Am I the only person -- well, besides Glenn Greenwald and Kevin Poulson -- who thinks the "cyber-warfare" business may be overblown? It’s clear the U.S. national security establishment is paying a lot more attention to the issue, and colleagues of mine -- including some pretty serious and level-headed people -- are increasingly worried by the danger of some sort of "cyber-Katrina." I don't dismiss it entirely, but this sure looks to me like a classic opportunity for threat-inflation.
Mind you, I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of shenanigans going on in cyber-space, or that various forms of cyber-warfare don't have military potential. So I'm not arguing for complete head-in-the-sand complacency. But here’s what makes me worry that the threat is being overstated.
First, the whole issue is highly esoteric -- you really need to know a great deal about computer networks, software, encryption, etc., to know how serious the danger might be. Unfortunately, details about a number of the alleged incidents that are being invoked to demonstrate the risk of a "cyber-Katrina," or a cyber-9/11, remain classified, which makes it hard for us lay-persons to gauge just how serious the problem really was or is. Moreover, even when we hear about computers being penetrated by hackers, or parts of the internet crashing, etc., it’s hard to know how much valuable information was stolen or how much actual damage was done. And as with other specialized areas of technology and/or military affairs, a lot of the experts have a clear vested interest in hyping the threat, so as to create greater demand for their services. Plus, we already seem to have politicians leaping on the issue as a way to grab some pork for their states.
Second, there are lots of different problems being lumped under a single banner, whether the label is "cyber-terror" or "cyber-war." One issue is the use of various computer tools to degrade an enemy’s military capabilities (e.g., by disrupting communications nets, spoofing sensors, etc.). A second issue is the alleged threat that bad guys would penetrate computer networks and shut down power grids, air traffic control, traffic lights, and other important elements of infrastructure, the way that internet terrorists (led by a disgruntled computer expert) did in the movie Live Free and Die Hard. A third problem is web-based criminal activity, including identity theft or simple fraud (e.g., those emails we all get from someone in Nigeria announcing that they have millions to give us once we send them some account information). A fourth potential threat is “cyber-espionage”; i.e., clever foreign hackers penetrate Pentagon or defense contractors’ computers and download valuable classified information. And then there are annoying activities like viruses, denial-of-service attacks, and other things that affect the stability of web-based activities and disrupt commerce (and my ability to send posts into FP).
This sounds like a rich menu of potential trouble, and putting the phrase "cyber" in front of almost any noun makes it sound trendy and a bit more frightening. But notice too that these are all somewhat different problems of quite different importance, and the appropriate response to each is likely to be different too. Some issues -- such as the danger of cyber-espionage -- may not require elaborate technical fixes but simply more rigorous security procedures to isolate classified material from the web. Other problems may not require big federal programs to address, in part because both individuals and the private sector have incentives to protect themselves (e.g., via firewalls or by backing up critical data). And as Greenwald warns, there may be real costs to civil liberties if concerns about vague cyber dangers lead us to grant the NSA or some other government agency greater control over the Internet.
Third, this is another issue that cries out for some comparative cost-benefit analysis. Is the danger that some malign hacker crashes a power grid greater than the likelihood that a blizzard would do the same thing? Is the risk of cyber-espionage greater than the potential danger from more traditional forms of spying? Without a comparative assessment of different risks and the costs of mitigating each one, we will allocate resources on the basis of hype rather than analysis. In short, my fear is not that we won't take reasonable precautions against a potential set of dangers; my concern is that we will spend tens of billions of dollars protecting ourselves against a set of threats that are not as dangerous as we are currently being told they are.
I hasten to add that this isn't my area of expertise and I may be completely wrong about it. What I would really like, therefore, is for an objective, blue-ribbon commission to look carefully at this question. Here's a possible example of what I have in mind, but I can't tell how reliable its conclusions are likely to be. Why? Because I can't tell how many of its members are people with a stake in the outcome. Makes me wish somebody like Richard Feynman was still around to chair it.
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When I got out of the shower this morning, my wife was waking up to NPR. Her first comment to me was this: “I never thought I would hear an NPR reporter say those words.” What had she just heard? A report that the Obama administration was “under fire” for defending the rights of terrorist suspects.
She wasn’t complaining about NPR’s coverage, mind you, she was commenting on the bizarre situation where anyone -- let alone a president and his administration -- could be “under fire” for defending a core principle of the American justice system. The Founding Fathers would be spinning in their graves, about as fast as a nuclear centrifuge. They understood the dangers of giving executives arbitrary authority to arrest, detain, coerce, and try suspects (i.e., those whom authorities think might have committed a crime but whose guilt has not yet been determined). So suspects -- all suspects -- are accorded certain legal rights.
I’m not a lawyer and so I don’t normally weigh in on legal issues, including the continuing debate over torture, the use of civilian vs. military tribunals to try suspected terrorists, and the other aspects of post-9/11 policy. As a matter of policy, however, the case for abandoning our normal criminal justice procedures strikes me as laughably weak. As Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, and others have noted repeatedly, the various Bush-era abuses (including torture, “preventive detention,” reliance on military tribunals) were a propaganda boon for our adversaries, and did not in fact lead to significant intelligence breakthroughs or other strategic benefits. And as numerous commentators have pointed out, the criminal justice system worked just fine in the case of Richard Reid (the Al Qaeda “shoe bomber”) and Ramzi Yousef (who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and is now serving a life sentence without parole). And on the issue of torture, top military commanders like David Petraeus agree.
The latest evidence, of course, is the guilty plea entered by Najibullah Zazi at his trial in New York City (yes, the very same New York city that supposedly couldn’t hold a trial for Khalid Sheikh Muhammed). Zazi was was arrested and charged with conspiracy, for plotting to detonate a bomb in the New York subway system. He was Mirandized and interrogated in the normal fashion (i.e., he wasn’t waterboarded). The result? He pleads guilty, and appears to be singing like a bird. Good thing we didn’t send him to Guantanamo, where he might have been tortured, and his evidence rendered either suspect or legally inadmissible.
The lesson here is that Americans ought to have more faith in our existing institutions. It’s a great paradox: we constantly tell the world how great our country is, how our values ought to be emulated, and how other states would be much better off if they re-made their societies in our image. But then something bad happens, panic sets in, and people conclude that those same precious values are in fact a fatal weakness that our enemies will exploit to bring us down. And the result is usually an embarrassing and shameful tragedy (like the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II), for which we later have to apologize and make restitution.
Defenders of these abuses sometimes point out that Lincoln, Roosevelt, and other American icons were also willing to suspend core U.S. values in times of national emergency, and that the pendulum swung back once the danger is over. I would make three comments in response.
First, to the extent that this is true, it merely underscores the need for opponents of these policies to keep making the case against them. The pendulum won’t swing back if critics don’t explain why these policies are misguided, or if their advocates prove to be louder or more persistent.
Second, even if the pendulum does swing back somewhat, it may not go all the way. We may have abandoned water-boarding, for example, but the Obama administration has retained a number of other Bush-era policies, including preventive detention and extraordinary rendition. And we all know that once in place, many policies prove remarkably resistant to change. Moreover, executive power in the realm of national security has been growing steadily for the past century -- and especially since the Cold War began -- and it is not obvious to me that this has been a net positive. Third, it is worth remembering that former Vice President Cheney and key aides like David Addington were not advocating a temporary response to a new threat, akin to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Rather, they saw 9/11 as an opportunity to pursue a permanent increase in executive power, a goal that they had been seeking for many years. (Never mind that they don't seem very interested in a strong executive during this administration). And I suppose we should be grateful that Bush’s many failures helped slow this power grab somewhat.
You might think a realist like me would be in favor of a strong executive, on the grounds that states in the dog-eat-dog world of international politics need a strong hand on the tiller of the ship of state. But realists also have a healthy appreciation for human frailty, and the tendency for those who possess great power to abuse it. Concentrating too much power in the executive is a good way to blunder into foolish wars, and it can even discourage the sort of open debate and discussion that (sometimes) helps democracies to avoid the fatal errors that authoritarian governments often make.
So have a little faith in our existing institutions, and stop trying to become more like the countries we normally oppose.
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Declaring that "the buck stops with me," President Obama announced a set of new directives in response to the foiled bombing of Northwest Flight 253 by the now-infamous "underpants bomber." The list of presidential orders is mostly unexceptionable, and may even make a repeat performance less likely. Of course, if al Qaeda is even remotely strategic, trying an exact repeat of this attempt would be silly. Instead, they'll study the new procedures, look for holes in them, and try some new variation. The good news is that air travel will still be incredibly safe, and no sensible person should alter their normal travel plans because they are worried about the "terrorist threat."
What's missing from Obama's list of new initiatives is any sense that U.S. foreign policy might need some rethinking too. There are several dimensions to the terrorism problem, only one of which are the various measures we take to "harden the target" here at home. Why? Because bombing airliners and other acts of terrorism are just tactics; they aren't al Qaeda's real raison d'être. Their goal, as veteran foreign affairs correspondent William Pfaff recently reminded us, is trying to topple various Arab governments that al Qaeda regards as corrupt and beholden to us and establish some unified Islamic caliphate. As Pfaff notes, this is a fanciful objective, but still one that can cause us a certain amount of trouble and grief. And if they can get us to act in ways that undermine those governments (even when we think we are trying to help them), then their objectives are advanced and ours are hindered.
So one key dimension of the problem is to not act in ways that inspire more people to want to undertake such actions, or at the very least to be aware that some of our policies might have that effect and that we should not continue them unless we are damn sure that the benefits outweigh the costs. And what's troubling is the extent to which the Obama administration appears to be continuing many of the same activities that have inspired anti-American extremism and undermined the governments that do seem to like us, without much consideration about the balance of costs and benefits that this may involve.
To continue with this gloomy theme: the underpants bomber ultimately failed, but al Qaeda did conduct a successful suicide bomb attack in Khost that killed eight people, including several of the CIA's top al Qaeda experts. The perpetrator of that attack was a Jordanian doctor, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who had been recruited by the CIA (via Jordanian intelligence) to infiltrate al Qaeda. After providing us with some useful information (as any double-agent must to gain credibility), he was allowed to meet with a large number of CIA analysts, leading to the fateful attack on December 30.
In terms of the actual effort to defeat al Qaeda, that event might even be more significant than the Flight 253 affair, because it suggests that some of our top analysts were out-thought by the very organization they were trying to penetrate and destroy. It has also shed new light on the close connections between the CIA and Jordanian intelligence, which is hardly something that King Abdullah's regime needs right now. So while it's important to learn why an obvious suspect got a visa and boarded a plane to the United States, it may be even more important to figure out how some of our best counter-terrorism operatives got gulled so successfully.
One more thing. I noted yesterday that al-Balawi's brother told reporters that the doctor had been radicalized by the Israeli assault on Gaza last year. Today, Newsweek released an interview with the double-agent's wife, which makes it clear that she shares his opposition to U.S. policy in the region but traces his changing views to an earlier event. According to Newsweek:
Al-Balawi 'started to change,' says his wife, after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. By 2004, she says, he began to talk to her about his strong belief in the need for violent jihad against Western occupiers of Muslim lands."
My point is not to rehash the whole debate over the invasion of Iraq (although to be honest, I don't think there's much debate to be had over the folly of that particular decision). My point is simply to reiterate that any serious effort to deal with our terrorism problem has to be multi-faceted, and has to include explicit consideration of the things we do that may encourage violent, anti-American movements. Only a complete head-in-the-sand approach to the issue would deny the connection between various aspects of U.S. foreign and military policy (military interventions, targeted assassinations, unconditional support for Israel, cozy relations with Arab dictatorships, etc.) and the fact that groups like al Qaeda keep finding people like al-Balawi to recruit to their cause.
By itself, that mere fact does not mean that U.S. foreign policy is wrong. As I said a few days ago, one could make a case that our policy is mostly right, and that these problems are just the price we have to pay for them. But instead of having a serious debate on this question, we mostly ignore the possibility that our own actions might be making the problem worse, or we accuse anyone who does raise it of trying to "blame America first."
President Obama's briefing yesterday wasn't the place for that discussion, but I'd like to think that somebody in his administration is still asking the question. Since that infamous (and increasingly inconsequential) Cairo speech, however, there's not much evidence of that.
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I spent some time over the holidays thinking about the underwear bomber, the hyperventilating that occurred after his botched attack, and the various inconveniences and costs we will incur as the authorities scramble to "do something." Add to that the likelihood that we will now get more heavily bogged down in Yemen, in another fruitless effort to remake a country that few, if any, Americans understand very well.
My first thought is to wonder whether Osama bin Laden and his buddies are really proud of Mr. Abdulmutullab. This latest attempt will cause the United States to spend a lot of time and money to make sure nobody sneaks another crude device through in their shorts, but does it really help al Qaeda's image to have their latest hero become famous for his underpants? Yes, I know that real lives were at risk, and I'm not making light of an attempt at mass murder. But in the battle for hearts and minds, having an enemy known as the "underwear bomber" is a pretty good propaganda coup. Score one for our side.
Second, most of the commentary about the attack focused on the breakdown in security procedures and possible intelligence failures, but for me the real issue is to ask why groups like al Qaeda want to attack us in the first place. With a few exceptions, this is a question that rarely gets much scrutiny anymore; pundits just assume "terrorists" are inherently evil and that’s why they do evil things. (And some American extremists recommend that suspects like the Gitmo detainees be summarily executed without trial. I kid you not). But we really do need to spend some time asking why terrorists are targeting us, and whether we could alleviate (though not eliminate) the problem by adjusting some aspects of U.S. foreign policy.
In particular, I'm struck by the inability of most Americans to connect the continued risk of global terrorism with America's highly interventionist global policy. One can have a serious debate about whether that policy is the right one or not; my point is that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can behave this way and remain immune from any adverse consequences. As a society, we seem to believe that we can send thousands of troops to invade other countries, send Reapers and Predators to fire missiles at people we think might -- repeat, might -- be terrorists, and underwrite the oppressive policies of a host of "friendly" governments, yet never pay any significant price for it back here at home. We are a nation of swaggering sheep: eager to impose our will on others yet terrified that doing so might inconvenience us, let alone put U.S. civilians in real danger.
I'm not for one minute justifying what groups like al Qaeda do; my point is that we shouldn't be surprised by it. When a very powerful country spends a lot of time interfering in other’s affairs, and sometimes backing obvious injustices like the Gaza War, then it ought to expect some people to be very angry about it. And because there’s no such thing as a perfect defense, sometimes those angry people will hit back. They won’t do as much to us as we’ve done to them because they’re a lot weaker, but occasionally they will draw blood.
Yet Americans still find this surprising, and demand more and more extreme measures to "protect" us. We are like a heavy smoker who gets upset when they get diagnosed with emphysema, or a glutton who thinks it is "unfair" when he winds up with diabetes and high blood pressure. Face it, folks: if you want to be the world's dominant power, and you want to spend a lot of time telling millions of people how they should live, who their leaders should be, what weapons they are allowed to have, and what sorts of political beliefs are considered "legitimate," etc., and to back that agenda up with a lot of military force, then some amount of blowback is the price of doing business.
Instead, Americans are shocked when someone like the underwear bomber appears, and politicians and "homeland security experts" immediately leap to the airwaves to dissect the latest Threat to Our Sacred Way of Life. Meanwhile, other "brave Americans" protest plans to move suspected terrorists from Gitmo to maximum security prisons, as if a set of incarcerated, heavily guarded, and disoriented prisoners pose a grave threat to their local communities. And just yesterday, the United States and several allies announced they were going to close their embassies in Yemen, citing the risk of terrorist attack. I can understand the desire to protect U.S. diplomats, but what does it say about our resolve, our staying power, and our recognition that world politics is a rough business and sometimes entails costs and risks?
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A quick follow-up to my previous post on the illusion of achieving perfect security against terrorist attack: Today's NY Times has an op-ed by Clark Kent Ervin, a former State Department official who know heads the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security program. Ervin makes a number of good points in his piece, but his wrap-up reveals a curious lack of understanding of the basic problem. He writes:
Perhaps the biggest lesson for airline security from the recent incident is that we must overcome our tendency to be reactive. We always seem to be at least one step behind the terrorists. They find one security gap -- carrying explosives onto a plane in their shoes, for instance -- and we close that one, and then wait for them to exploit another. Why not identify all the vulnerabilities and then address each one before terrorists strike again?"
Sorry, Mr. Ervin, but it is impossible to "identify all the vulnerabilities and address each one" beforehand. That is like asking a football coach to identify all the different ways the other team might try to score, and "address each one." The problem is that the other side can think and plan and innovate too, and develop creative new ways to deal with any security measure we might dream up. In any competitive, strategic interaction, there's rarely if ever a "last move" and one is sometimes forced to be reactive because the other side takes the initiative in ways we simply didn't think of. The best we can do is try to make it very hard for terrorists to attack us, which can both protect us directly and force them to take more elaborate measures that in turn makes it easier to find them beforehand.
But it is a little worrisome to read that a knowledgeable official with lots of experience still thinks it is possible to achieve some sort of perfect defense.
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So first we expanded our forces in Afghanistan. Then we took on the challenge of prison reform there (ignoring the fact that America's own prison system is a national disgrace). And yesterday we learned that U.S. armed forces are putting suspected Afghan drug dealers on a "kill or capture" list. In other words, we are now extending the "war on drugs" to Afghanistan, ignoring the fact that this "war" (first announced by Richard Nixon four decades ago) hasn't led to victory. The new strategy also ignores some of the obvious lessons of that "war," and places the United States on some pretty dubious moral ground.
A colleague with extensive experience in the field of criminal justice wrote me with the following comment yesterday:
If Obama thinks the Cambridge police 'acted stupidly' by arresting Skip Gates, I wonder what adverb he'd use to describe his own latest police strategy in the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. 'Gee, let’s kill the top drug dealers.' Sounds smart at first glance, but given how lucrative the drug trade is, what do you think will happen after few of the top leaders are bumped off? Answer: others will compete to take their places. Police in the United States are just beginning to admit that their own efforts to remove drug dealers from the street drug markets of the late 1980s may have been the cause of the spike in violence in America's cities in this same period. Why? Because the police operations threw drug markets into chaos, leading to a ruthless competition among those who would take the place of the dealers whom the police were eliminating. In short, this is a formula to escalate the cycle of violence in Afghanistan, not to end it. For anyone who's been awake and watching the many failed strategies in the US war on drugs at home, it just looks stupid.
And that doesn't even get to the legal/ethical questions here. The Obama administration now says they will put someone on the kill list if there are two credible sources plus corroborating information. Sounds to me like a reasonable standard for getting a search warrant, but not for an assassination. Gee, if that proves a legal and ethical standard, we might try it at home in the war on drugs. Sure is cheaper than those long prison sentences, and a far lower evidentiary standard.
And I love the claim by the architects of this policy: 'we just want them to choose legitimacy.' Do they just not see that they are forfeiting the very thing they claim they want? They don’t really give a damn about legitimacy -- defined as a morally defensible position -- they just want the drug dealers to choose our side. This is just like Bush: 'you’re either one of our drug dealers, or one of theirs.' And if you’re the latter, we’re going to kill you."
I would only add that we've had enough trouble waging the war on drugs here at home, where cops understand the local culture reasonably well and speak the relevant languages. Political rivals in Afghanistan are going to start ratting each other out to the Americans, and we aren't going to be very good at sorting out "credible sources" from accusations that spring from other motives. Just look at how many other intelligence errors we've made over the past decade; not because we're incompetent, mind you, but because accurate intelligence in a counterinsurgency war is very difficult to come by and errors are inevitable. But instead of the usual standard that one is "innocent until proven guilty," now simply being accused of being in the drug business is enough to get you killed.
And let's not forget that Afghan drug lords aren't socially isolated individuals: they are embedded in their own tribal and family networks. Killing them won't eliminate the drug problem, but it could easily anger their kinsmen and make efforts to pacify the country even more difficult. I hope my colleague and I are both wrong about this, but I fear this policy is another sign that we simply don’t know what we are doing there.
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I'm a bit puzzled by the flap over revelations that the Bush administration approved a secret CIA program to send assassination teams overseas to kill suspected al Qaeda leaders. I understand the concerns about the absence of Congressional oversight, but three aspects of the case strike me as odd.
First, although the Bush administration should be criticized for not informing Congress, this is one case where key officials seem to have realized that the proposed program wasn't really feasible and decided not to implement it. Because examples of competent national security decision-making by the Bush team were few and far-between, shouldn’t we give them a smidge of credit for NOT sending some unfortunate Jack Bauer on a foolish mission?
Second, for those who are outraged to learn that the United States was planning to assassinate suspected terrorists leader, please explain to me the difference between sending in an assassination team to kill a suspected al Qaeda member, and sending a Predator or Reaper drone into some remote area to do the same thing? The target is just as dead no matter what instrument is used, and as we have already seen on several occasions, the risk to innocent civilians and the danger of various forms of blowback is probably greater when the U.S. uses unmanned drones. Moreover, both responses are essentially extra-judicial executions: the potential targets are suspected of being "enemy combatants" but that hasn't been proven and U.S. intelligence has mis-identified a number of alleged "terrorists" in the past. And then ask yourself how Americans would react if some other country were doing the same thing on U.S. soil.
So if you're troubled by the idea that the United States was preparing to send hit squads into some foreign country, you ought to be equally troubled by our current policy of taking terrorist suspects out from the air. But I don’t get the impression that the latter program bothers very many people here in the United States, and certainly not the leadership in either party. As Senator Christopher Bond (R-MO) remarked following the recent revelations, "The Predator strikes have been successful, and I was pleased to see the Obama administration continue them ... This [covert assassination program] was another effort that was trying to accomplish the same objective."
Thucydides had it right: "the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must." The strong also try to convince everyone that they are also more virtuous, even when the evidence for the latter claim is dubious. And on that note, the Times today also has a piece on U.S. air tactics in Afghanistan that reads like a press release straight from CentCom HQ. It reports that the United States is now conducting a "kinder, gentler" air cover policy, in order to avoid civilian casualties. I hope that's true, but I also hope someone remembers this piece the next time we hit a village by mistake.
One last point: the fact that the CIA concluded that the assassination program was unworkable suggests that there is a very large gap between the image of covert action portrayed in American pop culture and the reality on the ground. If you watch 24, Mission Impossible, the various Bourne movies, or even lighter fare like Ocean's 11, they depict a world where smart and exceedingly well-trained experts, equipped with a lot of cool high-tech gadgetry, can perform extraordinary feats of derring-do in far-flung locations. They also portray a world where the U.S. government has enormous real-time surveillance capabilities, vast and swift analytical capacities, and a well-trained set of agents ready to send virtually anywhere to go after virtually anyone (even if someone like Jason Bourne keeps outwitting them).
If you watched enough of these movies, and didn’t have any other sources of information, it would be easy to believe all sorts of crazy ideas about black helicopters and other loony conspiracies. And it makes me wonder: do such productions lead viewers in the U.S. and abroad to exaggerate what the United States is actually capable of doing? If so, then Americans may expect too much from their national security apparatus, and foreign populations may be too inclined to blame events on nefarious American interference.
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I want to pay brief tribute to my colleague Ernest May, who passed away earlier this week after a brief illness. Others knew Ernie much better than I did, but he was a splendid colleague during my ten years here at Harvard: always insightful, original, utterly dependable, and a dedicated supplier of collective goods. It was a pleasure to be in his company, and to hear how contemporary events looked to his historian’s eye.
Although I didn’t meet Ernie until the early 1980s, his work shaped my own intellectual development from the very beginning. I read his book "Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Abuse of History in American Foreign Policy in one of the first IR courses I ever took, and its central message -- about the ways that historical interpretations shape (and more often, distort) policymaking -- has resonated with me ever since.
Together with Richard Neustadt, Ernie refined and expanded these arguments in the prize-winning Thinking In Time: The Uses of History for Decisionmakers. This book emerged from a classic course that Neustadt and May taught together for many years, and it is a “must-read” for anyone contemplating a career in public service. Among his many other books of international history, my favorite is Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France, a gripping account of the intelligence errors and other strategic blunders that allowed the blitzkrieg to succeed in 1940.
May was much more than a distinguished and exceptionally productive scholar. He was dean of Harvard College throughout the turbulent 1960s and subsequently served as director of the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. Nor was he merely an ivory tower academic; he served as a consultant to the U.S. government in various capacities and as an advisor to the 9/11 Commission. And I can testify to his dedication and skill on a tennis court: I don’t remember who won the one time we played, but I do know it was close and hard-fought (and I was twenty-five years younger!).
May wore his many accomplishments lightly, and never succumbed to the egomania that is an occupational hazard of academic life. I first learnt of his illness when it forced him to miss a dissertation defense; typically, he made sure to send the committee a detailed memo outlining his views on the thesis in question and offering suggestions for improving it. Perhaps the word that sums him up best is "gentleman." We could use more people like him in this business, and he’ll be hard -- nay, impossible -- to replace.
"Empathy" has been in the news lately, mostly in the context of President Obama's Supreme Court nominee. It's a quality that's often in short supply in the conduct of foreign policy, where leaders (and sometimes whole nations) often have a fixed view of certain events and find it hard to believe that anyone might legitimately see things differently. As Condi Rice commented when some European governments didn't support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, "I'll just put it very bluntly. We simply didn’t understand it."
One reason for this absence of empathy is the human tendency to filter current situations through the prism of the past. One of the more enduring findings in political psychology is that people place more weight on their own experiences than on the experiences of others, even when their own experiences are in fact atypical. According to Robert Jervis's classic Perception and Misperception in International Politics: "if people do not learn enough from what happens to others, they learn too much from what happens to themselves." The salience of first-hand experience in shaping subsequent beliefs is increased if the event happens early in one’s life or career, and if it has important consequences for the individual (or the nation). In other words, we overlearn from big and important events, especially when they happen to us early.
This tendency might explain why different generations tend to have very different views on how the world works. For Americans born and raised during the Cold War (i.e., like me) images of conflict are also accompanied by a certain sense of stability and order. The Cold War begins in the late 1940s, the United States forms a set of alliances to wage it, and then bipolar stability kicks in. There are crises and confrontations and even some peripheral wars in Korea, Indochina, the Middle East, and Afghanistan, but the central strategic balance doesn't change very much and the Soviet Union eventually expires rather quietly. The period 1950-1990 is a monument to the virtues of deterrence, containment, and multilateralism, and a timely warning about the dangers of getting involved in costly quagmires. It is perhaps no accident that people like me tend to see the world as a competitive but ultimately fairly stable and predictable place.
But what if you were born in the early 20th century, and came of age in the turbulent decades after World War I? You would have seen a world where a nation’s fortunes could shift in a matter of weeks or months, and sometimes with swift and terrible effect. You might have seen the Roaring Twenties, followed by the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. You would have seen a prostrate and disarmed Germany rearm itself in less than a decade, defeat France in a few weeks in 1940, and then conquer almost all of Europe and drive deep inside Russia, only to witness this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut be occupied and divided in half a mere three years later. You would also have seen Imperial Japan sweep across the Pacific, only to be occupied and disarmed by 1945. And having watched the Iron Curtain descend and seen Mao's triumph in China, you'd have a healthy respect for how quickly fortunes could shift and you’d be less inclined to take a complacent view of anything. Had I lived through the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, I might have been much more hawkish than I turned out to be.
The problem with this sort of generational interpretation is that it can’t account for differences between people who lived through the same events, although it might lead us to ask whether their own personal experiences with key events were different. But even there I suspect there's more to it than just personal experience.
But the real lesson is that the same "events" look very different to different people and to different countries. The U.S-backed contra war in Nicaragua killed some 35,000 Nicaraguans (about 1 percent of the population) but hardly any Americans; is it any wonder Nicaraguans remember it differently than Americans do? Similarly, 9/11 means one thing to U.S. citizens, but something different to Europeans, Central Asians, or people in different parts of the Middle East. The current war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is experienced differently by an Al Qaeda leader facing a Predator attack, by the CIA "pilot" operating the drone from a remote location, by a Pakistani or Afghan civilian who is attacked by mistake, by refugees now fleeing the fighting in the Swat Valley, and by the politicians in the United States, Afghanistan, or Pakistan who have to deal with the consequences. And not only do different individuals and different societies experience the same events in radically different ways, they then conduct their own discourse about these events (occasionally fertilized by ideas and commentary from outside) and eventually generate unique narratives about them.
Understanding how things look to others doesn't necessarily eliminate conflict -- especially when basic interests are fundamentally at odds -- but it makes us much less likely to misinterpret another's position and makes spirals of exaggerated or mistaken hostility less likely.
To take an obvious example, many Americans think of Iran as an aggressive, unpredictable country led by a set of aggressive, fanatically religious clerics. That tendency probably increases if you watch a lot of FOX News or listen to talk radio. From this perspective, Iran's nuclear program and its support for extremist groups like Hamas or Hezbollah is evidence of aggressive ambitions, perhaps of the very worst sort.
But ask yourself how this situation might look to an ordinary Iranian, or even to a member of its ruling elite. To many Iranians, their interest in nuclear technology (and possibly nuclear weapons) is entirely rational and essentially defensive: they have two nuclear neighbors (India and Pakistan), a third nuclear weapons state nearby (Israel), and the world’s most powerful country (the United States) has troops on either side of Iran and has been seeking to overthrow the Iranian government for a number of years now. Plus, various American politicians keep saying that "all options ought to be on the table," and Obama's special envoy to Iran, Dennis Ross, participated in a study group last year that advocated a hardline approach. It doesn't take a lot of imagination or empathy to figure out why Iran might want a nuclear deterrent: wouldn’t we want the same thing if we were in their position? Similarly, supporting radicals elsewhere in the Middle East keeps the U.S. off-balance and complicates efforts to unite various Arab states against Iran itself. A bit of empathy won't resolve these issues, of course, but it might help us reject the fervent threat-mongering that drove us to launch a foolish war in Iraq and has led others to favor a similar approach to Iran.
So can we train ourselves to “see things as others do?” Here the internet and the blogosphere are potentially transformative tools: you don't have to rely on the New York Times or the Washington Post or your own local newspaper (even if your "local paper" is Le Monde, Die Zeit, or the Daily Star). I can sit here in my office and read the English edition of Ha’aretz, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and the online edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun. Or I can read the Guardian, Asia Times, or the Jerusalem Post, and then go to the online Reuters.com and BBC News websites too. (And don’t forget http://foreignpolicy.com, of course). Americans would be well served to spend part of each week perusing WatchingAmerica.com, a website that collects and translates media reports from around the world and a variety of political perspectives. When you travel, don’t just watch CNN -- check out the BBC or Al Jazeera, too. Spend some time reading knowledgeable non-Americans like Ahmed Rashid, C. Raja Mohan, Kishore Mahbbubani, or Therese Delpeche. Don't rely just on reports from inside-the-Beltway think tanks in the United States; take a look at the websites of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the International Crisis Group, or the growing number of think tanks in the developing world.
To repeat: developing a greater capacity for empathy won't eliminate conflicts of interest between states, and won't always make it possible to resolve the differences that will inevitably arise. But an inability to understand an adversary's perspective (or an ally's, for that matter) is a crippling liability, and there's less excuse for it in our increasingly interconnected age.
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I didn't agree with all of President Obama's speech yesterday (notably his rejection of a investigatory commission and his endorsement of open-ended "preventive detention"), but what a relief it is to watch an American president appeal to our sense of reason instead of our sense of fear.
The best thing one can say about Cheney's performance is that it was given by an ex-Vice President. Others have dissected the various lies and distortions that filled his speech (what did one expect?), I would only add that there is a track record here. 9/11 occurred on Cheney’s watch, and he helped lead us into two losing wars, at a cost of thousands of dead Americans, tens of thousands wounded, and over a trillion dollars spent, mostly in ways that have improved the strategic position of, oops, ... Iran. Plus, he gets partial credit for an unprecedented decline in America's global image and the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. At this point, taking Cheney's recommendations on any issue of public policy is like getting investment help from Bernie Madoff, marital counseling from Donald Trump, or advice on economic development from Robert Mugabe.
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I haven't said anything about President Obama's decision not to release additional photos of detainee abuse, and the related stories suggesting that the Bush administration tortured detainees in large part to find some link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that would justify invading Iraq. But I agree with those who believe the Obama administration can't put this behind us by "walking forward," or trying to sweep it under the rug. And if Jack Goldsmith is correct to say that Obama is keeping most of the elements of the Bush "war on terror" in place, then the president may be inviting more trouble than just the disappointment of MoveOn.org.
First, as I suggested in another context last week, the only way that a country can regain its reputation in the aftermath of serious misconduct is to stop the wrongdoing, express regret for it, and not do it again. Americans have wondered "why do they hate us?" ever since 9/11, and there is abundant survey and anecdotal evidence confirming that anti-Americanism is mostly a reaction to U.S. policies and not a rejection of American values, culture, or identity. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, for example, "antipathy toward the United States is shaped more by what it does in the international arena than by what it stands for politically and economically." Similarly, the State Department's Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy found that "Arabs and Muslims...support our values but believe our policies do not live up to them." And they wrote that before we knew about Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, or the full extent of the torture regime.
It follows that we aren't going to fuel more anti-Americanism by fully acknowledging and coming to terms with past abuses, because most people already understand what happened under Bush and Cheney. We are talking here about filling in details and holding people accountable. What Obama needs to do is draw a sharp break from these practices, to signal to the world that what happened under his predecessors was an aberration and not "business as usual." The more features of the Bush order that he retains, the more incidents he tries to cover up, and the more people he insulates from exposure or prosecution, the harder it will be to characterize the recent past as a shameful episode that is unrepresentative of America’s true character. Other countries will doubt things have really changed, and with good reason.
Second, although I'm even more skeptical of "blue-ribbon" commissions than Frank Rich, I've come to believe that a credible commission offers the best way forward at this point. But let's not just populate it with a bipartisan group of the usual Washington insiders and toothless politicos. There's enough evidence to suggest that some powerful Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knew what was going on and said nothing, which means that both parties are to some degree implicated in this scandal. Inside-the-beltway careerists are part of a political culture where mutual back-scratching and excuse-making are well-established norms, and thus a commission dominated by the usual familiar faces is unlikely to produce a serious report and won't have sufficient credibility at home or abroad. The 9/11 Commission or the 2004 Schlesinger Report on DoD detention procedures (undertaken in response to Abu Ghraib) are cases in point: although both panels produced some useful information and identified certain errors, each pulled a lot of punches too.
One need only recall the contribution that iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman made to the presidential commission on the space shuttle Challenger disaster to recognize the value of appointing smart people who are willing to challenge powerful institutions, incumbent leaders, and orthodox thinking. So instead of an investigative commission dominated by well-known Washington insiders, I'd like to see one whose ranks include a substantial number of well-qualified critics and independent thinkers. Along with the usual (yawn) suspects, how about including Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, blogger Glenn Greenwald, conservative law professor Richard Epstein, Congressman (and former presidential candidate) Ron Paul, or former MacArthur Foundation president Adelle Simmons?
Last point: we also need to reflect on the connection between U.S. grand strategy and these sorry episodes. It is tempting to blame this whole problem on the misguided machinations of Bush, Cheney, and their minions, who took advantage of the post-9/11 climate of fear to implement a torture regime, but that convenient explanation is a bit too simple. In fact, this sort of abuse is likely to be repeated as long as the United States maintains a highly interventionist foreign and military policy. If the United States continues to send military forces and lethal armed drones to attack people in far-flung lands, some of the people we kill will be innocent civilians -- thereby fomenting greater hatred of the United States -- and the people we are going after will try to hit us back. Our enemies will use our actions to recruit sympathizers -- just as Osama bin Laden did -- and every time some terrorist group gets lucky and get through, the U.S. government will be tempted to adopt even harsher measures to try to stop the next attack. Not only does this cycle threaten civil liberties here at home, but it tends to embroil us in social engineering projects in societies that we do not understand (see under: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, etc.). We can also be confident that other potential rivals are secretly thrilled to see us squandering lots of blood and treasure on lengthy occupations and open-ended counterinsurgency operations.
Unfortunately, history also shows that prolonged occupations and counterinsurgencies always lead to significant abuses. It is the nature of the beast. This is what happened to Britain in the Boer War, Belgium in its central African empire, France in Indochina and Algeria, Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya, Israel in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank, and the United States in Iraq. The United States may not be as heavy-handed as some earlier imperial powers, although our treatment of native Americans was horrible and our handling of Japanese-Americans in World War II is a dark stain on our past. The key point is that the idea of a purely benevolent "empire" is a contradiction in terms and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can run one.
Bottom line: if you don't like Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, waterboarding, etc., the best way to make the problem go away for good is to get out of the business of occupying and trying to govern other countries.
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FP colleague Laura Rozen has a nice rundown of the latest tea-leaf reading on the Harman affair. Needless to say, there's plenty we still don’t know about the whole business, and I'm not confident that the just-announced House Select Committee on Intelligence investigation will uncover anything juicy. But here are the two things I'd most like to know:
1. After saying she'd "waddle in" to the AIPAC trial business, did Harman actually do anything? She says no, but that's what you'd expect at this point. Nonetheless, it is entirely possible that she had second thoughts after the conversation and proceeded to do exactly nothing to help Rosen and Weissman. Let's see if the other shoe drops on this one.
2. Who is Mr. X (the person on the other end of the line)? The object of the wiretap was presumably under investigation for being in cahoots with Israeli intelligence (i.e., they've been described in news stories as a "suspected Israeli agent," but Marc Ambinder also reported that the person in question was a U.S. citizen. So who was it? Inquiring minds want to know.
With all due respect to Andrew Sullivan (whose talents as a blogger I envy), the Harman incident doesn’t need much comment from me.
For those of you coming in late: Jeff Stein at Congressional Quarterly has a bombshell story that the NSA monitored a 2005 conversation between Rep. Jane Harman and a suspected "Israeli agent," in which Harmon allegedly said she would "waddle in" to the ongoing AIPAC espionage case to get the charges reduced in exchange for AIPAC's help in helping her retain her influential position on the Intel Commmittee. Stein also reports that Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez later quashed a DOJ investigation into this incident in order to secure Harman's support for the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program.
If true, this incident is another vivid reminder of the problems created by the "special relationship," to include the web of connections between pro-Israel lobbyists, politicians who are beholden to them, and (allegedly) Israeli intelligence. One might say the similar things about the illegal payments that American businessman Morris Talansky allegedly made to former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert: It just ain’t healthy when influential people start engaging in a lot of backroom deals and under-the-table interference in another country’s domestic politics, and when the political clout of these individuals (or groups) makes politicians reluctant to speak honestly about it.
As you’d expect, some of Israel's defenders are already arguing that there’s nothing to the story, but I’m not buying that spin (or Harman’s own denials) until we know more. Certainly the story has a lot of prima facie plausibility, given that we know that: 1) Harman wanted to keep her spot on the Intel committee; 2) Alberto Gonzalez was ethically challenged; 3) Harman did back the warrantless surveillance program; 4) groups like AIPAC have a lot of clout and could easily intervene on Harman’s behalf; and 5) politicians are in the business of doing favors for powerful interest groups. So it's easy to imagine Harman telling the alleged "Israeli agent" (who may have been an American) that she'd make a call and see what she could do, without actually promising results. But we don't know for sure what Harmon actually said, or if she subsequently did anything, or if Gonzalez did in fact quash the investigation for the reasons Stein suggests.
Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz have a good rundown of the different angles over at Mondoweiss, but I want more facts. What did Harmon actually say, and did she in fact “waddle in” to the AIPAC espionage affair? In a perfect world, where government agencies were genuinely accountable, we’d get a full transcript of the phone call -- including the identity of the person with whom Harmon was speaking -- but don’t expect the NSA to cough that up anytime soon, especially if it was part of a potential criminal investigation.
Stein deserves full points for bringing the story to light; let’s see if the rest of the media can do its job and fill in the details. And oh yes, let’s also see if the Obama administration’s commitment to “transparency” in government includes influential Democrats in Congress.
P.S.: Whatever the ramifications of this story for U.S.-Israeli relations, the revelation that the NSA was monitoring phone calls by a member of the Permanent Committee on Intelligence -- even if she was not in fact the object of the investigation -- gives me the willies. But as Glenn Greenwald notes, given that Harmon was a prominent defender of warrantless surveillance, there’s a certain amount of poetic justice in the entire sorry episode.
Freeman has worked with more than 100 foreign governments in East and South Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and both Western and Eastern Europe. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d'Affaires in Bangkok and Beijing, Director of Chinese Affairs at U.S. State Department, and Distinguished Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the Institute of National Security Studies."
What unites this narrow band of critics is only one thing: Freeman has dared to utter some rather mild public criticisms of Israeli policy. That's the litmus test that Chait, Goldberg, Goldfarb, Peretz, Schoenfeld et al want to apply to all public servants: thou shalt not criticize Israeli policy nor question America's "special relationship" with Israel. Never mind that this policy of unconditional support has been bad for the United States and unintentionally harmful to Israel as well. If these pundits and lobbyists had their way, anyone who pointed that fact out would be automatically disqualified from public service.
There are three reasons why the response to Freeman has been so vociferous. First, these critics undoubtedly hoped they could raise a sufficient stink that Obama and his director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, might reconsider the appointment. Or perhaps Freeman might even decide to withdraw his name, because he couldn't take the heat. Second, even if it was too late to stop Freeman from getting the job, they want to make Obama pay a price for his choice, so that he will think twice about appointing anyone else who might be willing to criticize Israeli policy or the special relationship.
Third, and perhaps most important, attacking Freeman is intended to deter other people in the foreign policy community from speaking out on these matters. Freeman might be too smart, too senior, and too well-qualified to stop, but there are plenty of younger people eager to rise in the foreign policy establishment and they need to be reminded that their careers could be jeopardized be if they followed in Freeman’s footsteps and said what they thought. Raising a stink about Freeman reminds others that it pays to back Israel to the hilt, or at least remain silent, even when it is pursuing policies -- like building settlements on the West Bank -- that are not in America's national interest.
If the issue didn’t have such harmful consequences for the United States, the ironies of this situation would be funny. A group of amateur strategists who loudly supported the invasion of Iraq are now questioning the strategic judgment of a man who knew that war would be a catastrophic blunder. A long-time lobbyist for Israel who is now under indictment for espionage is trying to convince us that Freeman -- a true patriot -- is a bad appointment for an intelligence position. A journalist (Jeffrey Goldberg) whose idea of "public service" was to enlist in the Israeli army is challenging the credentials of a man who devoted decades of his life to service in the U.S. government. Now that's chutzpah.
Fortunately, the screeching of Freeman's critics has not worked; Freeman will be the head of the National Intelligence Council. In fact, this heavy-handed behavior, with its McCarthy-like overtones, may even backfire, by showing just how obsessesed his critics are with their own narrow-minded vision of U.S. Middle East policy, a vision they expect all other Americans to share. I would not be surprised if President Obama and other key figures in his administration are angry about these malicious smears, and wisely decide to pay even less attention to these individuals in the future. And rest assured that the smearing will not end.
It's also encouraging that some key members of the pro-Israel community, like M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum, have come to Freeman’s defense, and influential bloggers like Robert Dreyfuss, Philip Weiss, Richard Silverstein and Matthew Yglesias have also defended Freeman and pointed out what is going on. The Likudnik wing of the Israel lobby is gradually losing influence, because more and more people understand that its policies are disastrous for both Israel and the United States, and because its repeated efforts to smear people and stifle debate are deeply damaging as well as un-American.
President Bush defended his presidency yesterday by noting that "America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
Depending on your definition of "terrorism," this claim is about as accurate as his claims about Iraqi WMD. See here or here. And it's worth remembering that the only major foreign terrorist attack on American soil in our history occurred on Bush's watch, and anti-American terrorist groups have conducted major attacks in Jordan, Indonesia, Spain, and a number of other countries since 9/11. I think the Bush administration did some smart things after 9/11 (such as ousting al Qaeda from its safe haven in Afghanistan) and I'm glad that we haven't suffered another attack, but the fact there hasn't been any large-scale foreign terrorist attack on American soil is an insufficient criterion for judging the "war on terror," not to mention an entire presidency.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.