution, ban his books, or try to hack his laptop and destroy his hard drive. But the contrast between the reflexive praise with which his books are received-and to be fair, some of them make for pretty interesting reading -- and the "sky is falling" witch-hunt surrounding Julian Assange, is striking.
And I suspect it mostly comes down to this. Elites like the idea of being in charge, and they don't really trust "the people" in whose name they govern, even though it is the latter that pays their salaries, and fights their wars. Elites like the sense of power and status that being "on the inside" conveys: it's a turn-on to know things that other people don't, and it can be so darn inconvenient when the public gets wind of what the current "best and brightest" are actually doing. The idea that ruling elites are in fact "public servants" who serve at our behest is not a big part of their mental make-up, except that some of them do have to get re-elected every few years, and not every seat is safe.
Their view of the public's right to information is akin to the view expressed by Col. Nathan Jessep (memorably played by Jack Nicholson) in the film A Few Good Men. When defense attorney Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) says "I want the truth!," Jessep retorts: "You can't handle the truth!" Unless, of course, it is filtered by establishment journalists like Woodward, and not by some unsympathetic upstart like Assange.
UPDATE: My colleague and friend Jack Goldsmith from Harvard Law School has two good pieces on this issue, both well worth reading. He also noted the double-standard being applied to Woodward and Assange, and suggests that this case actually suggests that the entire system of security classification ought to be re-thought. You can his two pieces here and here.
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While the demonization of Julian Assange continues apace, the following thought occurred to me (it probably occurred to you already). Suppose a reporter like David Sanger or Helene Cooper of the New York Times had been given a confidential diplomatic cable by a disgruntled government employee (or "unnamed senior official"). Suppose it was one of the juicier cables recently released by Wikileaks. Suppose further that Sanger or Cooper had written a story based on that leaked information, and then put the text of the cable up on the Times website so that readers could see for themselves that the story was based on accurate information. Would anyone be condemning them? I doubt it. Whoever actually leaked the cable might be prosecuted or condemned, but the journalists who published the material would probably be praised, and their colleagues would just be jealous that somebody else got a juicy scoop.
So if one leaked cable is just normal media fodder, how about two or three? What about a dozen? What's the magic number of leaks that turns someone from an enterprising journalist into the Greatest Threat to our foreign policy since Daniel Ellsberg? In fact, hardly anyone seems to be criticizing the Times or Guardian for having a field day with the materials that Wikileaks provided to them (which is still just a small fraction of the total it says it has), and nobody seems to hounding the editors of these publications or scouring the penal code to find some way to prosecute them.
I don't know if the sex crime charges against Assange in Sweden have any merit, and I have no idea what sort of person he really is (see Robert Wright here for a thoughtful reflection on the latter issue). I also find it interesting that the overwrought U.S. reaction to the whole business seems to be reinforcing various anti-American stereotypes. But the more I think about it, the less obvious it is to me why the man is being pilloried for doing wholesale what establishment journalists do on a retail basis all the time.
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I am traveling a lot this week -- first to D.C. and then to Toronto -- so blogging is likely to be light through Friday. Before I head off to get poked and prodded by the friendly TSA personnel at Logan, I thought I'd leave you with a hypothetical to ponder, inspired by the latest WikiLeaks releases.
Here's the question: How much difference would it really make if all these "private" diplomatic meetings were public? Suppose there was no such thing as a "private" diplomatic meeting or a back-channel discussion. I can easily imagine that world leaders wouldn't like it very much -- but how much would world politics change if all these conversations were held in public so that people could see and hear what was being said?
I don't have a firm answer on this issue, but one possibility is that this hypothetical situation would pose a much bigger problem for authoritarian leaders than it would for democratically elected ones. If an autocrat knew that their conversations would all be public, they wouldn't be able to say one thing in private and then say something else when speaking on the record. And that means that some of them might have to adopt positions that were more in accordance with their populations wishes, particularly if their hold on power was tenuous. It would all be on the record. By contrast, a democratic leader would just have to take positions that they felt would appeal to their electorate, which isn't such a terrible idea on its face.
Of course, there's a downside here: you'd get a lot more posturing, and maybe even diplomatic rigidity, as leaders of all kinds tried to show that they were tough bargainers. And public opinion is a fickle thing, and you wouldn't want leaders to be nothing more than weather vanes mouthing whatever their latest poll told them to say. It's also likely that some diplomatic conversations would be empty and stilted, because nobody wanted to talk about anything serious in the full glare of open disclosure. But diplomatic problems still need to get solved, and a world of full disclosure might actually force leaders of all types to explain the realities behind their decisions a bit more, and educate the population when public opinion was off-base.
But my real question remains: Would it really make that much difference? Would a world of "open covenants, openly arrived at" (to use Wilson's phrase) really be that different than the world in which we live today? And aren't all those people who are now defending the importance of diplomatic confidentiality really saying that there is a lot of information that our leaders have to keep from us, or else the world will all go to hell?
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As with earlier WikiLeaks "revelations," the latest batch of classified communications is bound to be something of a Rorschach test. With a wealth of cables from which to choose, readers will be inclined to see in them what they want to see. I've been reading some of the latest releases and I've read the New York Times accounts pretty carefully, but thus far, I haven't seen anything that fundamentally alters my views about U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I seen any other commentator who says that they've changed their mind about some important contemporary issue either. That said, here are a few tentative reactions.
First, everyone should remember that these documents are not revealed truth or literal transcripts of an event. Like most forms of diplomatic reportage, they are a version of events or a summary of impressions, as seen through the eyes of the person (in most cases mid-level officials) who are drafting the message. Even when one is just summarizing a meeting, whoever is drafting the cable gets to emphasize certain things and to omit or downplay others, and that includes the possibility that they misheard, misinterpreted, or misunderstood what was said. Context matters too: what foreign officials say will be shaped by what they are trying to accomplish and also what they think their American interlocutors want or need to hear, and it's hard to identify the full context from these releases alone.
Please note that I am not arguing that there isn't useful information here. My point is that we bear in mind that these cables are the products of individual human drafters who have their own agendas and frailties, and that the discussions they are summarizing do not occur in isolation. And although these documents clearly tell us something about a number of key policies, they are a very incomplete picture.
Second, as with previous WikiLeaks releases, we need to be very wary about our initial conclusions. Only a small number of cables have been released so far, and the media outlets that were given access to them (the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel) are picking and choosing from among the one's they've seen. Until we've had a chance to see the full set of releases, a degree of interpretive caution is in order.
Third, I am less troubled than some others about the possibility that these documents will expose gaps between what governments say they are doing and what they are actually doing. Some commentators worry, for example, that these documents have exposed the hypocrisy of the Yemeni government, which has been pretending that it wasn't allowing the United States to conduct drone strikes on its territory. Others probably fear that some particularly pungent comments about various world leaders might get exposed, and thereby creating undesirable frictions. There's also the concern that foreign representatives will be less candid in the future, for fear of being exposed by some subsequent leak.
But let's get serious for a second. I doubt there are any major world leaders who once believed that we held them in the highest regard, and who will now be crushed to learn that some of our officials had reservations about them. (I'm willing to bet that plenty of foreign cables say less-than-flattering things about U.S. officials too, and that those officials wouldn't be entirely shocked were those reports to go public). I give most leaders a bit more credit than that: most people know when there are significant differences between allies and even personal points of friction, even if they are papered over with appropriate diplomatic niceties. It's mildly embarrassing to have this out in public, but I'm not sure anybody is going to feel seriously betrayed or misled.
And as for the possibility that American diplomats will be exposed as less than 100 percent honest: at this stage in our history, is all that even remotely surprising? I mean, after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Iran/Contra, the cruise missile attack on Sudan, Colin Powell's cooked-up testimony to the Security Council in 2002, how many people are under that many illusions about the dark underbelly of U.S. foreign policy? And it's hardly headline news to learn that the United States has been obsessed with Iran's nuclear program, reflexively solicitous of Israel's concerns, worried about North Korea, or deeply concerned about al Qaeda. Some of the details in these cables are interesting, but none of the dispatches I've read or the news accounts I've seen suggest that a major rewriting of recent diplomacy is in order.
Fourth, the recurring theme that I keep seeing in these documents -- it's my own Rorschach, I guess -- is how everybody around the world wants Uncle Sucker to solve their problems. South Korea and the U.S. talk about what to do if North Korea collapses. Israeli officials keep demanding that we deal with Iran and preserve their "qualitative military edge." Some Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf want us to stop an Iranian bomb too, but they don't agree on the steps we should take to achieve that aim. And so on.
You'd expect these documents to contain a lot of this sort of special pleading, of course, because they are reports from American officials who have been meeting with various foreign counterparts and trying to figure out what they think or want. Nonetheless, it is still striking how many pies the United States has its fingers in, and how others keep expecting us to supply the ingredients, do most of the baking, and clean up the kitchen afterwards.
Fifth, the big story in the early releases -- at least as highlighted in the Times -- seems to be the combination of the clear U.S. obsession with Iran and the fact that some Arab leaders expressed great concern about the prospect of an Iranian bomb. It was as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow that hard-line advocates of doing whatever it takes to stop an Iranian bomb would immediately seize upon the initial releases to buttress their case, but the documents don't actually support that conclusion. As Andrew Sullivan points out, the same people who routinely dismiss Arab calls for a different U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian peace process are now suddenly convinced that these same Arab leaders are pillars of wisdom. In any case, it is hardly a revelation to learn that some Gulf rulers would a) prefer a non-nuclear Iran, and b) would prefer it if the United States did the heavy lifting and bore the onus of taking care of this problem. It would be astonishing if they thought any other way.
But the crucial question all along has been how to address that issue, and here these releases show some ambivalence. There is hardly a consistent chorus of voices telling the United States to go ahead and bomb the place. Some leaders seem inclined in that way; others much less so. I've heard other senior Arab and Muslim officials say that it would be a calamity if we did.
Lastly, the big question I keep pondering is this: would it be all that bad if diplomats understood that secret deals and two-faced diplomacy wasn't going to be that easy anymore, because the true facts might leak out sooner rather than in twenty or thirty years time? I can think of a few cases where secrecy has been useful (Kennedy's deal over the Jupiter missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to mind), but in general I think human beings -- and this include foreign policy-makers -- are more inclined to do bad things when they think they can do so without being exposed. If you have to keep something secret, that's often a sign that you shouldn't be doing it at all.
And at the risk of seeming like a naïve Wilsonian (the cruelest thing you can call a realist like me!), the whole episode raises the larger issue of whether the citizens of a republic have the right to know exactly what representatives are doing and saying in their name, backed up by the money and military power that the citizens have paid for with their taxes. And I don't mean finding out thirty years later, but now. I'm sure that most diplomats would prefer to minimize democratic scrutiny of their activities, as it would surely be annoying if Congress or the media or (God forbid!) ordinary citizens were to peer over their shoulders while they are trying to line up foreign support. But given that I am less and less convinced that our elites know what they are doing, I'm also less inclined to want to let them operate outside public view.
But there is a real downside, which is why I retain some concerns about this latest batch of revelations. If diplomats start fearing that any conversation or cable might get leaked, they will either stop talking, stop taking notes, or stop sending message back to headquarters in any sort of republishable form. There's an old line from Chicago city politics: "Don't write if you can talk; don't talk if you can nod; don't nod if you can wink." Somehow, I'm not sure our diplomacy will be enhanced if our representatives are reduced to making facial gestures, and communicating back home only through secure telephones.
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Of course it's embarrassing to discover that the supposed Taliban leader you've been negotiating with -- and giving a bunch of money to -- is an imposter. But it's more than that: it's also deeply revealing about the flaws in our entire approach.
Our strategy in Afghanistan based on "nation-building." We hope to create Afghan institutions that can run the place so we can leave. That goal, in turn, is predicated on the belief that the United States and its allies have sufficient knowledge and skill to create something that has never existed before: an effective, efficient, legitimate, Western-style state in Afghanistan. Accomplishing this task requires that we understand the underlying culture, the history, and the cross-cutting cleavages within Afghan society, and that we have sufficiently intimate knowledge of the players to know whom to work with and whom to shun.
There was already plenty of evidence that this knowledge was lacking. After all, back in 2002 we thought Hamid Karzai was the ideal choice to lead a new Afghan government. Now, nearly eight years later, he's proven to be a disappointment (at best). And this latest fiasco merely underscores the degree to which we are out of our depth there. There's no question we can kill a lot of Taliban (or people we suspect might be Taliban, or unfortunate civilians who get in the way), but successful nation-building requires a lot more than that.
So here's Rule No. 1 for would-be Afghan nation-builders: If you can't tell the Taliban from the imposters without a scorecard, maybe you shouldn't be playing this game.
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It's Election Day, and I'm about to go out and vote, but first a few belated comments on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's failed attempt to blow up cargo planes by shipping fairly sophisticated bombs to fictitious locations in the United States. What lessons did I draw from last week's event?
First, this incident reminds us about the perils of instant analysis. Initial news reports suggested that the targets were synagogues or Jewish community centers in Chicago, leading various pundits to speculate that this was either another sign of al Qaeda's deeply rooted anti-Semitism, or perhaps a bizarre attempt to send a message about the influence of Chicago-based politicos like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. But The New York Times reports today that the addresses on the bombs were outdated and that investigators now believe that the bombs were intended to destroy the planes, not targets on the ground.
Whatever the target may have been, the more obvious point is that these groups are still hoping to make Americans pay a price for our policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are angry about our close ties with Saudi Arabia, by the drone attacks the United States is conducting in Yemen and Pakistan, and by our unstinting support for Israel. And even though AQAP's main target appears to be the Saudi regime, America's unpopularity throughout the region makes attacking the United States a useful recruiting tool.
Second, this latest episode reinforced my belief that winning in Afghanistan is neither necessary nor sufficient for eliminating the terrorist threat in general and al Qaeda or its clones in particular. There is little or no al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, and in the unlikely event that we defeated the Taliban completely, it wouldn't eliminate the groups that already exist in Pakistan, Yemen and assorted other places. At this point, in fact, our costly attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan may be a distraction from the broader global effort to deal with terrorism itself. And if that's the case, then what are we doing there?
Third, the big lesson is that this plot was thwarted not by drones or airstrikes or special operations forces, but by good old-fashioned intelligence and police work, largely conducted by the Saudi intelligence services. Because AQAP seeks to overthrow the Saudi regime, the Saudis are highly motivated, and they also seem to have done a good job of infiltrating the organization and passing the information on to us in time to thwart the attack.
One might also infer that responding to 9/11 with a "global war on terror" was a bad idea all along, because wars and occupations create conditions in which terrorist organizations can more easily thrive. Osama and his imitators are not heroic warriors and don't deserve to be treated as such, even rhetorically. Instead, they are criminals who believe the murder of innocents is justified in order to advance a fanciful fundamentalist cause. They are best defeated by intelligence sharing and patient police work, and where appropriate, by addressing some of the underlying conditions and grievances that give rise to such movements in the first place. Toppling individual governments or waging costly counterinsurgency campaigns in one or two countries cannot eliminate a global phenomenon like this one; indeed, such actions are likely to make it worse.
Lastly, although we can all be glad that this latest attack was foiled, it is hard for me to believe that one of them won't eventually succeed. It is impossible to inspect every single package in the global shipping system, and terrorist organizations are bound to learn more about how to exploit vulnerabilities in existing (or future) security procedures. We should take all reasonable measures to prevent them from succeeding, but we also ought to recognize that perfect security is probably not achievable. And remaining resolute in the face of that reality ought to be part of our counter-terrorist response too.
In short, although the bomb plots remind us that the terrorist danger is still with us, it also says a lot about the best way to deal with it. And one obvious step is not to go into conniptions every time a plot like this gets exposed. On that score, kudos to Jewish community figures in Chicago, who responded to the initial (and false) reports that synagogues had been targeted with an admirable degree of aplomb.
George Orwell once wrote: "In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." I thought of that line as I tried to sort through my reaction to the latest set of releases by Wikileaks, consisting primarily of detailed action reports from Iraq. My question is: Are we better off having an organization exploiting the viral potential of the internet in order to make public information that government officials would prefer to keep secret?
On the one hand, it doesn't thrill me to see individuals inside the national security bureaucracy take the classification process into their own hands and decide to leak large quantities of information. As much as I admire the courage of a whistle-blower like Daniel Ellsberg, government agencies can't operate without a certain degree of discipline and there's always the danger that someone will leak material that isn't just political embarrassing but actually contains information that might put us at greater risk. There's also the obvious concern that leaked information might expose people who have been helping us in places like Iraq or Afghanistan (although Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has acknowledged that earlier Wikileaks releases did not in fact compromises sensitive information or methods). Still, I think some secrets need to be kept, and that belief makes it hard for me to see Wikileaks' activities as an unalloyed good.
But several other considerations override these concerns, and lead me to conclude that, on balance, Wikileaks is performing a valuable service. To begin with, official outrage at Wikileaks' activities is more than a little disingenuous given the frequency that top officials leak classified information when it suits their political purposes. If former Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal can successfully tie a president's hands by leaking a confidential report calling for more troops, then why shouldn't others use Wikileaks to share information that they believe the public ought to know? And as long as senior officials try to advance their political agendas by sharing inside information with sympathetic journalists in off-the-record "background" briefings, it is hard for me to feel outrage when their subordinates decide that the information to which they are privy deserves a wider audience.
Furthermore, we live in an age of "universal deceit," when it is hard to trust anything someone in the national security world tells you. From the very moment that the Iraq War was conceived, for example, top U.S. officials deployed a vast array of disinformation and deceit -- supposedly based on top-secret intelligence information -- to convince the American public that Saddam Hussein posed a mortal threat to U.S. national security. Nor were they the first leaders to lie to the American public. And the lies continued well in to the war, as former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Ellen Knickmayer makes clear here. (H/T to Glenn Greenwald, whose own posts on this topic are well worth reading).
As Eric Alterman and John Mearsheimer have both documented, it is clear from the historical record that all governments lie for a wide variety of reasons. But unless you're willing to believe that the people in charge are always right and that their lies are therefore justified (and if you think that, you haven't been paying attention), you ought to be in favor of any mechanism that brought more facts to light.
It is also increasingly clear that the U.S. taxpayer is funding a vast array of clandestine activities of which they are only dimly aware, and whose value they have been asked to take almost entirely on faith. If some of these activities are misguided, then not only will we get stuck with the bill, but we are paying for activities that could be making us less secure.
Furthermore, if we have no idea what our government (or that growing army of private contractors) are really up to, then Americans won't understand why other countries may not like us very much. If we don't know about all the bad stuff we're doing, we'll think they hate us for "what we are" instead of "what we do." As I've noted before, Arab or Muslim hostility to the United States really shouldn't be a mystery, given the policies that the United States has adopted towards many of these societies over the past several decades. Do you really expect Iraqis to be grateful that the U.S. invaded their country and set off a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died and millions became refugees?
The Founding Fathers thought that separation of powers and an independent press would ensure accountability, and but it's not as if Congress were performing rigorous oversight over all these activities, engaging in spirited debates over the merits of military intervention, or forcing either this administration or the last one to justify what it is doing overseas. The mainstream media hasn't exactly covered itself with glory over the past decade either, despite some isolated bright spots that subsequently disappeared down the memory hole. And lord knows that few, if any, of the architects of our recent foreign-policy debacles have been held accountable in any meaningful way.
Realist that I am, I believe that human beings are more likely to misbehave if they think they can shield what they are doing from public view. For that reason, I also believe that democratic societies are more likely to adopt better policies when information is plentiful and when government officials cannot determine which facts are available to the public and which are not. Because its primary function is to make more information available on issues that concern us all, I therefore conclude that what Wikileaks is doing is on balance a good thing.
Given the great power at the United States' disposal, I want the people running foreign and defense policy to know that what they are doing might be exposed to public scrutiny. I want them to think twice about whether the policies they are pursuing are defensible on either moral or practical grounds. I wish we'd known the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, or that we'd known the truth about Saddam's WMD (and his non-existent links to al Qaeda) before we invaded. And I'm glad we're finding out more about the Iraq War now, because that knowledge might help us avoid similar quagmires in the future. And if our elected officials, their appointed representatives, and a politicized and co-opted media won't tell us what we have a right to know, then I guess I'm glad that Wikileaks will.
Postscript: Contrary to FP colleague Peter Feaver's view, I don't think the documents offer that much help to defenders of the so-called "surge." No one denies that violence went down after the surge began, and those who discount the impact of the surge concede that the additional troops and new tactics played some role in that development. The new releases also confirm that changes within Iraqi society were also critical; i.e., violence also declined because Iraqis were war-weary and because prior ethnic cleansing had eliminated the mixed-sectarian neighborhoods where much of the prior violence had occurred.
The new releases also confirm that Iran was meddling in Iraq and backing some of the insurgents. This is not news, of course, and Iran's behavior was hardly surprising, given its obvious interest in trying to influence the shape of post-Saddam Iraq. Moreover, the U.S. is hardly in a position to accuse anyone of "interfering" in Iraq, given what we started in 2003. But this not-very-stunning "revelation" doesn't mean the surge was a success, because it didn't end Iranian influence in Iraq any more than it led to political reconciliation among the various Iraqi factions (who still can't manage to form a government). Once the United States had dismantled Saddam's Ba'thist and predominantly Sunni regime, Iraq's Shi'ites were bound to be more powerful and Iran's influence was bound to increase. (Too bad the Bush administration didn't think about that possibility before the war!) The surge didn't reverse that trend, and so the new revelations don't demonstrate that it was anything more than a tactical success whose long-term achievements remain very much in doubt.
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Today I want to call your attention to two on-line debates, each dealing with an important issue on contemporary world affairs.
The first is an extremely interesting back-and-forth between Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan, on the question of whether President Obama was correct in authorizing the CIA to kill several U.S. citizens (including Anwar al-Awlaki) who is believed to be actively aiding al Qaeda in Yemen. You can read the various posts here, here, here, and here, and each links to useful comments from other people as well.
One sign of the quality of their exchange is that I found my own views shifting back and forth as I read each one. In the end I think Greenwald has the better of the argument -- at least so far -- but that may well be because it's closer to my own prior views. I don't really believe Obama's decision puts us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism, but I do think there is a genuine danger in allowing any president the authority to order the killing of a U.S. citizen without due process.
I am also deeply leery of the increasingly widespread use of the "state secrets" doctrine to defend executive actions from public scrutiny, simply because I do not trust people not to abuse their authority in the absence of accountability. Moreover, the "state secrets" doctrine is a powerful tool for threat-mongering ("trust me, if you knew what we know, you'd be really, really scared"), and keeping people terrified is a good way to get them to go along with all sorts of foreign policy foolishness.
But read their exchange and make up your own mind. And kudos to both of them for conducting it in a spirited but civil fashion. (UPDATE: Sullivan has a new reply to Greenwald and others here.
The second debate I can't resist plugging is a Bloggingheads conversation I did last week with Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation. The topic is "AfPak Dilemmas" and it is mostly a discussion about conditions in the region and the proper course for U.S. policy. Peter and I have different views about the nature of the challenge we face in Central Asia, and about the merits of continued military involvement there. Those disagreements are clear in our conversation, but we had an excellent exchange of views and some of you may find it enlightening.
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Last week, I promised to offer a few reactions to the Washington Post series on "Top Secret America," which deserves to be on everybody's short list for the Pulitzer Prize. In a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin uncovered the vast expansion of the U.S. "intelligence" industry since 9/11, and suggest that this largely-unknown array of secret agencies and private contractors is expensive, frequently unaccountable, often dysfunctional, and nearly impossible to rein in.
Talk about previously "unknown unknowns!"
My first thought, of course, was "Osama wins again!" It's hardly a fresh insight to observe that we've done more damage to ourselves since 9/11 than Osama and his murderous band of misguided criminals ever did, and the Post article suggests that this bloated bureaucratic excess is yet another self-inflicted wound. Not only have we spent billions of dollars that might have been devoted to more constructive purposes, but we seem to have created an intelligence system that may be even less effective than the imperfect one we had before. I can't decide if it's just the intelligence equivalent of the "Sorcerer's Apprentice," or maybe a real-world manifestation of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Either way, it ain't good.
One problem, of course, is that the very nature of top-secret agencies makes it
very difficult to hold them accountable. If you don't know how much they
actually cost and you don't know exactly what they are collecting, analyzing,
or doing, then there's no way to do a proper cost-benefit analysis. Although it
is our taxes that fund these agencies and our own security that is ultimately
at stake, these super-secret agencies are basically saying to all of us: "Trust
me!" Some of you may think Congressional oversight is sufficient to deal
with this problem, but the track record in the past is disheartening, and
Priest and Arkin's account isn't reassuring about the current state of affairs.
On the contrary, they suggest that the people in charge of these various
agencies have at-best imperfect knowledge of what they are actually doing,
which makes it hard to believe that the designated Congressional watchdogs are
doing their jobs either.
To make matters worse, the system they depict gives the participants (and especially those private contractors) an obvious incentive to hype threats, both to cover their bureaucratic tails and to justify their own existence and profits. Nobody wants to be caught downplaying a possible danger (which would be embarrassing later on), and suggesting that a potential threat might not be that serious is a good way to get your budget cut. As one of the sources quoted by Priest and Arkin put it, the post-9/11 intelligence maze has become a "self-licking ice cream cone," and the overall effect will be to make the world's most powerful and secure country even more paranoid than before. And when everyone in the system has an incentive to maximize dangers, the whole apparatus gets drowned in more data than it can absorb and assess.
The larger problem, it seems to me, is trying to get better intelligence by throwing billions of dollars at the problem and by recruiting thousands of new analysts is like trying to write Shakespeare by putting a million chimpanzees at computer keyboards and letting them type forever. One of them might eventually produce a decent sonnet, but mostly you'll get a lot of gibberish that nobody has time to read, vet, or evaluate.
It isn't the volume of data that we collect that matters, it is the insight, knowledge, analytical ability, and good judgment of the people who are assessing it. I would rather have a relatively small number of very smart, well-trained, and independent-minded people working on critical intelligence problems than hundreds or thousands of inexperienced and poorly-trained "analysts" who were mostly looking to make a buck.
And you may rest assured this problem isn't going to go away. Conservatives have long complained that government agencies are virtually impossible to kill once they are established (a position for which I have some sympathy), and that means that we are going to be wrestling with this unwieldy bureaucratic behemoth for decades to come. Indeed, as noted above, getting it under control is likely to be even more difficult with other government agencies, because those in charge can classify the information needed to evaluate them properly and thus keep it out of the public eye.
Finally, we shouldn't lose sight of the taproot of this whole problem. The expansion of "Top Secret America" was a direct response to the 9/11 attacks. As the 9/11 Commission Report and other independent studies have confirmed, the motivation for those attacks was al Qaeda's anger at America's entire Middle East policy, including our intimate ties to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the stationing of U.S. air and ground forces in the Gulf as part of "dual containment," and our unconditional support for Israel. To say this does not excuse what Obama bin Laden and his murderous associates did, of course, it just reminds us that the money we have spent, are spending, and will continue to spend on "Top Secret America" is part of the price we pay for those policies. Some Americans undoubtedly think the price is worth it and that these policies shouldn't change. Others disagree, and believe that a different approach would help marginalize terrorist organizations, undermine their recruiting ability, and allow the United States to gradually rebuild a positive relationship with many of these societies. Whatever position you take on that issue, the one thing you shouldn't do is deny that there is a price for our current approach. Thanks to Priest and Arkin, we now know that it's even bigger than we thought.
Postscript: The Priest and Arkin series also reminds us why we need a large and profitable mainstream media industry. Many bloggers (including me) are quick to criticize mainstream media organizations for their various shortcomings, but we shouldn't forget that this sort of investigative journalism takes time and money and there are few if any bloggers who could have produced something similar to the Post series. If these organizations succumb to market forces and are not replaced by news organizations with an ethos that prizes truth and sufficient resources to ferret it out, our ability to know what is really going on in the world will be diminished and the informed debate that is essential to democracy will be further imperiled.
I have only two thoughts on the deal that has sent ten Russian spies back to their homeland, in exchange for four people who were, as the Times puts it, "deemed to be spies" in Russia.
First, some people wonder why the United States didn't get more upset about this, and why the Obama administration didn't allow the incident to derail its long-term effort to "reset" relations with Moscow. The simple answer is: because we are undoubtedly doing the same thing, albeit probably in different ways. I doubt we've sent U.S. citizens to Russia as long-term moles (though anything's possible), but I have no doubt whatsoever that we are engaged in all sort of espionage efforts there (and in plenty of other countries too). To pitch the diplomatic equivalent of a hissy fit over something that we are doing ourselves would be asinine. And as Reagan administration official Richard Burt pointed out, the United States and the Soviet Union ratified numerous agreement at the height of the Cold War, even though we were spying on each other like crazy and trying to bring about the other side's collapse (we succeeded, they failed).
Second, it is remarkable how quickly the whole business was resolved. The two governments did the deal, the Russian spies plead guilty, and the handoff was made. Turns out its much better to be spying for Russia than to be detained as a suspected terrorist. If that happens, you could end up being held without trial for eight years, with the U.S. government bending over backwards to find some way to keep you in custody, even when there was mounting evidence that you were innocent. Keep that latter point in mind the next time you decide to visit Yemen, or when somebody brags about our deep commitment to the "rule of law" and the importance of habeas corpus.
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
The late George Carlin was a brilliant comedian and social critic, especially in his obsession with how language can be used to distort or deceive. He's also a lot funnier than Derrida or Bourdieu.
In one of his best routines, Carlin began by noting:
You can't be afraid of words that speak the truth. I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality. I don't like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American english is loaded with euphemisms. Because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation. "
He then proceeds to trace how the same combat-induced condition once known as "shell shock" (two syllables, clear and evocative), gradually evolved into "battle fatigue" (four syllables), then "operational exhaustion" (eight syllables) and then into today's "post-traumatic stress disorder." (eight syllables plus a hyphen!). And in the process, its nature is concealed and its impact is quietly diluted.
The spirit of Carlin is probably smiling ruefully right now, because this tendency appears to be alive and well. According to the Associated Press, the Army has now dropped the term "psychological operations" (nine syllables, unless you use the two-syllable label "psy-ops").
The new term is -- are you ready? -- "military information support operations" (a whopping fourteen syllables). Both the old term and the new one are euphemisms, but the latter is precisely the sort of bland and neutral phrase intended to conceal what is really going on.
You know, just like saying "enhanced interrogation" (seven highly misleading syllables), instead of "torture" (just two syllables; clear, on point, and illegal).
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I didn't get a comment on the "Gang that Couldn't Spook Straight," otherwise known as the hapless Russian spy ring that never seemed to do any spying. It turns out one of the spies was a student here at the Kennedy School, but I didn't have any contact with him and can't offer you any inside information. Given that Harvard Law School has Alger Hiss among its alumni, I'd say we've still got a ways to go. But as a colleague of mine noted, it does lend a new meaning to the term "mid-career program."
In any case, my favorite line in the whole business was uttered by a neighbor of "Richard and Cynthia Murphy" of Montclair, NJ. "They couldn't have been spies," joked 15 year-old Jessie Gugig. "Look what she did with the hydrangeas!"
I guess this means prospective al Qaeda moles can conceal their true identities by cultivating nice gardens (while taking care not to buy too much fertilizer, of course). But that also means we ought to be suspicious if anyone's garden is too nice. Uh-oh... I've got three hydrangeas in bloom in my garden right now, and if I start getting the fish-eye from my neighbors, I guess I'll know why.
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If the United States reduced its defense budget significantly, how would this affect international affairs? I raise this point because one of the primary justifications for America's disproportionately high level of defense spending is the idea that U.S. military dominance is an essential stabilizing force in contemporary world politics. This argument has been advanced by scholars like William Wohlforth and Michael Mandelbaum, was implicit in Madeleine Albright's infamous characterization of the United States as the "indispensable power," and runs throughout the Clinton, Bush and now Obama versions of the National Security Strategy. It is also one of those well-established verities that are rarely questioned in the American foreign policy establishment.
Given our current budget situation, however, that assumption really ought to be questioned. The United States spends more on national security than the rest of the world combined, and a substantially larger fraction of its GDP than other major powers do. According to the 2010 edition of the IISS Military Balance, in 2008 the US spent about 4.9 percent of GDP on national security, and the defense budget has grown in real terms by about 3 percent per year since 2001. By contrast, China spent about 1.4 percent of its GDP on defense, Russia 2.4% Great Britain only 2.3 percent , and German and Japan roughly 1.3 percent and 0.9 percent respectively. Lucky them.
Meanwhile, the United States has been piling up impressive amounts of red ink in recent years. The federal deficit reached 10 percent of GDP in FY2009 (the highest level since 1945), and various projections suggest that total U.S debt could reach 80 to 100 percent of GDP by FY2020. (My thanks to Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center and George Washington University, the author of an unpublished paper from which I drew these numbers). This situation led President Obama to form a bipartisan commission to study ways to reduce the federal deficit, and the president and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have both made it clear that defense spending has to be part of that process.
No doubt defense contractors and congressional hawks will try to insulate DoD from significant cuts, but that position will be politically untenable if other sectors are being slashed. In fact, if we were really serious about trying to close the deficits mentioned above, we'd be looking at cuts similar to the "peace dividend" that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Measured in constant dollars, for example, the DoD budget fell 36 percent in constant dollars between 1985 and 1998, accompanied by comparable reductions in the active-duty force and the Pentagon's civilian workforce.
So here's my question: Would similar cuts today produce a dangerous shift in the structure of world politics and invite all sorts of nasty regional instability? I don't think so. If the U.S. cut defense by 20-30 percent (an enormous reduction), it would still be devoting roughly $400 billion per year to keeping Americans safe. Our national security spending would still be six times larger than China's, ten times larger than Russia's and a whopping forty times larger than Iran's. And because many militarily consequential powers are U.S. allies, its actual position is even better than those crude comparisons suggest. Thus, even seemingly draconian defense cuts would still leave the United States far stronger than any current rivals, especially if the reductions were done intelligently.
Moreover, if you look region-by-region, it's not obvious that reductions of this magnitude would change things very much. It would have little or no effect on Europe, because a large U.S. presence isn't central to European security any longer. There's little danger of serious conflict in Europe these days (and certainly no potential threat that the European states can't handle), and all that's needed from the United States is a mostly symbolic presence to help hold NATO together and remind Europeans not to let security competition reignite on the continent. And please don't try to tell me that Putin's Russia poses a resurgent threat to the rest of Europe. NATO Europe spends roughly $300 billion on defense each year compared to Russia's $40 billion; if our European allies can't handle Russia's not-very-impressive military, then they don't deserve U.S. help.
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Despite the seemingly damning evidence against him, none of us actually knows for certain if Faisal Shahzad really did try to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. He has reportedly told authorities that he did it (which is pretty convincing), the car involved apparently belonged to him (ditto), and he tried to flee the country immediately afterwards (hmm...). If I were an attorney I wouldn’t look forward to defending him, but his guilt or innocence is ultimately for a jury to decide.
But let’s assume he did, which doesn’t seem to be a very daring assumption. Obviously, the good news here is that he was an incompetent bungler: he didn’t know how to build a workable bomb and he didn’t know how to cover his tracks. And this seems to be the case even though he says he received some training from jihadists in Waziristan. Unfortunately, we can’t assume that all like-minded individuals will be equally befuddled. Timothy McVeigh and his associates were hardly world-class master criminals, and look at what they managed to do in Oklahoma City.
And then there's the question of why he tried to do this. Based on the still-sketchy information I’ve read so far, it seems likely that he wanted to kill Americans in New York City because he didn’t like our killing people in Central Asia. (Most of our victims are suspected terrorists, but we sometimes kill innocent civilians by mistake). Whether he was acting alone or in cahoots with Pakistani extremists, his abortive attack was probably a response to our efforts to eradicate terrorist groups in Pakistan via drone strikes and other special operations. In short, he decided to enlist in the "war on terror," but not on America's side.
If this is correct (and I'm prepared to revise my views as we learn more about his alleged motives), it would remind us that illegitimate violence directed at innocent Americans is mostly about what we do and less about "who we are." (This was also true of the suicide bomber who killed a cadre of CIA agents in Afghanistan earlier this year). To say this is not to argue that what the US is doing is necessarily wrong, however, or to sign up for the "blame America first" crowd. Whether the current drone war in Pakistan is a good idea is a separate question that involves both cost-benefit analysis (i.e., on balance, is it weakening al Qaeda or not?) and moral judgment. And yes, even realists can worry about morality.
Instead, recognizing "why they hate us" is critical to understanding the overall price tag associated with America's global military presence and interventionist foreign policy. When the United States is waging war in some far corner of the world, some people aren’t going to like it and will try to make us pay. It's a very good thing that this guy failed, but it would be naïve to believe that we can maintain our present global posture and be wholly immune from attacks here at home.
It also means that we should continue to analyze and debate whether our current counter-terror strategy is the right one. On the one hand, one could argue (as this BBC report does), that drone strikes are disrupting militant leadership and organization in places like Waziristan, and thus making these organizations less lethal or effective. The fact that Shahzad seems to have been poorly trained and forced to act more-or-less on his own could be seen as a sign that this aspect of our strategy is working.
But on the other hand, our continuing military engagement there also reinforces the accusation that the United States is engaged in illegitimate interference in foreign (i.e., Muslim) lands, an argument that Osama bin Laden has repeatedly emphasized and that appears to resonate with people like Shahzad. Our ultimate goal, therefore, ought to be to lower our footprint (including the shadow cast by Predator and Reaper strikes) as soon as we possibly can.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.