July 30, 2013

The Obama Administration Encircles China


President Obama's "pivot" to Asia has been overshadowed by events in the Middle East, but as John Reed reports, that hasn't stopped the administration from implementing a policy of military encirclement around China:

The United States Air Force will dramatically expand its military presence across the Pacific this year, sending jets to Thailand, India, Singapore, and Australia, according to the service's top general in the region.

For a major chunk of America's military community, the so-called "pivot to Asia" might seem like nothing more than an empty catchphrase, especially with the Middle East once again in flames. But for the Air Force at least, the shift is very real. And the idea behind its pivot is simple: ring China with U.S. and allied forces, just like the West did to the Soviet Union, back in the Cold War.

What kind of reaction will this encirclement provoke in China?

One way to answer this is to flip the question: If China began using bases in Central America to station offensive air power, would the U.S. sit idly by?

The administration seems to be banking on a deterrent effect -- that the Chinese will see the constellation of forces arrayed against them and relent on some of their territorial claims and acquiesce, however begrudgingly, to American military dominance in their backyard. This is a high-risk roll of the dice, to say the least.

(AP Photo)

June 5, 2013

No U.S. Interest in a Syrian Intervention


According to the latest Gallup polling, most Americans want no part of the war in Syria:

Sixty-eight percent of Americans say the United States should not use military action in Syria to attempt to end the civil war there if diplomatic and economic efforts fail, while 24% would favor U.S. military involvement.

American's are also skeptical that diplomatic and economic means will end the fighting -- only 27 percent think that's likely.

For now, it appears the Obama administration is hewing closer to the public on this. Then again, polling conducted before the Libyan intervention showed a preference to stay out, and we all know how that ended.

(AP Photo)

May 22, 2013

The Containment of Iran Is Playing Out as Predicted


In a piece published in September, 2009 I highlighted one of the dangers of Washington's obsession with "containing" Iran:

The principle danger in any containment scheme is that the U.S. will set in motion forces it does not understand and cannot control. The most relevant example, of course, is American support for the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s. What began as an effort to covertly bloody the Soviet Union, gradually, and unintentionally, spawned a transnational terrorist movement that eventually struck the U.S. homeland on September 11, 2001. Many of the same Afghan militants who proved useful to the U.S. in the 1980s have now turned their guns on America...

Indeed, the rise of al Qaeda points to the singular danger of any Iranian containment regime: it could stir up a Sunni jihadist whirlwind. The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, would not only need arms to keep Iran in check militarily, but would step up an ideological campaign to undermine the legitimacy of its Shiite theocracy in the eyes of the Muslim world. This ideological conflict would put the U.S. in the absurd position of supporting the same theological forces which have propelled al Qaeda terrorism.

This is precisely what has happened in Syria, especially as Iran and Hezbollah have thrown in their lot with Assad. Here, for instance, is the advice of Max Boot:

In this regard it would help enormously if Hezbollah were not successful in its efforts to keep the Assad regime in power. A failed intervention in Syria would do tremendous damage to its standing in Lebanon, while a successful intervention would allow it to maintain its grip on power by safeguarding the arms pipeline flowing from Tehran via Damascus.

That makes it all the more imperative that the U.S. do more to ensure that Hezbollah loses in Syria–not only by providing arms to vetted rebel factions but also by employing our airpower to ground Assad’s air force and thus removing a crucial regime advantage. Time is slipping away as Assad recovers on the battlefield.

The upshot of this advice is to make Syria safe for al-Qaeda by purging it of Hezbollah. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

(AP Photo)

March 26, 2013

China's Hackers Get Help from Leading Chinese University


The cyber Cold War between the U.S. and China moved from the murky confines of cyberspace into the real world after the security firm Mandiant published a report that directly implicated China's military in a host of cyber mischief.

Now the AFP is reporting that China's military had some help from researchers at Shanghai Jiatong University, one of China's top universities. It appears university researchers teamed with members of China's hacking unit to explore ways to break into computer systems and detect against outside intrusions.

For its part, the U.S. has been beefing up its own cyber capabilities. The Pentagon is expanding its cyber-security force five-fold and the Department of Homeland Security is now trying to lure high school-age hackers to consider plying their trade for Uncle Sam.

(AP Photo)

March 14, 2013

The Future of Global Military Spending Trends in One Chart


That's via the International Institute of Strategic Studies, which has released its comprehensive report on global military trends.

A teaser:

While the Middle East region is clearly in a state of flux, all around it the global redistribution of military power is continuing. Reflecting the subdued global economic climate, total defence spending actually fell in real terms in 2012 for a second year running. However, real increases were seen in the Middle East and North Africa, Russia and Eurasia, Latin America and in Asia, while real declines were seen in North America and Europe. As we predicted this time last year, 2012 saw nominal Asian defence spending overtake that of NATO European states for the first time.

March 5, 2013

Americans Are Ignorant About Their Military Might


America has not faced a military equal for decades now. The U.S. routinely outspends all of its potential rivals combined and while it doesn't boast the largest nuclear arsenal in the world in numeric terms, it's generally considered qualitatively superior to Russia's nuclear stockpile.

Yet a surprisingly large number of Americans don't seem to grasp their country's military superiority.

According to Gallup, fully 47 percent of Americans think that the U.S. is merely one of several leading military powers. The 50 percent who answered correctly that the U.S. is the leading military power represents an all-time low for the figure:


Daniel Larison takes a stab at explaining why so many people don't understand America's relative military standing:

When the U.S. fights major foreign wars, the well-publicized exercise of U.S. military power–no matter how unnecessary or self-defeating–drives the public perception that the “U.S. is number one” up and drives the other result down. When the U.S. concludes these wars or is perceived to be in the process of bringing them to a conclusion, we seem to see the reverse. A related explanation is that concluding wars, withdrawing forces from other countries, and considering the possibility of reduced military spending provoke hawkish warnings of American “decline.” That leads to a different sort of alarmism about the dangers to the world that could result from this so-called “decline.”

Robert Golan-Vilella adds more:

One reason is the habitual tendency of U.S. policy makers to exaggerate threats and dangers around the world, as Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen chronicled in their Foreign Affairs essay “Clear and Present Safety” last year. With leaders constantly stressing how dangerous and threatening the world is, it’s no wonder that the U.S. public believes a number of mistaken things about global affairs—and that many of them involve either overstating threats or understating Washington’s own power. For example, a 2010 CNN poll found that 71 percent of Americans believe that Iran currently has nuclear weapons. A separate CNN poll in 2012 indicated that Americans believe that the threat from Iran is on par with the danger presented by the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. These latest results from Gallup appear to be part of the same story.

(AP Photo)

February 26, 2013

Why America's Military Will Shrink


Voters want it to:

As the clock ticks down on any possibility of averting the sequester’s across-the-board spending cuts, a solid 58 percent of respondents in The Hill Poll prioritized cutting America’s debt over maintaining current spending levels on domestic and military programs. This figure is almost double the share of voters, 28 percent, who believed the opposite....

Forty-nine percent of respondents said they would support cutting military spending, while just 23 percent said they would support slashing Social Security and Medicare. An overwhelming majority, 69 percent, said they would oppose cuts to social programs.

The Army, for one, is preparing for a leaner future. According to Sydney Freedberg, the service is looking to slim down below 32 combat brigades and 490,00 personnel.

(AP Photo)

February 22, 2013

U.S. Defense Cuts Will Hit Israel, Too


As the U.S. Congress wrangles over spending, many in Israel's defense establishment are beginning to tally up the potential costs if the sequester goes through:

The pending US budget sequester on March 1, 2013, is liable to reduce military aid to Israel by over $700 million in the 2013 fiscal year, pro-Israeli sources in Washington told "Globes". The cut includes a $250 million reduction in current aid, which is due to total $3.15 billion, and the possible loss of all financial aid for joint US-Israeli missile defense programs, amounting to $479 million, for a total of $729 million in reduced aid. In the best case, if the aid for anti-missile programs is only reduced, rather than eliminated, Israel will lose $300 million in aid.

(AP Photo)

February 20, 2013

Why a Nuclear Iran Won't Trigger a Regional Arms Race


Perhaps the biggest potential danger of a nuclear-armed Iran is the prospect of other states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, seek their own weapons. Even those prone to avoid hysterical fear-mongering over Iran, like Henry Kissinger, worry about the potential for a rash of proliferation following Iran's nuclear breakout.

The Center for a New American Security is out with a report this week (PDF) arguing that if Iran does manage to build a nuclear weapon, it won't catalyze a wave of nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East. The report centers specifically on Saudi Arabia, arguing that the conventional wisdom surrounding the country's incentives to seek nukes is "probably wrong," as "significant disincentives would weigh against a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons."

The report's authors argue that there are considerable technological, legal and political hurdles that stand between Saudi Arabia and a bomb. Instead, Riyadh would run to Washington for help deterring Iran, relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and additional assurances (such as the basing of additional "trip wire" forces in the region) instead.

The authors also pour cold water over the idea that Pakistan would simply sell nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia, writing that Pakistan views its nuclear arsenal solely through the lens of deterring India. Pan-Islamic solidarity isn't a big enough motivator to run the risks involved in selling those weapons to another state, they write. There is some small possibility that Pakistan would extend a "nuclear umbrella" to Saudi Arabia, but even that prospect was deemed highly unlikely by CNAS given the costs and difficulties it would entail.

Earlier this week, Peter Jones, a professor at the University of Ottawa and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, made a similar argument, claiming that expectations of rapid nuclear proliferation in the Middle East are belied by the actual history of how states behave in the nuclear age. Granted, the nuclear age isn't all that long and taking an overly deterministic view of how the Middle East would react could be equally blinkered. But it's still worth noting that most of the potential candidates for acquiring a nuclear weapon are either close U.S. allies (Jordan, Saudi Arabia) or too dysfunctional (Egypt) to manage it.

Yet, as the CNAS authors make clear, the policy most likely to avert nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is the extension of U.S. security guarantees and the positioning of more forward-deployed military assets. That's also problematic, given how such deployments provoke anti-Americanism, waste American tax dollars and draw Washington's strategic focus from Asia. Maybe some clever strategist could devise a way to make this China's problem, given the fact that they are far more reliant on Middle Eastern oil than the U.S. is.

(AP Photo)

February 19, 2013

Why Hagel Is Generating Such Sound and Fury


Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan make the case that one reason Hagel's nomination has become such a hot potato is because he symbolizes the Obama administration's pivot away from the Middle East. Here's how Marshall puts it:

Let’s start with what we might incompletely call the Bush/neoconservative approach. It is a belligerent unilateralism, a vision based on an abundantly powerful and yet deeply endangered America, and — very significantly — one that sees almost all the big issues and future security of the country emanating out of the zone of conflict stretching from North Africa into Pakistan. In other words, it’s about oil, Islam, the Middle East and Israel.

The people around Obama have a different take on goals, threats and tactics. It’s not just that we can’t continue — either in security or fiscal terms — with open-ended occupations of Middle Eastern countries or hapless efforts to ‘transform the region’. It’s that the Middle East is fundamentally more yesterday’s news than tomorrow’s and that we need to be in the business of making it more yesterday rather than less.

There are multiple lines of attack against Hagel, so I don't know if there's really one meta answer for why his nomination has generated such controversy. Still, Marshall makes an interesting point.

(AP Photo)

February 18, 2013

Global Arms Firms See Sales Decline


The global arms industry saw its dollar sales decline in 2011, down five percent from 2010, according to new data from the Stockholm Institute (China is excluded from Stockholm's research due to a lack of available data). It's the first such drop since 1994.

The Institute has created a "top 100" in the global arms and military services industry. Of those, there are 44 American firms responsible for 60 percent of total arms sales. There are 30 Western European companies which account for 29 percent of all sales.

In total, the top 100 firms generated $410 billion in sales in 2011.

So why did arms sales dip? Stockholm cited the impact of austerity budgets in Europe and the draw downs in both Iraq and Afghanistan as driving factors.

The world is not engaging in a rush of disarmament, however. Since 2002, Stockholm notes that arms sales by its top 100 firms grew 51 percent. A five percent year-over-year declines seems rather modest in comparison.

(AP Photo)

Five Things Americans Fear the Most


What do Americans fear most? When it comes to America's international security interests, the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are deemed most threatening, according to a new survey from Gallup. Americans were giving a list of nine developments and asked to rank them from more to less critical. Here are the top five threats Americans say are most critical:

1. The nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea (tied for first)
2. International terrorism
3. Islamic fundamentalism
4. The economic power of China
5. The military power of China

The poll was conducted before North Korea's most recent nuclear test.

Other issues that had previously ranked higher -- such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tensions between India-Pakistan -- have declined.

Here's a look at the full list of Gallup's results:


(AP Photo)

February 15, 2013

Are U.S. Bases in Saudi Arabia No Longer Inflammatory?


Last week, both the New York Times and Washington Post revealed the existence of a secret U.S. drone base operating inside Saudi Arabia. The news raised eyebrows because it was the existence of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s that figured so prominently in Osama bin Laden's jihad against the United States. That the Obama administration would blithely drop another U.S. base into the country without regard for the potentially negative symbolism could, as Tom Engelhardt argues, be a sign of sheer stupidity. Max Fischer, however, isn't so sure, noting that since the revelation, reaction has been rather tame:

It is difficult to draw many conclusions from this one incident, but it does suggest several interesting possibilities. Perhaps, for example, there is something categorically different, for Saudi citizens, between a large number of U.S. troops and a relatively small drone base, which makes the latter less significantly offensive than the former. Maybe there have been so many hints and suggestions of such a base that people had time to get used to the idea.

Or maybe something about Saudi Arabia has changed during the past 20 years, such that what might have once caused wide public outrage no longer does. It is still an austere, deeply conservative and politically oppressive country, but it has not been totally immune from the Middle East’s two turbulent and ideologically charged decades.

It's obviously too soon to draw a firm conclusion, but it points to the underlying and probably unanswerable issue with the drone war: is it radicalizing more people than it is killing? Everything we know about the Obama administration's counter-terrorism policy suggests that they prioritize taking immediate action at the risk of long-term damage vs. enduring heightened risk in the short-term with the promise (hope) of mitigating the danger of jihadism over the long term.

It's hard to blame them for this approach -- there is no incentive for politicians to take the long view on this (or any) issue. Only time will tell if it was the right approach.

(Satellite photos of possible U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia, via Wired)

February 13, 2013

How Will Obama's Nuclear Cuts Play in Asia?

During his State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to further cut America's nuclear arsenal. The exact figure wasn't specified, but it's been reported that the goal is to reduce the force from the current 1,700 "deployed weapons" down to 1,000, provided some kind of deal can be reached with Russia.

While China's nuclear arsenal is tiny in comparison, it has been undergoing a process of modernization and C. Raja Mohan argues that China will continue to stand aloft from any disarmament talks for the time being:

This approach leaves Beijing much leeway in responding to Obama's latest nuclear initiative. It allows Beijing to hold the high diplomatic ground on supporting the long-term goal of global zero, promising to join multilateral talks on nuclear reductions when it is convenient, and leaving room for its nuclear weapon modernisation in the interim.

Mohan argues that while most of America's close allies in Asia may be worried that America's "extended deterrence" would be weaker with a smaller arsenal, one major player is likely to be heartened by Obama's reductions:

In contrast to some in East Asia, India has every reason to welcome Obama's plans to negotiate deeper nuclear cuts with Russia. Like China, India has seen deep cuts in the US and Russian arsenals as an important first step on the road towards nuclear disarmament.

February 5, 2013

Future U.S. Bases in Asia Will Be at Sea


As the U.S. turns its strategic eye toward the Pacific, it's facing a new set of defense challenges. One of the major ones, according to Marine Lt. General Terry Robling in an interview with AOL Defense, is sustaining a "persistent presence" despite the massive distances involved yet without the traditional land bases that could alienate key allies:

Many of our partners in the region do not want us to be the Uncle that visited and never returned home. They want us engaged and present but not permanently based in their countries. This means that seabasing and its augmentation is a fundamental requirement.

Another way the U.S. will resolve this potential tension is to simply not call bases "bases," as C. Raja Mohan explains:

Washington is fully aware that full fledged military bases of the traditional kind generate intense political opposition in host countries and is not worth the unending political headache.

The strategy, instead, is to seek ‘places’ through which the US could move its forces on a regular basis, preposition some equipment, and have pre-negotiated arrangements for relief and resupply.

The US is not the only one looking for such ‘places’ to sustain its forward military presence around the world. China, whose economic and political interests in the Indian Ocean are growing, is said to be considering similar arrangements.

Other major powers like Russia, France and Japan have established such facilities in the Indian Ocean littoral.

Elsewhere in the AOL piece, author Robin Laird inadvertently highlights one of the fundamental tensions with U.S. strategy in the Pacific. First, Laird identifies that strategy as "constraining Chinese engagement in the Pacific." Naturally, the Chinese aren't going to appreciate this, so then there's the threat:

We need a strategy to prevail against what the Chinese are doing and likely to do. And the we need to be much clearer about the threat: it is about missiles, their evolution, and the need to combine defense with offense in dealing with these evolving missile threats.

One of the reasons China is working on missile technology is to prevent America's ability to "constrain their engagement" in the Pacific. There's no simple way to work around this tension, which is one reason most realists remain convinced that the security competition between China and the U.S. will only grow more intense with time.

(AP Photo)

January 31, 2013

Why Is the U.S. "Leading from Behind?"


Victor Davis Hanson offers up every possible explanation but the right one:

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Democratic and Republican administrations ensured the free commerce, travel, and communications essential for the globalization boom.

Such peacekeeping assumed that there would always pop up a Manuel Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden who would threaten the regional or international order. In response, the United States — often clumsily, with mixed results, and to international criticism — would either contain or eliminate the threat. Names changed, but evil remained — and as a result of U.S. vigilance the world largely prospered.

This bipartisan activist policy is coming to a close with the new “lead from behind” policy of the Obama administration. Perhaps America now believes that the United Nations has a better record of preventing or stopping wars — or that the history of the United States suggests we have more often caused rather than solved problems, or that with pressing social needs at home we can no longer afford an activist profile abroad at a time of near financial insolvency.

How about a more plausible explanation: that the U.S. is slowly coming around to the idea that it has to set priorities about when and where it intervenes and that regional powers are more than capable of handling these policing duties? (And, to the extent they're not, it's because life under the U.S. defense umbrella has hollowed out their military capacity -- a dynamic that can only be reversed if it's clear the U.S. taxpayer won't be continually on the hook for their defense.)

And isn't it ironic that at a time of "near fiscal insolvency" the supposedly "conservative" position is to retain an "activist profile abroad" at all costs? Slash big government at home to sustain big government abroad. No cognitive dissonance there!

(AP Photo)

January 28, 2013

How the U.S. Navy Will Look After Spending Cuts (According to the U.S. Navy)


The U.S. Navy has laid out in detail the consequences of looming defense cuts and, as you'd expect from any government agency with its budget on the chopping block, the impact is portrayed in stark terms:

A drastic cutback in the number of strike group deployments. Aircraft flying hours in the Middle East cut by more than half. Naval operations stopped around Latin America and reduced in the Pacific. Four of the fleet’s nine air wings shut down starting in March. Two carrier strike group deployments “extended indefinitely.” Only partial training for two more strike groups.

The Navy's total budget for 2013 is $170 billion. The "sequestration cuts" -- should those materialize -- will entail cutting $4 billion from that total in one year. The Navy may lose an additional $4 billion in planned funding if Congress cannot pass a budget by March 31.

(AP Photo)

December 7, 2012

Should the U.S. Attack Syria if Assad Uses Chemical Weapons?

When President Obama first warned Syria’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad, that even making moves toward using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that might force the United States to drop its reluctance to intervene in the country’s civil war, Mr. Obama took an expansive view of where he drew that boundary....

But in the past week, amid intelligence reports that some precursor chemicals have been mixed for possible use as weapons, Mr. Obama’s “red line” appears to have shifted. His warning against “moving” weapons has disappeared from his public pronouncements, as well as those of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The new warning is that if Mr. Assad makes use of those weapons, presumably against his own people or his neighbors, he will face unspecified consequences. -- New York Times

This sounds a bit too finely parsed to me -- and in any event, the newer formulation makes more sense. But that begs a vastly more important question: it a good idea? Should the U.S. intervene militarily if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons against the rebels?

According to the Pentagon (and outside experts) efforts to neutralize Assad's chemical stockpile could entail upwards of 75,000 troops and days of airstrikes. And, as the Times piece notes, bombing chemical weapons depots could simply release the toxins into the air -- the very result everyone is trying to avoid. Many of those stockpiles are in urban areas and efforts to destroy them may also facilitate their uncontrolled spread if they're not entirely destroyed at the outset.

Moreover, and to put it bluntly, if tens of thousands of Syrians dying by mortar round and small arms fire hasn't moved the U.S. to intervene, it's not clear why Syrians dying by chemicals would be any different. The only reason I can see is a desire to enforce a norm against the use of WMD -- but is that reason enough to deepen U.S. involvement? The U.S. has an obvious interest in this norm, but so do all civilized states. (I'm personally on the fence. I can see the argument for attacks, not against Syrian chemical weapons depots perhaps but against regime assets -- Assad's house, military bases and airfields, etc. -- if Assad takes that fateful step.)

November 30, 2012

The Global Quest for a Better Car Battery


Steve LeVine says the race is on:

As China continues its massive push in renewable energy, the Obama administration is doing so as well, betting another $120 million to win the global race for a better battery. The administration is allocating the money to a Bell Labs-style project that, over a five-year period, is intended to push the boundaries of current technology and create far more powerful transportation and stationary batteries.

The initiative is pitted against competing efforts in China, France, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. It will be headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory, south of Chicago, which won the project this week in a competitive bid filed jointly with a team of US universities, companies such as Dow and Johnson Controls, and other national labs.

Even with the Solyndras and A123 Systems of the world, the U.S. is still flushing considerably more money down the tubes policing the Persian Gulf for the purposes of energy security. Subsidizing battery research to the tune of $120 million seems like a no-brainer.

(AP Photo)

November 20, 2012

Would Americans Support the Destruction of Gaza?


Walter Russell Mead (via Sullivan) argues that Americans don't understand or support the concept of proportionality in war and would not blink if Israel decided to raze Gaza:

For many people around the world, this seems patently obvious: Israel has a right to respond to attacks from Hamas but it doesn’t have an unlimited right to respond to limited attacks with unlimited force. Israeli blindness to this obvious moral principle strikes many observers as evidence of hardheartedness and national moral decline, and colors their perceptions of many other Israeli policies.

The whole jus in bello argument sails right over the heads of most Americans....From this perspective, the kind of tit-for-tat limited warfare that the advocates of just and proportionate warfare would require is a recipe for unending war: for decades of random air strikes, bombs and other raids. An endless war of limited intensity is worse, many Americans instinctively feel, than a time-limited war of unlimited ferocity. A crushing blow that brings an end to the war—like General Sherman’s march of destruction through the Confederacy in 1864-65—is ultimately kinder even to the vanquished than an endless state of desultory war.

This may be true, but it also explains why very few American wars end in victory: Korea ended in a stalemate, Vietnam in a loss and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with far-from-satisfactory outcomes. The view that a war represents an opportunity to forge a "clean break" with the dynamics that initiated the conflict is obviously alluring, but not always true. Many wars, in fact, end with murky, less-than-definitive outcomes. Even "victories" can prove ephemeral, as the victors of World War I soon discovered. There are wars that do end decisively: the American Revolution booted out the British, the Civil War vanquished the South and World War II ended in the collapse of the Nazi and Imperial Japanese regimes. But none of these are really analogous to the kind of conflict that Israel is in with Hamas in Gaza.

Israel understands this, which is why they are fighting in the manner that Mead finds so mystifying. They cannot land a knock-out blow because there is no such thing. If such an option were available to them, wouldn't they have seized it by now?

Moreover, I wonder whether Mead is right that Americans would be indifferent to -- or even encouraged by -- a "time-limited war of unlimited ferocity" against Gaza. Since Mead evokes World War II as the template, let's consider what that would entail: at a minimum it would mean the destruction of most of Gaza's civilian infrastructure and the deaths of tens of thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands, of civilians. It would take a year's worth of awful images from Syria's civil war and compress them (and magnify them) over the space of several weeks. In a fairly short period of time, Hamas would lose its ability to fight back at all and the "war" would become even more one-sided than it already is. At a certain point, unrestrained military action against a civilian population that has no capacity to fight back ceases to be a "war" and becomes something much worse.

Covering this war of "unlimited ferocity" would certainly be difficult -- it would be too dangerous for most reporters since the bombardment would be so widespread -- but the news would leak out and Americans would ultimately understand what was occurring. Moreover, there would be explosive and widespread condemnation not just internationally but also from Washington. The Obama administration would almost certainly not publicly support an Israel campaign to raze Gaza to the ground and kills tens of thousands of Gazans.

Moreover, the most recent public opinion poll shows 57 percent of Americans supporting Israel's current response. It is impossible for me to believe that this number would not decrease if Israel began flattening hospitals and homes in the widespread and coordinated fashion described above.

None of this, I should stress, is going to happen -- this conflict will likely grind down like the last time Israel and Hamas came to blows. This may, as Mead says, strike most Americans as "unsatisfactory," but it's difficult to see a viable alternative.

(AP Photo)

November 19, 2012

President Obama: No Country Should Tolerate Missiles Raining Down on Them (Except the Ones We're Bombing)

"There's no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders." - President Obama

As Mike Riggs wrly observes, "That is a very interesting thing to say at a time when the U.S. is regularly raining missiles down on Pakistan and Yemen."

Interesting indeed. President Obama is right, of course. Which is why the U.S. shouldn't be surprised when its own missile campaigns generate anti-Americanism and terrorism targeting U.S. interests.

The Rationale for a U.S. Presence in the Gulf

As the U.S. produces more and more of its own energy, the rationale for sustaining a large forward military presence in the Persian Gulf starts to weaken. But it's not like Middle Eastern energy won't find willing consumers. Instead, Gulf oil will flow to Asian markets, which puts major Asian oil consumers like China in something of a bind, as John Mitchell explains:

The United States military and naval presence contributes to stability in the Middle East and protects oil shipping through the Straits of Hormuz. This oil now goes east, not west, and the US security of oil supply no longer depends on it. Under these circumstances, how far will the US go to defend sea lanes that mainly benefit Asian markets?

The flip-side to this subsidy is that U.S. "defense" of Gulf sea lanes is another form of leverage over rivals like China. Any military force strong enough to keep the Gulf open could, in theory, close the Gulf down in a time of crisis (albeit at enormous costs to the global economy). That, in turn, will surely weigh on the minds of any Chinese strategist if (or when) the security competition between the U.S. and China really heats up.

On the other hand, the job of keeping the Gulf sea lanes open comes with a host of costs, like terrorism and military interventions, that the Chinese are probably happy not to bear.

November 14, 2012

Does China Really Have More Nuclear Warheads Than Previously Believed?

One Russian analyst thinks the Chinese have a lot more warheads than the U.S. assumes:

China has nearly 750 theater and tactical nuclear warheads in addition to more than 200 strategic missile warheads, a stockpile far larger than U.S. estimates, according to a retired Russian general who once led Moscow’s strategic forces.

New details of China’s strategic and tactical nuclear warheads levels were disclosed by retired Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin, former commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, during a conference several months ago. A copy of Yesin’s paper was translated last month by the Georgetown University Asian Arms Control Project and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

However, according to Jeffrey Lewis, Yesin's essay is "full of errors" including referencing Chinese nuclear weapons facilities that Lewis himself visited and verified were moth-balled.

Either way, the "consensus" appears to be that China has about 240 nuclear weapons (give or take a hundred).

Which Governments Want Your Google Data? America Tops the List

In a new report issued by Google, it appears that large democracies are the most interested in mining data from the world's most popular search engine:

Google handed over more user data to the US government in the first six months of this year than to all other countries combined.

The US made 7,969 requests for user data, of which Google complied with 90 percent. Next most inquisitive was India, with 2,319 requests, Brazil with 1,566, France with 1,546, Germany with 1,533 and the UK with 1,425.

Obviously, the data set here is going to be skewed toward countries where Google use is prevalent. Still, it's not just governments looking for information - it's governments taking down information as well:

Meanwhile, requests to remove content were also up - by 46 percent on the case of the US. The number rose by 98 percent in the UK, 132 percent in France and 145 percent in Germany.

Turkey showed the greatest rise, with content removal requests rocketing by 1,013 percent. Many of these related to sites critical to the government.

November 13, 2012

Why Is al-Qaeda Thriving in Yemen? Saudi Arabia

In reviewing Gregory Johnsen's book on al-Qaeda in Yemen, Clint Watts describes how Saudi Arabia fueled the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP):

Going into this book, I expected to be convinced that drones were more central to AQAP’s rise. However, having read the manuscript, I actually am more confident in my assessment from this past summer that it is a combination of external and internal factors that have led to AQAP’s regeneration with the most important enabler being the Saudi purge of AQ members in 2006-2007. Greg does discuss this Saudi purge in the book and I believe it is critical to understanding where and when AQ grows and ebbs. Young Saudi foreign fighters have been the largest portions of recruits and leaders for years supplying one jihad after another. With the decline of Iraq, Saudi foreign fighters flowed into Yemen and today I imagine AQAP in Yemen is now competing with Syria for the collection of fresh recruits. Having read Greg’s book, I see the influx of Saudi foreign fighters, the failures of rehabilitation programs and repeated prison escapes as the driving factors in AQAP’s recent heights. Drones didn’t generate AQAP’s growth, drones responded to AQAP’s growth. [Emphasis mine.]

November 1, 2012

Does the U.S. Have No Choice But to Go Broke Policing the World?

It would be nice to ignore problems in faraway lands, but in the age of al-Qaeda America simply does not have that option as often as we might wish. Organized and armed terror groups can exploit chaos or even take power themselves; the United States for its own protection cannot allow global jihadis to establish safe havens or to take over national governments.

Obama’s splendid little war in Libya has created serious long term strategic problems for the United States and saddled us with commitments and responsibilities we do not want, do not need but cannot shirk. Every day the news brings more evidence that, like it or not, we’ve got more work to do in the Middle East, and it is exactly the kind of expensive, frustrating and dangerous grunt work that President Obama took office promising to end. - Walter Russell Mead

Here's the problem with this: if Mead's first paragraph is correct (and I don't think it is) then his second paragraph is incorrect. As noted early, Libya's armed uprising against Gaddafi began before Obama's splendid war and even if Gaddafi crushed it, it was likely that pockets of destabilizing resistance would remain in the country - just the kind of pockets al-Qaeda thrives in. (It's also odd for Mead to complain about this, since he wants to duplicate precisely this kind of dynamic in Syria.) Is Mead suggesting that Obama's failure was involving the U.S. in Libya in the first place, or not sending in 300,000 U.S. troops to provide post-war security?

The broader question is: "in the age of al-Qaeda" can the U.S. not afford to look away at problems like Libya and Mali? And by "not look away" I'm assuming Mead means, not send in drones, the CIA and the State Department to wage a covert and/or proxy war against Islamist forces.

Perhaps Washington can, in fact, look away. Not turn a blind eye, but not plunge in guns blazing until there's a clear indication of threat.

Most Islamists movements are piggy-backing on local insurgencies and unrest. They may hate the West, but how many of them share the bin Laden vision of attacking the U.S. homeland? How many of them could attack the U.S. homeland, even if they wanted to? These are tricky questions to answer, but they should be answered before plunging in. The default assumption that every Islamist group is ipso-facto plotting the next 9/11 on U.S. soil is a recipe for expensive over-reach.

The minute the U.S. begins training local proxies, dropping bombs on houses and generally butting into a local fight, it makes enemies and, as Mead notes, takes on a series of expensive and potentially deadly commitments. Sometimes, this can work to our advantage: the campaign in Somalia, where a U.S.-trained African Union force has made substantial gains against al-Shabaab, seems to be a model in this respect. The "blowback" - thus far - has been minimal and militant forces have been on the run.

But just because Islamists have taken up in some deserted corner of the world shouldn't mean the U.S. runs in frantically. The world is filled with chaotic spaces. It is literally impossible for the U.S. to police them all, or to send enough cash and guns to local forces to do the policing for us - even there are even willing locals ready to assist us. The U.S. would go broke faster than stability would return to these areas sufficient to stop a major terrorist attack - which is almost impossible to stop anyway, given how few people are required.

October 16, 2012

How the Sausage of U.S. Foreign Policy Is Made

The State Department has just published 1,000 pages worth of documents relating to the 1970s energy crisis. In it you'll find transcripts of meetings with key principles in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. If nothing else, it provides a good insight into the role energy plays in U.S. foreign policy - particularly at a time of soaring energy prices (in other words, it might be a good primer for current and future policymakers).

CFR's Micah Zenko rounds up some of the choice quotes, including Henry Kissinger calling future National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski a "total whore" and Alan Greenspan an "amateur."

Ironically, over the weekend I listened to Andrew Scott Cooper discuss his book The Oil Kings, which deals with the same subject matter. It's fascinating stuff - it sheds light not just on the challenges the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations faced in the oil realm, but how much back-biting and internal squabbling hindered the U.S. response. Cooper also details how the U.S. completely missed how Iran's troubled economy could force a challenge to the Shah's rule from the clerical establishment.

October 5, 2012

Does the U.S. Need a Navy?

John Quiggin isn't so sure:

According to Wikipedia, the Navy’s budget is around $150 billion a year. What does it deliver for that money? The US hasn’t engaged in naval warfare on any significant scale since 1945, a period during which the other arms of its military have fought five major wars, and lots of smaller ones. The record in those wars, including an outright defeat in Vietnam, a status quo ante ceasefire in Korea, and highly equivocal outcomes in the two Iraq wars and Afghanistan casts plenty of doubt on the idea of that US military as a whole is a “high-performing agency”, and raises the question of why so much of the budget has been allocated to an armed force that does hardly any actual fighting.

Sounds a bit too harsh to me.

September 11, 2012

National Security in the 9/11 Era


Jennifer Rubin uses the anniversary of 9/11 to take a partisan jab at President Obama:

It is distressing when we observe the lethargy and unseriousness with which we address national security. Eleven years after 9/11 we learn the president skips half of his intelligence briefings. Congress and the president have set in motion national security cuts that longtime Democrat, Defense Secretary Leo Panetta, has dubbed “devastating.” We learn that the White House came up with the sequestration gimmick to try to force Republicans to raise taxes; there is no sign the president will intervene in sufficient time to halt substantial layoffs in the defense industry. Is this the same nation that rallied to the defense of the West? It’s hard to believe sometimes.

We are light-years away from the Bush administration, to be sure, when George W. Bush “held his intelligence meeting six days a week, no exceptions — usually with the vice president, the White House chief of staff, the national security adviser, the director of National Intelligence, or their deputies, and CIA briefers in attendance.

This is a weird critique to make. Certainly, President Obama's counter-terrorism record is far from perfect, but, good or bad, sequestration and defense industry layoffs are unlikely to impact U.S. counter-terrorism (as defined by intelligence collection, analysis and the drone campaign - not nation building in remote regions). Most of the very controversial legal infrastructure around the war on terror remain in place. When it comes to targeting al-Qaeda, President Obama has been as aggressive - if not more so - than President Bush. Just yesterday, a senior al-Qaeda figure in Yemen was killed, likely by a U.S. drone. As former Director of the CIA Michael Hayden recently observed, there has been "powerful continuity" between the Bush and Obama administrations when it comes to counter-terrorism, with the exception being that the Bush administration was heavier on the torture and the Obama team leans more on assassinations.

Moreover, while it's true that President Obama should attend more intel briefings, why Rubin would choose this angle is odd, given that when President Bush enjoyed those briefings, he dismissed terror warnings before 9/11 and reportedly told a briefer who warned about potential al-Qaeda attacks on the homeland that he had "covered his ass now."

Rather than focus on partisan non sequiturs like the potential impacts of sequestration, the real legacy of 9/11 is just how resilient al-Qaeda has proven. Bruce Reidel paints a stark picture:

Eleven years after 9/11, al Qaeda is fighting back. Despite a focused and concerted American-led global effort—despite the blows inflicted on it by drones, SEALS, and spies—the terror group is thriving in the Arab world, thanks to the revolutions that swept across it in the last 18 months. And the group remains intent on striking inside America and Europe....

But it is in the Arabian Peninsula that al Qaeda is really multiplying. Its franchise in Yemen has staged three attacks on America, including one at Christmas in 2009—the infamous “underwear bomber—that almost succeeded in Detroit. Its brilliant Saudi bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is alive and has trained a cadre of students. The Yemeni regime is weak, the country is spinning into chaos, and al Qaeda is exploiting it. Now the U.S. is using drones almost as much in Yemen as in Pakistan.

The al Qaeda apparatus in Iraq, despite being decapitated several times, carries out waves of bombings every month. It has proven remarkably resilient. In North Africa, al Qaeda has allied itself with other Islamist extremists and taken over more than half of Mali, an area bigger than France. There it is training terrorists from Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria, and elsewhere. It has raided Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenal and is armed and dangerous.

A new al Qaeda franchise has emerged in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where it is trying to provoke a war between Egypt and Israel. American troops in the multinational force keeping the 1979 peace treaty are at risk.

The fastest-growing al Qaeda operation is in Syria.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein and the revolutions that have unseated autocratic rulers have done a lot of bin Laden's work for him.

(AP Photo)

September 4, 2012

Has the Obama Administration Given Israel a Red Line on Iran?

Back in June, I wrote that:

The only conceivable way an Iran strike would boomerang on Israel in the court of U.S. public opinion would be if the U.S. made some kind of very public ultimatum to Israel which the latter flagrantly ignored, followed by Iranian actions that broadly damaged American interests (terrorist attacks and/or spiking the price of oil).

That may have just happened:

In a move that dismayed Israeli ministers, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, told reporters in Britain last week that the United States did not want to be "complicit" in an Israeli attack on Iran.

He also warned that go-it-alone military action risked unraveling an international coalition that has applied progressively stiff sanctions on Iran, which insists that its ambitious nuclear project is purely peaceful.

Dempsey's stark comments made clear to the world that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was isolated and that if he opted for war, he would jeopardize all-important ties with the Jewish state's closest ally.

"Israeli leaders cannot do anything in the face of a very explicit 'no' from the U.S. president. So they are exploring what space they have left to operate," said Giora Eiland, who served as national security adviser from 2003 to 2006.

"Dempsey's announcement changed something. Before, Netanyahu said the United States might not like (an attack), but they will accept it the day after. However, such a public, bold statement meant the situation had to be reassessed."

This may not be enough to stay Israel's hand, but it does appear that the Obama administration has now made the point publicly that a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran over the next few weeks is contrary to U.S. interests. Will it stick?

August 20, 2012

Why a War with Iran Is Inevitable

Over the past several weeks, talk of an Israeli strike against Iran has surged forward. Amidst the leaks and counter-leaks, one narrative is emerging among analysts, as explained by former Israeli intel chief Amos Yadlin:

Despite seeing eye to eye on this strategic goal, the United States and Israel disagree on the timeline for possible military action against Iran. Superior U.S. operational capabilities mean that it will be another year or two before Iran’s nuclear sites become “immune” to a U.S.attack. Unlike Israel, therefore, the United States can afford to delay beyond this fall, which is precisely what the Obama administration wants. Leave your planes in their hangars, the president has signaled to Israel.

A long-standing principle of Israeli defense doctrine is that it will never ask the United States to fight for it. That is why Israel’s political leaders have emphasized that when it comes to national security, Israel will ultimately decide and act on its own.

This principle may hold true for certain security threats, but Yadlin makes very clear in his op-ed that the Israeli strategy vis-a-vis Iran is very much to have the United States take on this fight. Indeed, Yadlin's entire op-ed is dedicated to urging President Obama to threaten war with Iran in no uncertain terms to restrain an Israeli strike. Dennis Ross makes a similar point here.

Given that the official line from both Republican and Democratic foreign policy camps is that a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable" there really is no constituency to push back against Israeli pressure for a strike.

There is an Israeli concern that they will be seen as having goaded the U.S. into an action it would have otherwise not taken, but that ultimately isn't the case. Any U.S. attack cannot be said to be taken on behalf of Israel because U.S. officials have consistently spoken about an Iranian nuclear capability in the most dire terms (when not making glib jokes about attacking them).

Had the Obama administration (or a Republican challenger) argued that U.S. interests do not warrant a war with Iran absent some dramatic casus belli, the dynamic would be different. But there's no real constituency for containment. As Yadlin notes, the crux of the disagreement between the U.S. and Israel isn't over whether military force should be used to stop Iran, it's simply a matter of the timing and which military lands the first blow. Absent a diplomatic breakthrough, a war with Iran appears inevitable.

August 8, 2012

The Global Small Arms Trade, Visualized


The world is awash in weapons. This interesting interactive database visualizes the flow of small arms and ammunition around the world. (Hat tip: Smeechi Mittal)

August 7, 2012

Can the U.S. Defense Budget Survive Sequestration?

Cato analysts make the case that the defense cuts looming in sequestration ($500 billion in automatic cuts over the next 10 years unless Congress can agree to a major deficit-cutting bill) won't leave America defenseless.

I tend to agree that the U.S. military budget has ample room to be shaved back, commensurate with a realignment of U.S. resources. But in an ideal world these cuts should be made as a result of a strategic assessment, not Congressional dysfunction.

July 11, 2012

What the U.S. Military Thinks About Iran

From the Pentagon's most recent assessment (pdf):

There has been no change to Iran's strategies over the past year. Iran's grand strategy remains challenging U.S. influence while developing its domestic capabilities to become the dominant power in the Middle East. Iran's security strategy remains focused on deterring an attack, and it continues to support governments and groups that oppose U.S. interests. Diplomacy, economic leverage, and active sponsorship of terrorist and insurgent groups, such as Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shia groups, and the Taliban, are tools Iran uses to increase its regional power. Iran's principles of military strategy remain deterrence, asymmetrical retaliation, and attrition warfare.

Ronald Reagan: Liberal Interventionist?

Gulliver digs up a quote from a 1985 book titled Intervention and the Reagan Doctrine and an old Kenneth Waltz essay (pay walled) that described the administration's view on the budding concept of humanitarian intervention:

Senior officials in the Reagan administration elevated the right to intervene to the level of general principle. As one of them said, we "debated whether we had the right to dictate the form of another country's government. The bottom line was yes, that some rights are more fundamental than the right of nations to nonintervention, like the rights of individual people... [W]e don't have the right to subvert a democratic government but we do have the right against an undemocratic one."

Notes Gulliver:

But still we're left with the inescapable reality that decisions about intervention or nonintervention are made in national capitals on the basis of national interests; thus ever was it so.

Indeed. This is why the U.S. should be wary about making sweeping moral claims when it acts on behalf of its interests.

July 3, 2012

Should the U.S. Reinstitute the Draft?

General Stanley McChrystal says yes:

"I think we ought to have a draft. I think if a nation goes to war, it shouldn't be solely be represented by a professional force, because it gets to be unrepresentative of the population," McChrystal said at a late-night event June 29 at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival. "I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game."

Most recent advocates of a return to conscription have usually pushed the idea because they believe a draft would act as a check on Washington's interventionist tendencies. If more people have "skin in the game," there would be a lot less patience for charging off into this or that country's civil war. That may be true for big ticket wars like the invasion of Iraq, but those are rare affairs. Most interventions rely heavily on air power and local proxies and wouldn't require mass mobilization in the U.S., thus negating much of the restraining power of that a draft would supposedly exercise.

For his part, McChrystal doesn't really advance this rationale (not all that surprising) but instead emphasizes the costs born by the military and their families due to repeated deployments.

May 22, 2012

'How Easy It Has Become to Kill Someone'

White House counterterror chief John Brennan has seized the lead in choosing which terrorists will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure for both military and CIA targets.

The effort concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones within one small team at the White House....

Some of the officials carrying out the policy are equally leery of "how easy it has become to kill someone," one said. The U.S. is targeting al-Qaida operatives for reasons such as being heard in an intercepted conversation plotting to attack a U.S. ambassador overseas, the official said. - AP

Surely no government would ever abuse such a power.

May 15, 2012

Poll: U.S. Public Favors Steep Defense Cuts


While politicians, insiders and experts may be divided over how much the government should spend on the nation’s defense, there’s a surprising consensus among the public about what should be done: They want to cut spending far more deeply than either the Obama administration or the Republicans.

That’s according to the results of an innovative, new, nationwide survey by three nonprofit groups, the Center for Public Integrity, the Program for Public Consultation and the Stimson Center. Not only does the public want deep cuts, it wants those cuts to encompass spending in virtually every military domain — air power, sea power, ground forces, nuclear weapons, and missile defenses.

According to the survey, in which respondents were told about the size of the budget as well as shown expert arguments for and against spending cuts, two-thirds of Republicans and nine in 10 Democrats supported making immediate cuts — a position at odds with the leaderships of both political parties.

The average total cut was around $103 billion, a substantial portion of the current $562 billion base defense budget, while the majority supported cutting it at least $83 billion. These amounts both exceed a threatened cut of $55 billion at the end of this year under so-called “sequestration” legislation passed in 2011, which Pentagon officials and lawmakers alike have claimed would be devastating.

I think this is another clear example where "public opinion" is really irrelevant in the shaping of public policy. (Via David Axe)

April 12, 2012

Does NATO Still Serve American Interests?

Stanley Sloan makes the case:

Most would agree that the most vital American interest is defense of the homeland and protection of its citizens. An active alliance with America’s leading partners would seem to address that vital interest, even if the United States does not currently face threats of a truly existential nature. Having allies dedicated to considering an attack on one as an attack on all, as provided in the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5, is not a bad insurance policy – one on which the United States collected after 9/11....

The main strategic value of America’s European allies, however, is in the capabilities that the Europeans bring to the table, as they did in the case of Libya. Granted, European military resources have shrunk over the years, and the Libya “model” may or may not work for some other contingency. But as European allies reallocate resources as part of their withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is in the interest of the United States that they do so in ways that enhance their ability to assist the United States in dealing with future security challenges. NATO consultations can facilitate such an outcome.

I think Sloan was closer to the mark in the first graf: While it's difficult to see the U.S. entering into any conflict where it is the weaker power and thus actually in need of European help, a defensive alliance with mostly like-minded countries does provide something of an "insurance policy." In fact, as powers like China and Brazil pull more weight globally, having an alliance such as NATO ensures that the Euro-Atlantic region is firmly defended. It also makes economic sense for indebted Europe (and America) to leverage the alliance to achieve cost-savings in defense.

But this really isn't the case for NATO today, as Sloan makes clear. Rather, it's to have a set of allies to provide the U.S. with some additional capabilities (and legitimacy) for its international adventurism.

The insurance policy metaphor is apt. We would typically describe a person as insane if they deliberately hurt themselves just to luxuriate in the fact that they have medical insurance. By using the utterly unnecessary Libyan intervention as an example of NATO's worth, supporters of the alliance are chopping off their fingers, rushing to the ER and then waving the bandaged stumps around as proof of how important good medical coverage is.

To my mind, the case for NATO is actually closer to auto insurance - something that is important to have but that you try never to draw on unless something serious happens.

April 3, 2012

The Bigger Threat to World Security: Food or War?

According to Lester Brown, it's food:

Grain yields are beginning to hit a “glass ceiling” in many countries, Brown said, where farmers have already taken advantage of what science has to offer for improving yield. As more and more countries hit an upper limit on productivity, the world grain harvest will begin to plateau, even as demand for food continues to rise, causing a rise in prices. More worrisome, the global food market is vulnerable to external shocks such as prolonged drought. “We don’t have idle land, we’re flat out,” says Brown. “We don’t have [food] stocks. We’re living harvest to harvest. The question becomes, what if we have a major shortfall in the world?”

Brown noted that war isn't a "top five" global security concern, but that seems to overlook the fact that possible food shortages and food price spikes could very easily lead to war.

March 28, 2012

Who Is America's #1 Geopolitical Foe?

We know Mitt Romney thinks it's Russia and now the White House is on record giving al-Qaeda the dubious honor, but neither of these answers seems all that satisfying. Romney's answer, redolent of the Cold War, at least has the benefit of anointing a bona-fide geopolitical heavyweight. The White House's response has the benefit of identifying a group that is actually implacably hostile to the U.S., even if its power is negligible.

So who should get the top spot? China, like Russia, has geopolitical clout but isn't hostile to the U.S. across the board in the manner of an al-Qaeda. Beyond China, countries like Iran or North Korea (or even Pakistan) could earn a nod for their hostility to U.S. regional aims, but again, not for their power or geopolitical weight.

Even conducting this thought experiment usefully illustrates the fact that the U.S. is actually in a pretty nice geopolitical position in 2012: it has very few implacable enemies and none that are very powerful. There are very powerful states that, on certain issues, play a spoiler role, but the era of straight-up great power antagonism is gone. As James Joyner pointed out, the entire notion of the U.S. having a "number one geopolitical foe" is an "outmoded concept."

At least for now.

March 27, 2012

Campaigning on Obama's Foreign Policy

For months, Democrats have claimed that Obama isn’t vulnerable on national security. But that’s nonsense. The “peace process” is in shambles; Russia is more repressive at home and aggressive internationally; Iran is moving toward a nuclear weapons capability; China’s human rights atrocities have multiplied; and Obama is presiding over a dangerous and severe cut in defense spending. A confident and knowledgeable opponent can makes these and other policy decisions into significant liabilities for the president. - Jennifer Rubin

There's plenty to criticize in the Obama administration's handling of foreign policy, but I think Rubin's post is illustrative of just why Republicans are going to have a problem. This isn't a coherent critique but a grab-bag of stuff that sounds bad but falls apart upon closer scrutiny.

How much can the internal human rights conditions of China and Russia really be blamed on President Obama? None. That's not something a U.S. president can control. How outraged will the public be about defense spending being pared back? According to recent polls, it probably won't be a galvanizing issue. Obama will definitely be criticized for his handling of Iran's nuclear program and for insufficiently backing Iranian protesters in 2009, but the substantive position of any Republican nominee is going to be almost identical to Obama's current policy - ratchet up economic pressure on Tehran and if all else fails, go to war.

I do think Rubin's approach - gather a list of bad things both relevant and not and toss them against the wall - will be the one favored by the Republican nominee. But it won't reflect "confidence and knowledge" in foreign affairs. (Moreover, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, it's hard to imagine that foreign policy will even weigh that heavily on the upcoming election.)

Update: Romney's foreign policy advisers have published an open letter to President Obama fleshing out their foreign policy critique. Interestingly, they're going after the president not just on Iran and missile defense but on Iraq and Afghanistan as well:

Contrary to the recommendations of your military commanders, you withdrew American forces from Iraq without leaving an appropriate training force behind. And contrary to the recommendations of your military commanders, you have begun to draw down American forces in Afghanistan according to a politically driven timetable that makes no strategic sense. Stability in both countries is now at greater risk. If you are reelected, would “flexibility” lead you to abandon completely American commitments, notwithstanding the enormous sacrifices American forces have made, and with little regard for our national security?

February 28, 2012

Most Americans, Brits and Canadians See Iran Developing Bomb

According to Angus Reid:

People in the Britain, the United States and Canada hold unfavourable views on Iran and believe the country is attempting to develop nuclear weapons, a new Angus Reid Public Opinion poll has found.

In the online survey of representative national samples, 70 per cent of Britons, 77 per cent of Americans and 81 per cent of Canadians say they have an unfavourable opinion of Iran.

More than two thirds of respondents in the three countries (Britain 69%, Canada 72%, United States 79%) believe the Government of Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons.

When asked about possible courses of action, 30 per cent of Americans, 35 per cent of Canadians and 43 per cent of Britons say they would prefer to engage in direct diplomatic negotiations with Iran. One-in-four Canadians and Americans (25% each)—and one-in-five Britons (20%)—would impose economic sanctions against Iran.

The option of launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities is endorsed by 15 per cent of Americans, 11 per cent of Canadians and six per cent of Britons. A full-scale invasion of Iran to remove the current government is supported by 10 per cent of Canadians, six per cent of Americans and five per cent of Britons.

February 22, 2012

Iran & Iraq, Cont

In listing the reasons why the Iran debate is playing out a bit differently than the Iraq war debate, it's also important to highlight the role Israel plays. Via the New York Times:

Another critical difference from the prewar discussion in 2003 is the central role of Israel, which views the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon as a threat to its very existence and has warned that Iran’s nuclear facilities may soon be buried too deep for foreign bombers to reach.

Israel’s stance has played out politically in the United States. With the notable exception of Representative Ron Paul of Texas, Republican presidential candidates have kept up a competition in threatening Iran and portraying themselves as protectors of Israel. A bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday released a letter to President Obama saying that new talks could prove a “dangerous distraction,” allowing Iran to buy time to move closer to developing a weapon.

During the run-up to the Iraq war, the U.S. was in the driver's seat regarding policy. If President Bush had had a change of heart, there would have been no invasion. That's not the case with Iran. Israel is (I think) likely to trigger its own war against Iran if the U.S. declines to start one. That war may go well as far as the U.S. is concerned - with little anti-American fallout or retaliatory strikes. Or it may go disastrously - with the U.S. being targeted or called in to re-open the Strait of Hormuz.

But either way, the U.S. simply doesn't have the initiative with respect to Iran as it did with Iraq. This is another reason why advocates of attacking Iran - despite being wrong about the costs and consequences of the Iraq war - are still dominating the public debate. If a war, in some fashion, is inevitable, it makes more sense (in their view) that the U.S. wage it and lead it than get dragged into it after the fact.

February 16, 2012

China No Cyber Superpower

Adam Segal argues that the popular perception of China as a cyber superpower is overwraught:

Two recent studies of national cyber power have placed China near the bottom of the table. China is number 13 on the EUI-Booz Allen Hamilton Cyber Power Index, behind Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil but better off than Russia, Turkey, South Africa, and India (the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia are the top three). The Brussels-based Security & Defence Agenda groups China with Italy, Russia, and Poland in the fifth tier (the U.S. and the UK are in the third tier, below Finland, Sweden, and Israel; the top group is empty).

These are very subjective studies based on interviews, surveys, and vague metrics. Still, they cut against the grain of popular perceptions. If you were just paying attention to the almost weekly reporting in the Western press about alleged Chinese cyber espionage, you could be forgiven for thinking that China ruled the cyber waves. Yet recent writings in the Chinese press have more of a “China is vulnerable” flavor and suggest that analysts, if not characterizing the country’s cyber strategy as weak, think there is a great deal of work that remains to be done.

February 13, 2012

Does a "Responsibility to Protect" Really Protect Anyone?


Leslie Gelb does a nice job framing a question that's been on my mind amidst repeated calls for Western military intervention in Syria:

Faced with evil, Americans always want to be on the side of the angels. So American interventionists, hawks, and human-rights types are banding together, as they did in Libya, to stop President Bashar al-Assad from killing his people. But when interventionists become avenging angels, they blind themselves and the nation, and run dangerously amok. They plunge in with no plans, with half-baked plans, with demands to supply arms to rebels they know nothing about, with ideas for no-fly zones and bombing. Their good intentions could pave the road to hell for Syrians—preserving lives today, but sacrificing many more later.[Emphasis mine]
This is an important point that was overlooked in Libya and will probably be overlooked again with respect to Syria: what constitutes protecting people? If you spare 10,000 civilians in a Benghazi or Homs only to set in motion a series of events that winds up killing and displacing as many if not more people over a five or ten year period, have you actually done anything that's morally commendable? Do lives become less important if they're lost gradually instead of in one mass slaughter?

We have been told that the intervention in Libya was a vindication of the Responsibility to Protect - the doctrine that legitimizes military intervention against a state committing atrocities against its own people - but how can we render any moral judgment on what's occurred in Libya? It's not at all clear that the country can be responsibly governed and continued tribal in-fighting could claim as many lives - or more - than any Gaddafi crackdown.

It often looks like advocates of "Responsibility to Protect" want a pass on this, using the overwhelming humanitarian emergency to overwhelm (or brow-beat) those asking for restraint without tackling the broader issue of how their proposed remedy will save lives over the long term. But it won't go away. If the U.S. steps into Syria and starts arming factions and, perhaps, carving out safe havens and humanitarian enclaves with no-fly-zones it could set Syria up for a protracted civil war. If that civil war claims more lives than those lost to date in Assad's brutal crackdown, can we really be said to be "protecting" anyone?

(AP Photo)

February 8, 2012

Poll: Americans Endorse Drone Strikes Against Americans

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll gives President Obama high marks in foreign policy:

Eighty-three percent of Americans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll approve of Obama’s use of unmanned drones against terrorist suspects, 78 percent back the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 70 percent favor keeping open the Guantanamo Bay detention center – the latter a reversal by Obama of his 2008 campaign position.

It also notes American comfort with targeting fellow citizens for death by drone:

Two-thirds in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, also favor the use of unmanned drones specifically against American citizens in other countries who are terrorist suspects – potentially touchier legal territory.
Interesting to note that the poll specifically describes those targeted by drones as "suspects" - so there appears to be ample support for killing Americans even if their guilt is not firmly established.

February 3, 2012

Who's Running Guns and Drugs on the High Seas?


The Stockholm Institute says that ships registered to Western nations are routinely used for running weapons and drugs. In most cases, however, the owners of the ships aren't aware they're being used for smuggling. Thanks to containerization, SI notes, they don't actually know what they're carrying.

Interestingly, the drug war has shown weapons smugglers how to move their goods around:

The report also shows that the methods adopted by arms trafficking networks in response to the UN arms embargoes on Iran and North Korea were pioneered by drug traffickers in the past few decades to evade detection. These methods include hiding the goods in sealed shipping containers that claim to carry legitimate items; sending the goods on foreign-owned ships engaged in legitimate trade; and using circuitous routes to make the shipments harder for surveillance operations to track.

January 31, 2012

It's Not How Many Troops You Have, It's How You Use Them

There's a growing debate over President Obama's decision to reduce the number of U.S. ground forces by 92,000 by 2017. Frederick Kagan says it's a mistake:

Advocates of the president’s strategy say that we do not need that human capital or expertise in ground operations because we will never again fight wars that put large numbers of our soldiers at risk. Technology, they say, will make future wars precise, rapid and decisive. We have heard this argument many times since the Cold War ended, from George W. Bush as enthusiastically as Bill Clinton. Yet every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has ordered tens of thousands of troops into ground combat. Obama himself sent 70,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops have been deployed abroad to wars or peacekeeping operations for 38 of the past 70 years — and nearly continuously since 1989. The argument that next time will be different is unpersuasive.

And you know what - Kagan's right. Though many of these deployments were unnecessary and ill-advised, they happened anyway. President Obama is not foreclosing the option for a future administration to make a bad decision simply because they'll have fewer resources at their disposal. Multiple military experts told the Bush administration that an invasion and occupation of Iraq would require far more troops than Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was prepared to commit, but they were ignored and a massive strain on the U.S. military ensued.

But I guess it's worth pointing out that real issue here isn't the number of troops but the strategic decision-making surrounding their deployment. There really wouldn't be an argument about whether or not we needed to retain these 92,000 soldiers if President Bush had made a better decision vis-a-vis Iraq (or President Obama vis-a-vis Afghanistan).

Via Andrew Sullivan, Peter Munson hits the nail squarely on the head:

America did not enter any of these wars (going back to Vietnam) as a counterinsurgent or a nation-builder. America entered these wars with ill-defined strategic goals, the result of lowest common denominator bureaucratic negotiations. These goals were not sufficiently thought out, clearly stated, or properly subscribed to by the government writ large, resulting in nearly immediate drift. This fact should point us toward the true roots of the problem.

When it comes to small wars, American national security decision-making institutions predispose the nation to failure. America tends to involve itself in conflicts with insufficient resources and ill-defined aims, expand its commitments based on continually changing policies, and run out of public support before these adventures have run their course.

The entire piece is an absolute must-read. As Munson points out, what unites these wars is that they are almost always wars of choice. But I suspect that Kagan is correct that it's a choice Washington will continue to make.

January 27, 2012

Benevolent Lunar Hegemony

Newt Gingrich's pledge to build a permanent U.S. base on the moon has come in for a lot of mockery and criticism, but most of it strikes me as extremely naive.

If the U.S. retreats from the moon, it will leave a dangerous vacuum that will inevitably be filled by powers that are indifferent, if not hostile to our interests and values. Without a stabilizing lunar presence, Iranian influence would no doubt expand (I needn't remind you of the dangers of Iran's lunar ambitions or the incipient celestial Shia cresecent). Our failure to stand by the moon would also send a damaging message to other planets that the U.S. is not willing to see through the commitments made by earlier administrations. Mars, Venus, Jupiter would all start hedging their bets.

It's possible that President Obama, mired in anti-lunar-colonial sentiment (who could forget how he apologized for the disrespect Alan Shepard showed toward the lunar surface), would reject an American presence, but a confident America must recognize that our hegemony has helped the moon at least as much as it has helped us.

The fact is, for our own security and prosperity, America must remain the indispensable planetary power, providing the galactic global goods that only we can provide. If Obama renounces a permanent base on the moon, he will be signalling in unmistakable terms his commitment to American decline.

January 25, 2012

Drone Strikes: Short Term Good, Long Term Harm?

Robert Wright highlights dilemma between the need to take lethal action against today's terrorists with the longer-term possibility that you'll create more:

One feature of many of these wars is that we're not attacking the state itself. We're attacking groups within the state. For example, in a drone strike in Somalia three days ago (didn't read about that one, did you?), we killed someone in al Qaeda. At other times we kill Somalians who are in al-Shabab.

These are groups that, on the one hand, don't have the capacity, as a state government might, to retaliate in an immediate and specific way. But that doesn't mean retaliation won't be forthcoming. Indeed, groups such as al-Shabab, whose political goals are essentially local, may now become more inclined to consider America the enemy and begin planning anti-American terrorist attacks, or trying to recruit home-grown terrorists in America.

The blowback could assume vaguer form, as well. When we kill Muslims abroad, it often winds up being fuel for al Qaeda recruiting--especially when, as will inevitably happen from time to time, bystanders or family members get killed in the process....

This time lapse changes a president's decision-making paradigm. When the downside of attack is delayed, attacking becomes more attractive. The president can launch strikes to impede terrorism in the short run and let the blowback show up on the next president's watch. (I'm not saying the calculation is always this consciously cynical, but the result can be the same even when it's not.)

One thing that might help shape this or a future administration's decision-making is some empirical evidence that drone strikes are causing more long-term damage than they doing short-term good. It won't be precise, of course, but something akin to the work Robert Pape has done documenting the impact of military occupation and suicide terrorism would be useful in this new era of drone warfare.

It could be that the downside risks of some kind of blowback attack are much smaller than the risks of letting certain individuals out of our cross-hairs. Or it could be just the opposite.

December 1, 2011

Top Five Military Robots

Discovery News has a cool slideshow on new military robots about to take the battlefield.

November 30, 2011

Whistling Past World War III

I still cannot bring myself to believe that we are heading back to the 1930s. First, the very knowledge of what went wrong 80 years ago may help politicians to avoid the same mistakes this time around. China’s continued emphasis on the need for a "peaceful rise" owes something to a knowledge of the terrible errors of Imperial Japan.

Second, there is a plausible argument that the 66 years of peace between the major powers and developed nations since 1945 reflects the progress of civilisation, rather than a lucky cycle in world history.

Finally, the developed world is starting from a much higher level of affluence than it did in the 1930s. In an economic crash, people might still lose their savings, their jobs and their homes — but they are less likely to be reduced to utter destitution. - Gideon Rachman

I don't know about you, but losing my job, home and savings would be a fairly devastating experience. In fact, I suspect that were this unfortunate outcome to befall even more Americans and Europeans than it has already, it would indeed be very radicalizing, particularly when contrasted with the solicitousness shown large financial institutions. We see the contours of this already in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements but I think Rachman is being a bit too complacent here about the potential for more volatile social upheaval and political reaction if things do take a turn for the worse.

Does this mean World War III? If I had to bet my (meager) savings, I'd wager no, if only because nuclear weapons have foreclosed that option for many of the world's great powers, but I think the probability of a large scale military catastrophe grows the more people's expectations of a positive future are dashed.

November 29, 2011

Why the Secret War Stays Secret

Roger Cohen is concerned about President Obama's proclivity for covert war:

So why am I uneasy? Because these legally borderline, undercover options — cyberwar, drone killings, executions and strange explosions at military bases — invite repayment in kind, undermine the American commitment to the rule of law, and make allies uneasy.

Obama could have done more in the realm of explanation. Of course he does not want to say much about secret operations. Still, as the U.S. military prepares to depart from Iraq (leaving a handful of embassy guards), and the war in Afghanistan enters its last act, he owes the American people, U.S. allies and the world a speech that sets out why America will not again embark on this kind of inconclusive war and has instead adopted a new doctrine that has replaced fighting terror with killing terrorists. (He might also explain why Guantánamo is still open.)

But it's clear why Obama does not do this. Consider Cohen's obvious assertion - that covert war invites repayment in kind. Washington has, to a remarkable degree, ring-fenced this idea from polite discussion. (Exhibit A - this Bob Schieffer interview with Ron Paul.) Common sense dictates that a sustained bombing campaign in places like Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia - or a sustained campaign of assassination and sabotage in places like Iran - will provoke a response. Even if the policy is justified on the grounds of an imminent threat (and in some discrete cases I think it is), it's obvious that people not associated with al-Qaeda or Iran's nuclear program will resent, perhaps violently, having their country bombed or assaulted from afar.

Staying silent about these activities not only preserves operational secrecy but inhibits a real debate about the costs and benefits of covert war so that the next time a terrorist does manage to do something awful his (or her) justifications can be reduced to banalities like a "hatred of freedom." Consider the curious assertion from the administration's counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan that absolutely no civilians have been killed by American drone strikes since Obama took office. It is a dubious claim, to put it mildly, but sustaining this illusion is critical to shielding Washington from any culpability for its action.

Starving the Beast, Defense Budget Edition

In making the case for sustaining a huge defense budget and large ground forces, Nathan Freier argues that the unknowns of the future make it imperative that the U.S. retains the capacity to intervene:

What options should the United States retain to respond to contagious violence in the Middle East? What might the United States have to do in case of civil war in Mexico or Cuba, regime collapse in nuclear-armed North Korea or Pakistan or the violent disintegration of Russia? Further, what role, if any, might U.S. forces play in containing unfavorable turns in the Arab Spring -- an Egyptian civil war, resurgent violence in Iraq, or an Iranian proxy war against the Gulf Arab states? Finally, what if the Arab Spring itself is only the vanguard of a more generalized global trend where other important governments prove more vulnerable than many expect to sudden social and political unrest.

OK, what if this happens? Does Freier think the U.S. military is going to start patrolling the streets of Moscow or Berlin if "sudden social or political unrest" occurs?

I think a useful way to think about this is to ask the question from the vantage point of a Chinese, Russian, British, Indian or Scandinavian strategist. Are they worried about these things? Are they building armies capable of inserting themselves into Cuba or Mexico and the like? Probably not. What every other country on Earth is doing is looking at core interests - usually border states and immediate regions - and budgeting accordingly. It's obviously sensible for Washington to plan for contingencies both near and far, but the basic problem for U.S. strategy, as Freier helpfully elucidates, is that it has wrapped its arms around everything.

This is obviously a great business model for those who profit from large defense budgets, but it doesn't make for a sustainable framework for the U.S. in a time when it's drowning in a sea of red ink.

The other issue is having this excess military capacity on hand promotes irresponsibility. What we saw in the previous decade was not simply the use of the U.S. military in an unexpected contingency on 9/11(one which, incidentally, it was unprepared for despite its mammoth budget and for which the CIA took the initial lead in responding to) but the use of the military for an unnecessary war in Iraq. In other words, having a huge military on hand didn't provide the U.S. with a useful hedge against future uncertainty - it gave a free hand to irresponsible bureaucrats to go abroad in search of demons to slay.

In an ideal world, the U.S. would retain decisive military superiority but rarely deploy it. "Starving the beast" is a very irresponsible, indeed dangerous, way to impose a less interventionist policy on Washington, but it's increasingly looking like the only way to provoke a serious discussion about priorities.

November 18, 2011

Hypersonic Weapons

According to Noah Shachtman, the U.S. military "is a small step closer to its dream of hitting a target anywhere on Earth in less than an hour."

At a certain point, we're just going to have to build a Death Star.

November 17, 2011

Haqqanis on Tape

According to the Long War Journal, the Haqqani Network has taken a page out of the al-Qaeda playbook and released a video of its fighters doing the jungle-gym routine.

The Journal quotes a source saying that the camp is located in Pakistan.

November 10, 2011

Obama & Iran

Larison offers some good dissents to my "Five Reasons" piece on Obama's unwillingness to bomb Iran. He specifically takes issue with the idea that America's terrible balance sheet would dissuade the administration:

While an Iranian war would be fairly expensive, and could become even more so if it escalated, there are far fewer fiscal hawks than there are foreign policy hawks. The latter would point to the war with Iran and say, “We can’t possibly reduce military spending in the middle of a major war,” and they would probably insist that the military spending needed to be increased instead. The administration has hardly been eager to make real cuts in military spending as it is, and they will be even less interested in that if they started a new war. Fiscal constraints are not as binding on U.S. action as opponents of an attack would like to think.

November 1, 2011

Pentagon Shifting to Asia?

According to John Bennett, an ongoing strategic review at the Pentagon is indicating that future defense investments will flow toward platforms to help boost the U.S. presence in Asia (long-range bombers and ships) and away from counter-insurgency/stability missions (i.e. fewer armored vehicles and a leaner Army). Cyber capabilities will also get a boost.

Seems like a step in the right direction to me.

October 19, 2011

How Many Wars Should the U.S. Fight at Once?

Michael O'Hanlon thinks the prevailing paradigm of preparing the U.S. to wage two major wars simultaneously is obsolete:

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has just said that he must continue, even in an era of severe defense-budget restraint, to plan U.S. ground forces with an eye toward being able to handle more than one at a time. This puts him right in the center of the modern U.S. defense-planning consensus.

After the Cold War ended, defense secretaries as disparate as Cheney, Aspin, Perry, Cohen, Rumsfeld, and Gates (in other words, all of the last six) built their combat force structures around a two-regional-war logic—or at least that goal. They would usually describe the most likely adversaries as Saddam Hussein and the Kims of North Korea, though other scenarios were envisioned as well.

What's interesting to note about this "two major war" construct is that at the time we actually were engaged in two major ground campaigns, we didn't do such a great job of it despite supposedly decades-worth of planning and investment. That's not because the U.S. wasn't able to deliver relatively swift defeats to enemy forces on the ground but because the military mission quickly changed into one of post-war reconstruction, stabilization and nation building. The Pentagon can ditch the two wars concept all it wants, but its the civilian leadership that will ultimately call the shots and get the wars they - not the military - want.

September 30, 2011

Should Obama Have Killed Awlaki?

The death of Anwar Awlaki raises some important questions about the reach of U.S. military force in the battle against al-Qaeda. Unlike Osama bin Laden and countless others targeted in drone strikes, Awlaki was a U.S. citizen. And while there was clearly plenty of circumstantial evidence that strongly suggested that he was affiliated with al-Qaeda and encouraged attacks against the United States, none of this was proven in court. Greenwald writes:

What's most striking about this is not that the U.S. Government has seized and exercised exactly the power the Fifth Amendment was designed to bar ("No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law"), and did so in a way that almost certainly violates core First Amendment protections (questions that will now never be decided in a court of law). What's most amazing is that its citizens will not merely refrain from objecting, but will stand and cheer the U.S. Government's new power to assassinate their fellow citizens, far from any battlefield, literally without a shred of due process from the U.S. Government.

The counter-argument here is that Awlaki effectively lost whatever constitutional protections citizenship affords when he took up arms against his country and was found on a battlefield. But this begs two important questions: is Yemen a battlefield (I'd say it probably is) and on what basis was Awlaki's guilt substantiated? As I said, in this specific case, it looks like Awlaki was a traitor to his country and had given aid and comfort to its enemies. But is executive decree of guilt enough to have Americans - even loatheome ones - killed?

September 27, 2011

The End of the U.S. Client State?

Max Fisher charts it:

The fall of easily controlled dictators across the region (the U.S. has already given up on its man in Yemen) comes at the same time as U.S.-allied democracies and autocracies alike seem increasingly willing to buck Washington's wishes. Last week alone, the U.S. clashed with some of its most important client states. Maybe that's because of America's habit of picking the most troubled states in the most troubled regions as clients (where they're perceived as the most needed), maybe it's because democratic movements are pressuring client states to follow popular domestic will rather than foreign guidance, and maybe it's because the idea of clientalism was doomed from the start....

Whatever the reasons, U.S. client states have been causing Washington more headaches than normal this year, and particularly over the past week.... Looking over the list of troubled client relationships, it's easy to wonder if the entire Cold War-inspired enterprise could be nearing its end. Maybe Egypt, just as it helped end the centuries of European imperialism in 1956, could make 2011 the year that began the end of clientalism.

It's possible, but unlikely. For one, no one in Washington is particularly eager to abandon the client model. Nor do other states seem particularly to dump the paradigm. China has what I think could accurately be called client states in North Korea and Burma (and, increasingly, Pakistan). Russia is trying to cultivate Central Asian states in its periphery as clients. Iran would obviously like Iraq to function as its client state, much as Lebanon does the job for Syria. In the case of the U.S., however, the client doesn't always amplify U.S. power but instead diminishes it. We are investing large sums of money into states like Afghanistan and Pakistan with little to show for it. Israel and Iraq may, on a dollar basis, deliver greater returns to the U.S. but carry with them a series of diplomatic mine-fields, and Iraq in particular may quickly swing back into the "more cost than benefit" column if violence flares anew.

The larger problem is that the U.S. appears to treat the creation of dependencies and client-states as an end in itself and not a means to an end. We are lured by the illusion of perfect security to believe that if we could only "fix" Afghanistan's political system, then we will have "solved" our terrorism problem (or at least our safe-haven problem). That such a project is self-evidently difficult (impossible?) doesn't seem to register.

September 21, 2011

Drone Patrol

Reacting to the big piece in the Washington Post on America's not-so-covert effort to drone-patrol Yemen and Somalia, Matthew Yglesias remarks:

The reporters say the “rapid expansion” of these military efforts “is a reflection of the growing alarm with which U.S. officials view the activities of al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.” No doubt it is that. But it’s also a reflection of a very grandiose conception of the appropriate role of the American military in the world. After all, a radical who’s in Yemen or Somalia is, by definition, not in the United States. It would be cheaper and easier to focus on making sure people can’t get from Yemen to Yuma or from Somalia to Sacramento than for us to go halfway around to try to kill them. But America’s strategic concept is basically that if there’s a problem anywhere in the world that could potentially be ameliorated by dropping American bombs, then we ought to drop the bombs.

Well, yes and no. It would have been quite helpful if the U.S. had the ability to accurately drop a bomb on bin Laden & co. in the late 1990s. Secondly, building a series of bases and airstrips to fly drones to conduct surveillance on al-Qaeda isn't a bad thing - intelligence collection should be the principle weapon in combating terrorism. Still, there is a legit concern about the extent to which drones will be used to actually kill people as opposed to just spy on them.

Just how often the CIA intends to pull the trigger and at which targets will go a long way to determining whether such a policy is making the U.S. safer or is self defeating. It's interesting to note that as far as making headway against al-Qaeda, the drone attacks have more or less eviscerated the core al-Qaeda group that existed in Pakistan but that did not stop splinter groups from forming in Yemen and Somalia. A similarly robust strategy of drone attacks in either of those countries may just duplicate the Pakistan model - a defeat of the "original" group but the migration and emergence of the same threat somewhere else. And this says nothing about the distortions and destruction that the U.S. will leave in its wake in the target country. Still, the political incentives are what they are: the Obama administration understandably does not want a significant terrorist attack on its watch and it's taking steps with that, and not the long term consequences, in mind.

September 20, 2011

Defense Spending and Strategy

Spencer Ackerman isn't happy with the quality of the strategic argument coming from defense hawks:

The defense hawks are making a budgetary argument, not a strategy argument, and hoping no one sees the difference. The defense doves are also making a budgetary argument, not a strategy argument, because they're not typically interested in defense strategy, just currently interested in the first-question argument that everything should be cut.

The strategy argument is this: we want U.S. defense to do _____ and because of that, we need to spend ______. That template is something hawks and doves can agree on, and then we can all argue about the specifics of instantiating it. Historically, hawks are skittish about making this first-principle case, because being blunt about defense strategy often comes across as grandiose overcommitment to the average voter. And it also makes the doves sound less dovish than the caricature would have it.

I'm not sure about this. For instance, here's some congressional testimony from defense hawks Max Boot and Thomas Donnelly. In it, you'll note that they're quite up front with their "grandiose overcommitments." And the opening "fact" presented by a trio of defense-friendly think tanks reads "No other country in the world has the enduring vital national interests of the United States, and therefore the U.S. military has global reach and responsibilities." So, no, the hawks are not skittish at all about making a first-principles case. They positively relish it.

But the other point is that doves are not only up front about their first principles, they're equally grandiose. The dovish argument, if I understand it correctly, is that thanks to globalization and the spread of communication technology, the U.S. is so interconnected with the rest of the world that people, not just states, are just as vital to America's interests. In this view, modern statecraft has to concern itself not just with brigades and carrier battle groups but what people are tweeting and whether they have clean drinking water.

People in the "dovish" camp may, in principle, be willing to pare back some military spending, but they also want to sustain or even increase spending on America's "soft power" arsenal (admittedly less expensive). It also leads them to endorse plenty of wars - Kosovo and Libya, for example - that require a robust hard power arsenal to implement.

So it's very difficult to have any meaningful discussion of what it takes to "defend" the United States within the context of tighter budgets because both parties to the discussion have expansive views of what's required.

(Brian McGrath has a few things to say on the defense budget that are worth reading.)

August 8, 2011


Usually when people stump for the present defense budget, they argue that the U.S. bears unique global responsibilities or else faces threats from major industrial powers like China and Russia. Marc Thiessen takes a different approach:

The war on terror is far from over. We face potential conflicts with Iran, North Korea, Yemen and Somalia. And as we learned on Sept. 11, 2001, new threats can emerge suddenly to surprise us. Despite this, Washington is once again prematurely claiming a “peace dividend” — except this time without the peace.

Really. Yemen and Somalia are not countries that we could face a conflict with - they're barely functional states. We are arguably in conflict with a few hundred (or less) individuals within those countries but that's hardly a rationale for sustaining massive wealth transfers to the Pentagon. Iran and North Korea are slightly more formidable adversaries but benchmarked against the U.S. and, of course, the regional states downwind of any potential aggression (South Korea, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia), the gap in budgets and capabilities is huge.

In many ways this is the mirror image of the irresponsible approach described yesterday, where an arbitrary set of budget cuts are identified with no reference to strategy. In this instance, defenders treat the status quo budget as inviolate and then cobble together whatever rationale they can grasp, no matter how untenable, to defend it.

Defense Spending and Entitlements

Coming on the heels of $400 billion already cut from defense by the administration in its first two years, the Pentagon is looking at the prospect of trying to maintain a defense capability second to none, with global responsibilities and new threats on the horizon (Iran, China), shorn of $1.3 trillion over the next decade it expected to have just three years ago. It is simply not the case that defense has not been “on the table” when it comes to deficit reduction efforts. Indeed, military budgets have been on the table since the 1990s’ “peace dividend.” One only wishes that were also true for entitlements. - Gary Schmitt and Tom Donnelly

When you think about it, cutting U.S. defense spending is a bit like cutting entitlements - for other countries. Indeed, the authors concede as much when they cite America's "global responsibilities" as a reason to keep funneling tax dollars to their favored government bureaucracy. But I do agree that the way Congress has gone about discussing the defense budget is a bit unnerving. Discussions of cost should follow discussions of mission and U.S. grand strategy. Identifying arbitrary lump sums to cut doesn't make any sense.

August 5, 2011

Missile Defense Costs Reach Apollo Levels


According to Bloomberg, the U.S. has spent as much on missile defense as it did on the Apollo moon program:

Before Congress voted to cut $2.4 trillion from government expenses over the next decade, lawmakers budgeted a 1.2 percent increase, to $8.6 billion, for all missile defense programs in fiscal 2012. That would raise total costs to about $150 billion, or roughly the inflation-adjusted amount poured into the Apollo program sending men to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s....

The Pentagon has made “accountability and transparency elusive” by exempting the missile agency from standard acquisition regulations, including requirements for independent cost estimates, according to Cristina Chaplain, an investigator for the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency.

It is a program with “an undefined destination at an unknown cost,” Chaplain said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April.

And at least the Apollo program worked - it successfully delivered men to the moon and back. Missile defense? Not so much:

The system “has demonstrated a limited capability against a simple threat” and has yet to engage in “operationally realistic” tests, J. Michael Gilmore, the department’s top weapons tester, told Congress last year.

In tests, national missile defense has a 53 percent success rate. Shorter range theater systems have a much higher success rate, Bloomberg noted.

(AP Photo)

July 29, 2011

The Continuation of Politics

Joshua Foust dissects America's failures in Afghanistan:

The biggest barriers to Afghanistan developing economically are political, institutional, and regulatory—not physical or security or investment. Yet, most of the U.S. government’s efforts to improve Afghanistan’s security focus on physical solutions (like expanding the airport in Kandahar to export things like fruit and cement), security solutions (like the Village Security Operations the special operations forces are so enamored with), or foreign direct investment (as the TFBSO is so focused on). They focus on the wrong solutions to the wrong problem.

The U.S. government is not very active in resolving the political issues plaguing Afghanistan’s government, or its relationships with Iran and Pakistan, two absolutely crucial prerequisites to it ever becoming a stable country again. We should not expect a particularly successful outcome so long as the politics of the region are relegated to secondary concerns, if they are concerns at all.

I think it's not simply a lack of concern - it's an inability to solve these political problems. It's not as if the U.S. is not trying - perhaps not at the level of the Afghan potato farmers whose plight Foust relays in his post, but certainly at the level of envoys and embassies. To the extent that this hasn't worked, is it really an issue of inattention or simply reflective of the sheer difficulty (impossibility) of the task?

(AP Photo)

July 28, 2011

Rumsfeld on Bin Laden and More

My extended interview with Donald Rumsfeld in The City is now posted. Since Rumsfeld had been through much of the media circuit by this point, the questions are somewhat broader. But this portion of the interview may be of particular interest:

The City: Regarding bin Laden—you obviously ramped up capabilities in response to him. Do you feel vindicated by what happened?

Rumsfeld: I’ve been asked to write that, I haven’t written that.

The City: What are some of the things, practically, at DOD, that you put into place which helped bring this about?

Rumsfeld: I think really in terms of the special operations side of things, we did a great deal.

We expanded the special operations budget several times, and the number of people by something just under fifty percent. We took some of the tier three things they were doing and passed them off to conventional forces, so they’d have more people available to do tier one and tier two, the tough stuff. And then we gave them additional authorities—they’ve never been a supported command, they’ve been a supporting command of some other command. We really focused on them, and each step was hard—because the services don’t like anything that’s special, because they think they’re special.

There are certain things you can’t achieve without beefing up the intel—we always had the capability to capture and kill, but in the old days, we would’ve used a cruise missile and not known for sure. But this way, you could actually go in physically. We got the Marines involved for the first time and created a thing called MARSOC, the Marines Special Operations Command, and the focus was intense on getting those capabilities right, and linked tightly with the Central Intelligence Agency.

I think it was the 9-11 Commission which recommended that DOD take over all covert action. I was asked about that, and I declined, because the combination of the CIA and the DOD together is a good thing, they’ve got different authorities, free cash where DOD’s got tighter restraints. I advised against transferring all that stuff over to DOD. Instead, George Tenet and I would have lunch every week and solve all the problems personally. It’s more direct that way.

You can read the full interview here.

July 19, 2011

U.S. Views on Defense Cuts

Via Rasmussen:

Nearly one-half of Americans now think the United States can make major cuts in defense spending without putting the country in danger. They believe even more strongly that there’s no risk in cutting way back on what America spends to defend other countries.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 48% of Adults feel it is possible to significantly reduce military spending without putting the American people at risk. Thirty-seven percent (37%) disagree and do not believe major defense cuts come without risk. Fifteen percent (15%) are not sure.

Seventy-nine percent (79%) say the United States spends too much on defending other countries. Only four percent (4%) think America doesn’t spend enough protecting its friends. Thirteen percent (13%) feel these defense expenditures are about right.

July 11, 2011

Drones Becoming Popular Worldwide

NPR's Jackie Northam reports that drones are becoming popular globally. In her report, she cites some drone statistics:

Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula led the U.S. Air Force's drone program from 2006-2010. He says the remotely piloted aircraft have had a significant impact. They've dramatically reduced the amount of time it takes to find a target, watch it, and then if needed, take it out. Deptula says the drones are likely the most precise weapon in the U.S. military's arsenal.

"Statistically over 95 percent of all the weapons released by the predator hit exactly what they're aimed for," Deptula says. Those that fall into the other 5 percent, he says, are either caused by "some mechanical malfunction or a last-minute movement of the target location."

There are no numbers of how many people have been killed by drones; neither the CIA nor the military makes that public. An open source database by the nonpartisan New American Foundation says that somewhere between 1,400 and 2,300 people have been killed by drones in Pakistan alone over the past seven years.

July 8, 2011

Rumsfeld's Fears

I'm looking forward to the rest of Ben's interview with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. One bit from the excerpt below did jump out at me - the assertion that trimming America's defense budget is going to result in some kind of calamity that the U.S. will "pay for" down the road:

The value of peace, and peace through strength, and deterrence has to be understood. Weakness is provocative. And to the extent you behave in a way that encourages people to take actions against you, you’ve made a terrible mistake as a country. We have to avoid that this time. I think people in our country generally understand that.

In the past decade, the U.S. has only been attacked directly by al-Qaeda. As we all know, al-Qaeda is not capable of being deterred. To the extent that we are crafting a military to deter potential nation state adversaries from attacking us or seriously jeopardizing vital American security interests it beggars belief that such a thing could not be accomplished despite cuts to the defense budget. That said, it would certainly be foolish to make defense cuts of any size while simultaneously insisting that the U.S. military perform all of the same global duties with which it is currently tasked. That is a recipe for disaster and one which we should rightly avoid.

I do agree that the U.S. should not behave in a way that "encourages people to take actions against you," but in that column I would probably place "invading and occupying Middle Eastern countries" ahead of making modest reductions to the largest defense budget in the world.

July 7, 2011

Rumsfeld: Weakness is Provocative


Donald Rumsfeld's op-ed last week, which makes reference to "More than $80 billion in unnecessary spending for pet projects has been shoved down the Pentagon's throat over the last decade," brought to mind one answer he gave in a recent interview I had with him, to be published in the next edition of The City:

Domenech: One of the challenges that, in American domestic politics, is happening right now, is this disagreement internally about defense spending, about funding. And it seems like there’s not a very good message to the more populist Tea Party folks, who are naturally inclined to make some very significant cuts. Others claim this is going to make America retreat from the world. Do you think that there’s a rationale behind what they want to do that’s good or do you think that right now we’re in a situation where people are just talking past each other, failing to discriminate between efficiency minded reductions and those that are riskier?

Rumsfeld: Oh, I don’t know. I’m not a good one to answer that. I’m not involved in politics really. I look at it, and I’m quite enthusiastic about the Tea Party movement because it gets people engaged in something that is important, in helping to direct the course of the country. And goodness knows the course of the country needs to be redirected. And thank goodness that there are more and more people who have the energy and the concern about the country that you see manifested in the Tea Party movement.

Then you go to the question you posed. People have to take time and look seriously at how our federal spending is arranged. And it’s obviously totally out of control. We can’t afford to do what we’re doing to future generations. We’re going to damage our country and future generations if we keep trying to do what we’re doing.

Now, you look at the federal budget and it’s pretty clear that as a percentage of GDP we’re spending at a relatively low level for defense. We’re down to 4% compared to 10% during the Eisenhower and Kennedy era and everything else has just exploded.

Obviously there’s no big bureaucracy that doesn’t have waste in it. There are plenty of things that can be taken out of every major government bureaucracy, including the Department of Defense. Every year as I recall the Congress shoved $10 billion down the Pentagon’s throat that we didn’t want for things that had nothing to do with our national security.

On the other hand we’ve also made a series of mistakes in this country where we’ve overreacted on defense. After the end of the Cold War it was the end of history, and we could beat our weapons into plowshares. So there was this drawdown where we didn’t fund the things we needed, they just masked it. They simply didn’t invest in infrastructure, in our military infrastructure around the world, which you cannot do year after year, five, six, seven years.

It’s like your house. You don’t have to paint it this year—let’s do it next year. If you worry about the roof, we’ll do that the following year and something else. And when you put that stuff off and it doesn’t show, it’s not like anyone is going to run a campaign against you for allowing infrastructure repairs to sit for a year.

But on the other hand you end up after 10 years of that, and following the Cold War, and when George W. Bush arrived we had damaged our military and our intelligence capabilities. The result was that we needed to do some catch-up. We’ve done that probably three times in my life, maybe four where we’ve made that decision as a society and then paid for it.

The value of peace, and peace through strength, and deterrence has to be understood. Weakness is provocative. And to the extent you behave in a way that encourages people to take actions against you, you’ve made a terrible mistake as a country. We have to avoid that this time. I think people in our country generally understand that.

The balance of the interview will be published in the next few weeks.

(AP Photo)

Why America Sucks at Nation Building

Why do we suck at nation-building? A lot of reasons. Here are just a few: (1) We are ignorant. We do not know enough about the cultural, political and social contexts of foreign environments to fully appreciate how our interventions will affect those environments. Thus our aid and development spending (and military operations, to be fair), meant to ameliorate drivers of conflict, often exacerbate them. (2) We do not provide enough oversight and accountability for the projects we initiate. This is boring but important. We have spent ungodly sums of money in both Iraq and Afghanistan and have not provided enough contracting officers to effectively oversee the money we have spent. How do we just give tens of millions of dollars to agencies and departments in the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan without any oversight? Lack of contracting officers. How are contracts in Afghanistan divided up between shady sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors, with tax-payer money falling into the hands of the Taliban and warlords? Lack of contracting officers. (3) We do not have any patience -- and we have limited resources. Nation-building takes time. Where we can nation-build at relatively low-cost over an extended period of time, as in Colombia, we can be successful. But asking Americans to spend massive amounts of money for an extended period of time in Iraq or Afghanistan is a recipe for ... turning your average U.S. tax-payer into an isolationist. - Andrew Exum

I think this is correct, but also incomplete. Another reason the U.S. "sucks" at nation building is the way it fights its wars. Consider the two cases that are unambiguous nation building successes - Germany and Japan. What do they have in common? The U.S. and its allies subjected both countries to an unimaginable (by today's standards) level of death and destruction. It wasn't simply that both Axis powers suffered massive battlefield losses, depriving the country of most of its fighting-aged men (though that obviously helped) - the Allies also succeeded in killing millions of civilians and related infrastructure. Japan had two atomic bombs dropped on it and suffered comparable levels of destruction through fire bombing. Germany, likewise, saw many major cities leveled.

Suffice it to say, it's a lot easier to "build" a nation that has lost most of its young male population, has almost no industrial infrastructure and has suffered significant civilian casualties. The U.S. also had the luxury of fighting and defeating coherent states - not national insurgencies. Thus, hostilities ended when the states surrendered and institution building could proceed apace. In America's contemporary circumstances, we're trying to "nation build" under fire.

June 27, 2011

Why America Won, Then Lost, the Afghan War


I was travelling during President Obama's Afghan speech and after reading and abosrbing the commentary surrounding it, I think it's clear that President Obama was faced with an impossible rhetorical task - he had to explain to the United States that it won, then lost, the Afghan war.

The problem that has plagued the Afghan war from the start has been Washington's inability to define a narrow, achievable objective. Since January 2002, the U.S. squandered a quick and limited victory against the Taliban and al-Qaeda by larding on additional objectives involving the political structure of the Afghan state. The basic idea was noble enough - the U.S. would help rebuild an Afghanistan that could forge a terror-free, post-Taliban era.

Unfortunately, the move from a limited goal of destroying al-Qaeda's safe haven and killing those responsible for 9/11 to the more ambitious goal of creating a post-Taliban Afghanistan was well beyond anything the U.S. had the capabilities, resources or will to achieve. It was a goal at odds with how bin Laden's global terror network had evolved since losing its Afghan safe haven. It was also premised on the debatable proposition that regular Afghans would staff a national army tasked with fighting and dying to advance American policy priorities.

The Obama administration has paid lip service to this reality, publicly ratcheting down U.S. goals, but rather than adjust tactics it simply doubled down on the original proposition that Afghanistan could be rebuilt (i.e. "stabilized") to the point that the U.S. could leave the place relatively in tact before departing.

After listening to the president's speech, I believe Obama wants to appear committed to unwinding the U.S. nation building effort, but he is still bound by an orthodoxy that insists that the U.S. can build an Afghan state that's to its liking. It's an understandable, even commendable, impulse. It is also a counter-productive one.

(AP Photo)

June 20, 2011

When All You Have Is a Hammer

Secretary Gates is worried:

Aboard the Pentagon jet on his last foreign trip as secretary of defense, Robert Gates takes a moment to peer across the American horizon—and the view is dire: the U.S. is in danger of losing its supremacy on the global stage, he says.

“I’ve spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position,” he tells NEWSWEEK, seated in a windowless conference room aboard the Boeing E-4B. “It didn’t have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time.”

A pause.

“To tell you the truth, that’s one of the many reasons it’s time for me to retire, because frankly I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.”

I think Gates' fears are overblown.


Aside from the yawning disparity in military spending, who is talking about "scaling back our engagement" with the rest of the world? There are a few politicians expressing skepticism about bombing specific parts of the world, yes, and still others questioning the wisdom of deficit-financed nation building. But that does not equate to a growing unwillingness to "engage" with the world.

June 10, 2011

Europe: Not Stupid

Since I entered government 45 years ago, I’ve shifted my views and changed my mind on a good many things as circumstances, new information, or logic dictated. But I have yet to see evidence that would dissuade me from this fundamental belief: that America does have a special position and set of responsibilities on this planet. I share Winston Churchill’s belief that “the price of greatness is responsibility…[and] the people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility.” This status provides enormous benefits – for allies, partners, and others abroad to be sure, but in the final analysis the greatest beneficiaries are the American people, in terms of our security, our prosperity, and our freedom. - Robert Gates, May 24, 2011

“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense,” Mr. Gates said. - Robert Gates, June 10, 2011

This double-message is the reason that Washington is so often frustrated with Europe's unwillingness to pony up. On the one hand, there's the presumption in Gates' first quote: that America must sustain military capabilities far in excess of what's required for the defense of the United States and her commercial interests to sustain "global leadership" (as defined by bombing countries like Libya). On the other, there's a frustration that other countries are listening to America and budgeting accordingly. But what else are they supposed to do?


The fact of the matter is that Europe understands perfectly what's going on. The U.S. has a view of European security that insists that America play a "leading" role. The U.S. spends enormous sums on its military and has defined the NATO alliance as its central organizing principle for European security. That, combined with a more much benign security environment (and a much more precarious economic environment) for most European states leads inexorably to defense budget cuts and allies "not pulling their weight."

Why we have to have the spectacle of senior American policy makers acting shocked, shocked! about this outcome is beyond me.

Update: Larison keys in on a more practical problem:

It may be obvious, but Gates’ two examples of non-U.S. NATO failings have nothing to do with European defense. Certainly, the limitations of European military power show that their governments remain dependent on the U.S. for security, but there are few worse ways to persuade European governments and publics that they have the wrong priorities than to lecture them on their insufficient support for Afghanistan and Libya. While the non-U.S. NATO allies pledged support to the U.S. after 9/11, European nations have no particular security interests in achieving U.S. goals in Afghanistan. If the American public has soured on the war in Afghanistan and doesn’t understand its purpose, imagine how baffling it must be to Europeans to have their soldiers in Central Asia. European governments have continued to support the war in Afghanistan long after they were obliged to do so, and despite lending support that they don’t have to provide they are routinely lectured for not doing enough.

As for Libya, it is important to remember that the governments that have contributed nothing to the war never wanted to attack Libya, and they wanted to keep NATO out of it all together. Gates directed his ire at several of these governments the other day, as if Germany, Poland, and Turkey should be expected to pitch in to support a military campaign they explicitly opposed.

Very true.

June 8, 2011

The World's Nuclear Arsenal

The Stockholm Institute produced an estimate of the world's existing nuclear arsenals:


June 6, 2011

A New Russian-U.S. Arms Race?

Richard Lourie argues that the U.S. and Russia may be heading towards a new arms race:

On May 20, Russia’s top generals made what Time magazine called “a startling admission of weakness.” In their opinion, by 2015 the NATO missile defense system would neutralize both Russia’s ICBMs and its submarine-based ballistic missiles. That could be devastating for Russia because, as defense analyst Ruslan Pukhov points out, for “relatively little expense, Russia’s nuclear forces support the country’s status as a great power, provide a military deterrent to other major powers and enable it to maintain moderately sized conventional forces.”

But Pukhov also demonstrates that the generals are wrong about the 2015 date — or were just making noises as part of the bargaining process. Russia’s nuclear arsenal will not be significantly stymied by the system NATO wants to put in place. But once in place, that system could provide an excellent base for a more elaborate system that could indeed neutralize Russia as a nuclear power. Since Russia has no leverage over the United States and NATO, its only choice would be to upgrade its own heavy, ground-based multistage missiles. In other words, Russia and the United States, without in the least meaning to, may be backing into a new arms race.

June 2, 2011

U.S. Views on Cyber Attacks

Following the news that the Pentagon was going to take a harder line on cyber attacks, Rasmussen has a poll gaging likely voter sentiment:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 82% of Likely U.S. Voters are at least somewhat concerned about the safety of the country’s computer infrastructure from cyberattack. Just 17% don’t share that concern. These findings include 35% who are Very Concerned but only three percent (3%) who are Not At All Concerned. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

The Pentagon is currently considering a new defense strategy that would classify a major computer sabotage attack from another country as an act of war justifying a forceful U.S. military response. Fifty-three percent (53%) of voters agree with this proposed new strategy and think a major cyberattack on the United States by another country should be viewed as an act of war. Twenty-two percent (22%) disagree, and another 25% are undecided.

A plurality (45%) of voters regards a cyberattack by another country as a greater economic threat to the United States than a traditional military attack. Twenty-two percent (22%) still see a traditional attack as a bigger threat. One-in-three voters (33%) are not sure which is the greater threat.

June 1, 2011

Cyber War and Real War

According to a new Pentagon doctrine, the U.S. will consider cyber-attacks acts of war:

The Pentagon's first formal cyber strategy, unclassified portions of which are expected to become public next month, represents an early attempt to grapple with a changing world in which a hacker could pose as significant a threat to U.S. nuclear reactors, subways or pipelines as a hostile country's military.

In part, the Pentagon intends its plan as a warning to potential adversaries of the consequences of attacking the U.S. in this way. "If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks," said a military official.

So does this mean that, according to the Pentagon, Iran would be justified in launching a missile or two at an Israeli or American power plant in response to Stuxnet? It sure sounds that way.

Thomas Barnett sees this aimed squarely not at Iran but China:

This is an destabilizing step sideways in our security relationship with China: Beijing is being warned that its current and ongoing behavior can - at any time - be loosely interpreted as an act of war. Whatever situations or crises ensue, that handy rationale is now always sitting in the Pentagon's back pocket, because I guarantee you, whenever big-war enthusiasts want to play that card, the Defense Department will be able to muster - at a moment's notice - a long list of Chinese hacking attacks over the previous X hours/days/weeks/months. So when the President asks, "Do we have evidence that the Chinese are targeting us at this time for cyber-sabotage?" The answer will always be yes.

Are you fearful of a "Guns of August" scenario erupting with the Chinese? You should be now. "Archduke Ferdinand" currently lives inside virtually any US cyber network you care to cite.

I have a hard time believing that the U.S. would be eager to respond to Chinese hacking with an overt act of military retaliation, which could invite a much larger military confrontation between two nuclear-armed states. I do think this paves the way for the U.S. to respond "in kind" to China - although I have to think (and hope) that when it comes to hacking and cyber espionage, we're giving just as good, if not better, than we're getting.

May 10, 2011

Defending Free Riding

U.S. tax dollars at work:

Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands are signalling they soon will no longer permit US nuclear forces on their territory. The ‘De-nuked Three’ join a host of other European allies who are also cutting defence budgets and yet expect the Americans to proceed with missile defence at American expense. I think the Yanks call it chutzpah!

One delegate from a very large central European country that shall remain nameless, but with a fondness for worst, suggested not only the removal of American nukes, but that their defence should be assured by a real missile shield. Although, of course, the interceptors would need to be hosted by the neighbours. A clearer definition of free defence/free-riding I have yet to hear.

In effect, the ‘Du-nuked Three’ (not to mention the relatives) want free US defence, as well as the right to shift the burden of nuclear responsibility onto the three NATO nuclear powers – Britain, France and the US.

Of all the places the U.S. could recoup some budgetary savings as its debt burden builds, Europe seems the best bet. The New York Times is hosting a debate on just this topic here.

April 27, 2011

Leon Panetta's Challenge at Defense

The choice of Leon Panetta to head the Defense Department is not surprising. In fact, I really wish I could've put money on it in Vegas earlier this month. It's making the best of a bad situation in terms of potential nominees - the best candidates for filling the key administration position under President Obama didn't seem particularly eager to do so, and the candidates who did seem to want the job all had negatives.

About to turn 73, Panetta is older than Bob Gates, and while a seasoned D.C. hand, he's been commuting for years to his home in Monterey, Calif. But his challenges in taking over DoD could not be greater. He's coming in at a sour moment, when Afghanistan and Libya hang in the balance. Gates, always popular with the troops and respected on Capitol Hill, is leaving after setting the Department on a solid track toward internal reform - but also after publicly criticizing the president's ham-handed and unexpected demands for further cutbacks. Pressure from Congressional factions is coming from a half-dozen directions, frustration from the president's base threatens to explode, and Panetta's tenure at the CIA was marked by several failures in management - the Christmas Day bomber and more. From Politico earlier this month:

Two of the biggest mistakes came in December 2009, 1 months [sic] after Panetta was sworn in. On Christmas Day, a Nigerian man, Umar Abdulmutallab, allegedly attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit. White House and Congressional investigations faulted the CIA for failing to quickly pass on intelligence about Abdulmutallab, to connect reports on the suspect and to correctly search for his name in databases.

“There were a lot of mistakes that led up to that guy being able to get on the plane,” said Thomas Kean, a former New Jersey governor and co-chairman with Hamilton of the Sept. 11 Commission. “The CIA was in that loop. Whether it ever got to Panetta’s level, I don’t know, but it was definitely a problem.”

Five days after the Detroit attempt, a suicide bomber who had been cultivated by the CIA as an informant killed seven agency operatives at a base in Khost, Afghanistan. It was the deadliest attack on CIA personnel in more than two decades, and was seen as a major operational failure.

More recently, the CIA was criticized for not providing adequate warning that unrest in Tunisia was likely to bring down the government there and would spark a popular upheaval in Egypt and foment public disturbances across the Middle East and North Africa.

Even though he's a better fit for this role than he was at CIA, it is hard to see how Panetta will navigate this treacherous scene. Unlike Gates, who still had the fire in the belly for his tasks under George W. Bush and Obama and seemed happy to wait on his long-awaited retirement to the Pacific Northwest, one wonders if Panetta will not be all the more eager for Monterey after a few months in the Pentagon.

April 25, 2011

Cyber Warfare With Iran on the Rise

In 2010, Iran’s atomic program was targeted by the Stuxnet computer worm to slow down uranium enrichment in centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear facility. Earlier this year, the 1000-megawatt Bushehr nuclear power plant was forced offline as well just as it was commencing operation.

Now Iranian officials claim their nation’s defense facilities have been the target of more cyber warfare. According to the Mehr News Agency, which reports in Farsi, Arabic, English, German, Turkish and Urdu, in addition to publishing the Tehran Times:

TEHRAN, April 25 (MNA) -- Iran has been targeted by a new computer worm dubbed Stars, the director of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization announced on Monday. Fortunately the Iranian experts spotted the computer worm and are still studying the malware, Gholam-Reza Jalali told the Mehr News Agency. No final result has been achieved yet, he added. “[However], certain characteristics about the Stars worm have been identified, including that it is compatible with the [targeted] system,” Jalali stated.

In November 2010, Iran’s Basij paramilitia, controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, established a 1,500 person “Cyber warriors” unit. Shortly thereafter, in February 2011, the Voice of America website was attacked by pro-Iranian hackers calling themselves the Iranian Cyber Army. Twitter and Google too have experienced electronic intrusions by pro-Iranian or Iran-based hackers.

Cyber warfare between the Iranian government and nations opposed to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and political expansionism seems to be on the upswing. More electronic disruptions are likely on both sides.

April 20, 2011

Marco Rubio on U.S. Foreign Policy

“There is no replacement for America in the world,” Rubio says. “If America withdraws from the world stage, it will create a vacuum, and that vacuum will not be filled by someone better than us.” - Marco Rubio

I think this sentiment is worth unpacking a bit. First, it's simply not the case that any country could step in to whatever void it is Rubio thinks we'd be creating. There is no country even remotely close to possessing the kind of global force projection or influence that the United States wields. So even if the U.S. "withdrew" from the world stage there isn't even any state capable - much less interested - in filling that void on a global basis. Regionally, it's certainly possible you'd see unfriendly states wield more local influence, but in most regions of the world, the U.S. has very strong and capable allies that will also exert their influence.

And second, what does it even mean to "withdraw" from the world? Not trade with it? Not conduct diplomacy? Not pursue terrorist threats? Who is advocating these things?

April 14, 2011

A Prescription for Waste

Max Boot is concerned that the U.S. may achieve a measure of solvency:

The U.S. is currently engaged in three active wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya)—four if you count the war on terror, five if you count the war on piracy. We are increasingly hard-pressed to stave off the aggressive military designs of a resurgent China. We have to deter a nuclear North Korea and prevent Iran from going nuclear. We have to prepare for the possibility of an implosion in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed, highly unstable state. We have to maintain free movement across the global commons, meaning air and sea-lanes along with outer space and cyberspace. And at the same time we have to perform myriad humanitarian missions, such as the one currently being conducted by U.S. Pacific Command to assist Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.

Is this any time to cut defense spending? Apparently President Obama thinks so.

Note the frame: we have to. But here's the thing: we don't have to. We want to.

Boot titles his post a "Prescription for Decline," the "prescription" being the desire to trim back some of the federal government's defense spending. It's true that cutting defense spending could mean that the U.S. would have to rethink some legacy defense commitments and be less apt to start more unnecessary wars/nation-building boondoggles, but I fail to see why that's a bad thing. Washington is seemingly hell bent on scoring own goals, wasting American resources on vanity projects like the war in Libya or aggressive nation building in Iraq. Doing less of this is vital to staving off decline. I would prefer that we not "starve the beast" to pursue a more rationalized foreign policy, but Washington is not exactly known for being prudent stewards of Americans' money.

Defense spending is not the cause of America's fiscal woes - entitlements are. But a fair share of the U.S. "defense" budget is waste. Not waste in the sense of $500 toilet seats, but waste as in the trillion-dollar investment in Iraq, which has yielded nothing remotely close to the costs. It is wasteful to defend allies in Europe who neither need, nor apparently want, to defend themselves. It is wasteful to build, at a cost of billions, a shambolic state in Afghanistan that will collapse on itself unless we stay there forever.

I do think we should be careful about what and where we cut. I think the ability to ensure our vital sea lanes are secure and to exercise some check on China are worthwhile military expenditures. Maintaining naval and air power that is qualitatively better than both China and Russia combined makes sense. Heck, I'm not even opposed to forward deployments in Asia, an arena where U.S. conventional power (i.e. the thing we're good at) can potentially play a useful balancing role.

But the very fact that Boot can say (somewhat plausibly) that we're fighting five wars at once is a symptom that something's wrong. And it has nothing to do with the fact that Obama wants to shave a few billion off the Pentagon's tab.

April 11, 2011

U.S. Military Spending vs. the World


The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has a new report out highlighting global military expenditures. As the above chart indicates, the U.S. retains a healthy lead.

Regionally, defense spending in Europe has fallen 2.8 percent while spending in South America has risen by 5.8 percent and in Africa by 5.2 percent. Brazil drove a lot of the South American growth. Asia rose only a modest 1.4 percent, which the Institute said was slower than previous years. Overall, global military expenditures ticked up slightly at 1.3 percent, the slowest growth rate since 2001.

March 30, 2011

Libya and Defense Spending

Politico reports that proponents of keeping America in debt high defense spending are using Libya as an excuse to put the breaks on cuts:

The airstrikes are already being used by some in the Republican establishment to blunt momentum in favor of the cuts, long considered heretical in a town in which defense contractors constitute a formidable lobby and members of Congress view the Pentagon budget as a jobs program and fear being tagged as unpatriotic.

Squeezed by political forces to his right and his left, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has led the charge against efforts to scale back defense spending.

“This would be one of those examples that can be used to buttress his argument that now is not the time for deep cuts in defense,” said Josh Holly, the committee’s communications director. The chairman’s concern is “not being properly positioned to deal with the contingencies that might be on the horizon, whether that be a modernizing military in China or (a military action) in Libya.”

Libya, though, could just as easily work against the argument for sustaining a huge defense budget, on the grounds that the intervention into Libya's civil war is just the kind of unnecessary policy that is weighing down America's balance sheet. Consider that Libya has cost $550 million "and counting" according to the National Journal. There are cost savings to be had in running a less interventionist foreign policy, but it appears that Washington isn't all that interested in spending restraint at home or abroad.

March 24, 2011

World's Top Arms Exporters


Via the Economist, a chart of the world's leading arms exporter based on recent research from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. And, if you're wondering, India takes the top spot as the world's largest importer of weapons, followed by China, South Korea and Pakistan.

March 17, 2011

A Second War of Choice

Andrew Sullivan raises some good questions about the looming war against Libya:

If we are prepared to do this in Libya, why not in Congo, where the casualties and brutality have been immensely greater? Or Zimbabwe?

There is no intellectually defensible rationale for intervening in Libya on a humanitarian basis that doesn't simultaneously demand interventions in Congo, and Zimbabwe, and Somalia and Sudan, and so on. Why prioritize Libya?

But perhaps what's more troubling about this whole episode, as Sullivan notes, is that it has proceeded almost entirely without debate. When the Bush administration wanted to wage a war of choice against Iraq, it at least spent several months building a public case. The Bush administration had to resort to some wild rhetoric about the possibility of the United States getting nuked, but at least it was making a case built (however absurdly) on American security interests. What has the Obama administration said? What interests are at stake? Why is American security at risk if we do nothing?

And what of Congress? I know it's considered old-fashioned in national security circles to trot out the Constitution and remind folks that it is the people's representatives who get to decide whether the U.S. wages war or not, but it remains the case nonetheless.

And I should add that just because I think the intervention is ill-considered doesn't mean I think it's going to end in a calamity (although it clearly could). There's no reason to believe the U.S. can't deliver a beating to Gaddafi's thugs and force them away from the rebel strongholds without having to intervene on the ground. But unless the Obama administration articulates some clear red-lines about the scope of American involvement, we're on a clear path toward regime change in Libya. For better or worse.

March 14, 2011

Foreign Policy as Emotive Cheer-Leading

To understand how the U.S. can be led into a civil war with no relevance to its national security interests, it's useful to observe the reaction to recent testimony from the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

To recap: when asked about the status of fighting in Libya, Clapper said that a stalemate would eventually produce a victory for the Gaddafi regime.

This provoked a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers and pundits, angry that Clapper told them something they didn't want to hear. It even provoked push-back from the Obama administration's national security team, who were apparently unhappy with a "reality-based" assessment.

But, as Daniel Drezner observed, the job of an intelligence analyst isn't to cheer on one side in a conflict. It's to provide an assessment of the situation. And anyone reading the news in the past few days would surely see that Clapper was merely echoing the headlines pointing to a sharp deterioration in the rebels' position. A foreign intervention notwithstanding, the present trajectory appears to favor Gaddafi.

That this acknowledgment is verboten in Washington and, dispiritingly, inside the Obama administration is a pretty good indication that the U.S. is lurching toward another intervention in the Middle East.

March 9, 2011

Who Has the Biggest Defense Budget?


According to a new report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Saudi Arabia devotes the greatest percentage of its GDP (some 10.5 percent) to defense. The U.S. comes in second at a little over 4.5 percent. China sizes up at under 2 percent of its GDP. The U.S. continues to spend the most in absolute dollars, accounting for 60 percent of the world's total defense spending.

IISS goes on to argue that despite the massive preponderance of defense spending, the trend lines point to a shift in power away from the West:

These further emphasise the key theme that while the military sector in the West is, overall, contracting as a result of financial constraints, elsewhere the picture is often quite different. Many states are seeking to translate their economic strength into military power which they may then use in support of national goals ranging from protecting their energy supplies to asserting territorial claims.

How quickly the global redistribution of military spending and procurement will translate into useful military capability will vary according to national circumstances. However, it is already clear that as a result of shifts in the global distribution of economic power and consequently the resources available for military spending, the United States and other Western powers are losing their monopoly in key areas of defence technology, including stealth aircraft, unmanned systems – and cyber warfare.

Among the fastest ways to national insolvency is for the U.S. to attempt to sustain across the board dominance in a world of rapidly growing economies.

(AP Photo)

March 8, 2011

John Kerry & Intervention


What's remarkable about most of the arguments that U.S. lawmakers are putting forward about an intervention in Libya is that none of them hinge on America's national security interests. Here's Senator John Kerry:

For the administration, Mr. Kerry’s view is more troublesome, given that he is a normally a strong ally on foreign policy issues. He was a fierce critic of the war in Iraq, but he sees Libya as a different matter.

He has pushed the White House to do more — including “cratering” Libya’s airfields so the planes cannot take off.

Mr. Kerry, who was openly siding with officials who want the president to take a stronger public stance, said he was pushing the administration to “prepare for all eventualities” and warned that “showing reticence in a huge public way is not the best option.”

“You want to be prepared if he is bombing people, and killing his own people,” he said, referring to Colonel Qaddafi. The Libyan people, he said, would “look defenseless and we would look feckless — you have to be ready.”

Notice that Senator Kerry's case hinges exclusively on how the U.S. looks or is perceived. He's even scornful of public "reticence" - as if it were a bad thing! There is no indication, or argument, that the lives of Americans or core interests are in danger.

Senator Kerry is surely correct that the U.S. looks feckless when its political leaders issue threats they have no intention of following through on. But that's an argument in favor of reticence.

(AP Photo)

March 7, 2011

Kristol on Gates

Bill Kristol levels a lazy and thankfully brief critique of Robert Gates which is, on the whole, rather disappointing in tone:

"In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Thus spoke Defense Secretary Robert Gates, addressing the cadets at West Point on February 25. It’s ironic that President Obama’s secretary of defense cites Douglas MacArthur as a foreign policy authority - a general who was fired, as he should have been, by a Democratic president after he botched a land war in Asia, sought to use nuclear weapons, and defied civilian authority. Perhaps Gates should spend his time rereading Matthew Ridgway, or talking with David Petraeus, instead of quoting Douglas MacArthur?

This seems an incredibly petty critique, but it provides the basis for nearly all of Kristol's meandering post. Please; if one can't quote Douglas MacArthur at West Point, where the man graduated first in his class, where can one quote him? If quoting someone favorably is tantamount to embracing or glorifying the whole of their history and ideology, no Republican should ever quote FDR - as many have in recent weeks regarding public employee unions, including Kristol's own publication.

Of course this was not Gates' intent. Kristol should know that when Gates says the word "again," it is an indication that he is speaking about future wars, not ones begun before he became secretary of defense. Kristol should know that when Gates speaks about the changing use of large forces, it's a sign that we are unlikely to use large land-based forces in Pakistan or Iran or China. And Kristol should know that when Gates says we ought to "call a spade a spade" in regards to the Libyan no-fly zone operation, the SecDef isn't being defiant of the president or saying it can't be done, but merely stressing that imposing one is not an easy or simple task - and that it requires more than just throwing planes in the air to get shot at.

Kristol should know these things, and I would suggest he probably does know these things, because he isn't an idiot. But he leveled the criticism anyway, which is disappointing.

I'd encourage people interested in a fuller picture than those covered by this petty sniping to read the Gates remarks Kristol references in context, and to consider Fred Kaplan's take on Gates' farewell tour as an alternate view.

March 3, 2011

Rumsfeld on Microfinance

Pejman Yousefzadeh has an interesting interview with Donald Rumsfeld, posing questions - on matters, such as, microfinance - that few have asked during the course of the former defense secretary's whirlwind tour of the media scene.

It's an interesting opportunity to hear Rumsfeld opine on matters other than Iraq and Afghanistan. The podcast is available here for download.

Making Up Reasons

Diplomats say NATO won't act to stop Moammar Gaddafi from bombing his own citizens unless the U.N. Security Council passes an authorizing resolution -- and Russia and China will not allow that. Pentagon officials are meanwhile warning that any no-fly operation would require preemptive attacks on Libyan air defenses. At a Senate hearing Tuesday Gen. James Mattis, chief of U.S. Central Command, called the potential mission "challenging" and added, "it would be a military operation -- it wouldn't be just telling people not to fly airplanes."

Those comments exasperated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a former Navy pilot who, along with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), just returned from a tour of the Middle East. "We spend $500 billion on defense, and we can't take down Libyan air defenses?" he asked incredulously in an interview he and Lieberman gave to me and The Post's Fred Hiatt. "You tell those Libyan pilots that there is a no-fly zone, and they are not going to fly."

"I think they [in the Obama administration] are making up reasons" not to act, McCain added. "You will always have people who will find out the reasons why you can't do it. But I don't recall Ronald Reagan asking anyone's permission to get Cuba out of Grenada, or responding to the killings of American soldiers.." - Jackson Diehl

This is a very odd way to describe what's happening. A top military official tells a Senate panel that bombing Libya is an act of war and not something to be entered into lightly (a message also conveyed by Secretary Gates to British Prime Minister David Cameron), and Senator McCain thinks this is the geopolitical equivalent of calling out of work sick with a "stomach bug."

I don't believe anyone in the Obama administration is arguing that establishing a no-fly zone is some kind of technical or logistical impossibility - they're saying, to borrow a phrase, that it wouldn't be prudent. Senator McCain's counter-argument consists of saying the words "Ronald Reagan" and making an unsubstantiated assertion of how Libya will behave after it gets bombed.

February 28, 2011

Rolling Stone PSYOP Follow-up

Writing on Michael Hastings' PSYOP story, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post follows up on many of the suspicions I shared last week in fantastic, and troublesome, detail if you took the Rolling Stone piece at its word. The best part, of course, is that Hastings' sole significant source on this turns out to not have been trained in any PSYOP work:

Although the Rolling Stone piece claims that Holmes specializes in psychological operations, the Army said it has no record of training Holmes in "psychological operations." Holmes said in his interview with The Post that he learned psychological operations techniques as part of his information operations training but he said he never claimed that he was psychological operations officer.

"It's stretching to say that we're the Jedi-mind-tricks guys," he said.

What's more, it seems the thin evidence in the Hastings piece regarding any inappropriate activity along these lines - beyond IO personnel handling something that a PAO ought to do - is borne out:

But the officers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the investigation, said Holmes never was asked to use psychological operations, deception or other tactics that would be illegal when applied to fellow Americans. He simply was being asked to conduct research using publicly available material, they said. They also said Holmes never attended any of the meetings with visiting members of Congress.

That last sentence conflicts with the Hastings article as well, which claimed he sat in rooms with senators and took notes. But perhaps the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) portion of the piece comes at the end:

[Holmes] said he provided information about his case to the St. Petersburg Times in Florida a few months ago. When nothing was published, he gave the material to Rolling Stone, which wrote about his case in less than a week.

This seems to bear out all our suspicions last week that Hastings' piece was a rushed story, done without due diligence, and rife with error and wild exaggerations. If he plans to be taken seriously in the future, and not just viewed as someone who lucked into a weak McChrystal moment, this Polk award winner needs to mount a defense of this piece, and soon.

February 25, 2011

Hastings, Caldwell and PSYOP Kerfuffle

Freelancer Michael Hastings, whose take-down of Gen. Stanley McChrystal garnered him a recent Polk award, has a piece in Rolling Stone this week that was tearing up certain portions of the blogosphere this week. It's headlined by a bold and attention grabbing claim: that a "runaway general" deployed "psy-ops" on U.S. Senators.

After a 10-story tall headline like that, the story itself is decidedly disappointing, and in some cases undercuts its case by making claims far beyond what the facts in evidence indicate.

(An aside: PSYOP is the proper abbreviation, as it is itself plural. Yet Hastings and a host of other journalists who reported on his story seem dedicated to the use of "psy-ops," a term that I've previously only heard from Hollywood. But this is Rolling Stone we're talking about.)

Hastings' target in this story is Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who is the commander of NATO training for police and soldiers in Afghanistan. Caldwell has a reputation for being a superior commander and a smart, focused leader - he's widely credited for re-energizing the training side of the mission, and is viewed as an up-and-coming general. The case against him is leveled by Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, who claims he was assigned by Caldwell and his staff to "conduct an IO [information operations] campaign against" visiting U.S. senators on CODEL (Congressional Delegation) visits to garner more support for their efforts.

Continue reading "Hastings, Caldwell and PSYOP Kerfuffle" »

February 22, 2011

Senor and Martinez Respond


Last week, I offered a critique of an Washington Post op-ed by Dan Senor and Roman Martinez in response to Donald Rumsfeld's book Known and Unknown. Senor and Martinez were kind enough to reach out on Friday to share their views, which are included in the following email. I encourage you to read their message in full, and then I'll share a few thoughts in response:

Continue reading "Senor and Martinez Respond" »

February 17, 2011

War Robots: Global Growth Industry


According to a new report from ABI Research, defense robotics is a big global business:

Between 50 and 80 countries either already utilize defense robotic systems, or are in the process of building or acquiring the technology to incorporate them into their military programs. These robots may take the form of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and even unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), but they all have in common the purpose of taking the place of, or supplementing, humans in battlefield situations.

According to a new study by ABI Research the global market for military robotics will grow from $5.8 billion in 2010 to more than $8 billion in 2016.

Rumsfeld vs. Bremer


This week in a Washington Post column, Dan Senor and Roman Martinez write in defense of the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, and against his depiction in the bestselling memoir of former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown. An excerpt:

According to Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, U.S. difficulties stemmed not from the Pentagon's failure to plan for the war's aftermath - or Rumsfeld's unwillingness as defense secretary to provide enough troops to secure Iraqis after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Rumsfeld pins most of the blame on the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for its alleged mishandling of Iraq's political transition in 2003-04, which "stoked nationalist resentments" and "fanned the embers of what would become the Iraqi insurgency."

In making their case, Senor and Martinez - who both worked for the DOD and CPA under Bremer - rely primarily on a document Rumsfeld references in his book, "Principles for Iraq - Policy Guidelines".

[Note: Rumsfeld's office has done the impressive due diligence of posting nearly every document he references in his book, a daunting task of memo and report scanning, on his website, I encourage you to dig through them, as there are some fascinating pieces hidden within - my personal favorite is this memo to Doug Feith on September 14, 2001.]

In referencing this memo, Senor and Martinez write:

Rumsfeld's basic theme is that the CPA erred by failing to grant Iraqis "the right to govern themselves" early in the U.S.-led occupation. Rumsfeld claims that he favored a "swift transition" of power to an "Iraqi transitional government" and that the Bush administration formally endorsed this strategy when it approved the Pentagon's plan for an Iraqi Interim Authority in March 2003. He writes that the head of the CPA, L. Paul Bremer, unilaterally decided not to implement this plan.

Not true, Senor and Martinez claim. They write:

Rumsfeld's instructions endorsed the top-down approach his book condemns. The CPA should "assert authority over the country," he wrote, and should "not accept or tolerate self-appointed [Iraqi] 'leaders.' "

There should be "clarity that the Coalition is in charge, with no conflicting signals to the Iraqi people," Rumsfeld wrote. He directed Bremer to take a "hands-on" approach to Iraq's "political reconstruction," noting that "the Coalition will consistently steer the process to achieve the stated objectives" and should "not 'let a thousand flowers bloom.' " The "transition from despotism to a democracy will not happen easily or fast," he concluded, noting that "[r]ushing elections could lead to tyranny of the majority."

If Rumsfeld's goal was to quickly empower an Iraqi government, this was a strange way to communicate that objective.

If that middle paragraph seems to be jamming a lot of partial sentences in to advance their argument, it is. Upon further examination, the quotations Senor and Martinez cite seem to be awfully careful in their cherry picking. Properly understood in context, the emphasis in that sentence ought to be on the "self-appointed" portion. The actual memo includes extensive advice on this front:

8. Improve conditions; involve Iraqis. The Coalition will work energetically to improve the circumstances of the Iraqi people. It will work to achieve rapid and visible accomplishments in vital public services for the Iraqi people, and create an environment that encourages the involvement of the Iraqi people, for it is their responsibility to build the future of their country.

9. Promote Iraqis who share coalition's goals. In staffing ministries and positioning Iraqis in ways that will increase their influence, the Coalition will work to have acceptable Iraqis involved as early as possible, so Iraqi voices can explain the goals and direction to the Iraqi people. Only if Iraqis are seen as being engaged in, responsible for, and explaining and leading their fellow citizens will broad public support develop that is essential for security.

In subsequent memos, Rumsfeld clearly was pressing on the issue of forming an Iraqi Interim Authority. See this memo from June 9, 2003, where he recognized:

Their dream is a guerrilla insurgency. But guerrilla insurgencies depend on popular support. Progress toward an IIA will help neutralize if not dry up that popular support.

Rumsfeld pushed hard for Bremer to move forward in creating an IIA, which at that time had to be interpreted for the vision Bremer had laid out in a June 2, 2003 memo, where he claimed that in a meeting with Iraqi political leaders, he had "laid out our vision for establishing an interim administration (IA) in the next five to six weeks."

Continue reading "Rumsfeld vs. Bremer" »

February 16, 2011

Why the U.S. Needs the Nuclear Triad

By Elbridge Colby

Mark Thompson makes the case on the Time blog that the United States should downgrade the Triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems to a Dyad (or perhaps, implicitly, even a Monad) because, he argues, the modernization of all three legs is unnecessary and too costly. Quoting Jeffrey Richardson of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Thompson contends that fielding three independent methods of delivering strategic nuclear weapons reflects a way of thinking “unconstrained by fiscal resources” and dedicated to pursuit of “a risk-free world.”

Thompson is right to emphasize the importance of strategic trade-offs and cost concerns – but he’s picking on the wrong target when he goes after the Triad.

First off, while Thompson is right to underline the vital importance of deploying systems that can survive a surprise attack, he has a peculiarly complacent view of the survivability challenge. While he rightly notes that there does not appear to be a plausible near-term threat to U.S. ballistic missile submarines while on station, he neglects to mention that Navy planners have to consider how the replacement to today’s Ohio class can survive out to 2080, when the last of the replacements is scheduled to be retired(pdf). History is chock full of the introduction of transformative technologies that have rendered formerly impressive systems vulnerable, and even obsolete. Having two other legs of the Triad provides cushioning against such breakthroughs.

Furthermore, added survivability is not the only advantage the Triad offers. Fielding three legs also provides insurance against technical malfunctions in one or two of the legs and gives policymakers a menu of diplomatic signaling options, to name a couple of other virtues.

Continue reading "Why the U.S. Needs the Nuclear Triad" »

February 11, 2011

Not Getting It


Charles Krauthammer lays out a series of principles he believes the U.S. should adhere to in micro-managing supporting freedom in the Middle East. The list itself is rather anodyne but the rationale looks rather problematic:

We are, unwillingly again, parties to a long twilight struggle, this time with Islamism - most notably Iran, its proxies, and its potential allies, Sunni and Shiite. We should be clear-eyed about our preferred outcome - real democracies governed by committed democrats - and develop policies to see this through.

One thing that's important to keep in mind when reading geopolitical advice of this sort is to recognize that during the 1990s, when al-Qaeda was metastasizing, Krauthammer et. al. were more concerned with Saddam Hussein. Having misread the Sunni jihadist threat in favor of a state-based menace, we're now told that Iran represents the head of the Islamist menace. And again, it's wrong.

The signature Islamist threat to the United States does not come from Iran but from Sunni groups aligned with or fighting under the banner of al-Qaeda. Those groups may or may not be helped by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but Iran is neither here nor there. It's the Sunni groups with the demonstrated willingness and capacity to travel into the United States to slaughter innocent people. They're the ones attempting to kill Western civilians with toner cartridge bombs. They're the ones attacking mosques and military bases inside Pakistan. This is not a movement controlled by Iran - it's laughable to even suggest that when Pakistan, the outright sponsors of Sunni terrorism, can't even reign in all of its various tentacles.

Yes, Iran may fund or arm portions of this movement to bloody the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that's a far cry from trying to use them as the tip of a global Islamist spear against the United States. These groups view Iran and Shia Islam in general as apostate, which is why they've gone to great lengths in both Iraq and Pakistan to butcher Shiites.

Iran poses a geopolitical challenge to U.S. influence in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda wants to kill you. One can make a solid case that American foreign policy needs to be more concerned with the former, but conflating the two isn't helpful.

(AP Photo)

February 10, 2011

Obama's Global Zero (Not So Much)

According to proliferation expert Henry Sokolski, the Obama administration is seeking nuclear deals with Jordan and Saudi Arabia that would eschew needed safeguards:

What is truly flabbergasting, though, is the fact that the Obama administration seems willing to accede to both Jordan’s and Saudi Arabia’s demands. At almost exactly the same time Egyptian protestors were filing into Tahrir Square on January 25, a highly respected arms control news service reported that the U.S. government was discussing nuclear deals with Jordan and Saudi Arabia which would not include the “gold standard” safeguards that the Obama administration has demanded from other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to ensure that nuclear cooperation is less likely to enable nuclear proliferation. In specific, these deals lacked any requirement that Saudi Arabia or Jordan forswear making nuclear fuel or ratify a new, tougher nuclear inspections regime known as the IAEA Additional Protocol.
It's early still in the Egyptian crisis, but it's not hard to see how a democratic Egypt could potentially develop a weapon of its own on the usual grounds that it lives in a rough neighborhood with one nuclear state near its border and Iran on the cusp. As Sokolski notes, Cairo has already "made several haphazard attempts to get a bomb." Good times.

February 9, 2011

Terrorism vs. Major War

Rasmussen finds that U.S. voters fear terrorism over a major war:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 12% of Likely U.S. Voters think traditional wars are a bigger threat to the United States than terrorists. Eighty percent (80%) disagree and see terrorists as the bigger threat.

However, voters have mixed feelings about refocusing the military toward fighting terrorism. Thirty percent (30%) feel America could improve its national security by reducing the number of soldiers in uniform and focusing more strategically on fighting terrorism, but 41% oppose such a strategic shift. Twenty-nine percent (29%) are not sure which is the best course.

February 7, 2011

Russia Builds Up Pacific Navy

One of the biggest impediments to China's rise to great power status is the fact that China is surrounded by powerful neighbors. This, for instance, is how Russia is handling it:

The Kremlin’s choice of stimulus package is a bit of a throwback, though—among other things, a new fleet of warships to challenge China. Last week Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced a whopping $678 billion package of new defense spending for the next decade, with a quarter of the money going to revamp Russia’s Pacific fleet. On the Kremlin’s shopping list: 20 new ships, including a new class of attack submarines, plus new missile subs, frigates, and an aircraft carrier.

U.S. Views on Forward Deployments

Rasmussen offers some grist for the coming austerity battle:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 49% of Likely U.S. voters think we should remove troops from Western Europe and let the region defend itself. Forty-eight percent (48%) feel the same way about Japan. However, 60% say the United States should leave its troops in South Korea....

Earlier polling found that voters are fairly evenly divided as to whether the federal government spends too much or too little on national defense, but most also appear to dramatically underestimate how much is actually spent. Removing troops from Western Europe and Japan could reduce military spending by tens of billions of dollars annually.

February 3, 2011

Debating Deterrence

Those interested in questions of nuclear strategy should head over to the Interpreter for a debate on the subject.

January 24, 2011

China, America & the Middle East

Yiyi Chen, a professor at the Shanghai Jiaotong University and an adviser on Middle East affairs to the Beijing government, told The Media Line that Beijing in no hurry to significantly increase its role in the region. Right now, its focus is on studying the region and its problems carefully before deepening its involvement.

“The Western way isn’t the only way. The U.S. way has its value, but apparently it hasn’t solved the crises and conflicts of the region,” Chen said. “China has experienced the problem of foreign cultures and foreign value systems trying to impose their views on others ...We don’t have a view that we want to impose on the countries of the region.”

China’s growing economic and political clout hasn’t yet made itself felt in the Middle East, even as it has become the largest importer of the region’s oil, buying just over a tenth of the Gulf’s output and a quarter of Iran’s. But Beijing is starting to exercise unprecedented influence on critical issues, most notably by objecting efforts by the West to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. - David Rosenberg

From an American perspective, there's two ways to look at this. First, one can be enraged (or bemused) at how China is free-riding on America's provision of Persian Gulf security. While the American taxpayer and U.S. military bear the costs of keeping the region (relatively) stable, China bears none of those costs but enjoys all the benefits. The second way to view this is that the U.S. has China by the proverbial short hairs should relations deteriorate between the two great powers. With so much U.S. military power in the Gulf, it would be easy to disrupt energy shipments to China, but hard for China to inflict such a blow on the U.S.

What's interesting is Chinese thinking on the matter - insofar as Chen is a representative example. For the moment at least it looks like China is happy playing an "off-shore" role, which means the first interpretation mentioned above (free-rider) is perhaps a more accurate description of what's going on. Of course, China could very well want to play a more overt role in the region and simply lack the capacity or opportunity.

January 22, 2011

Global Posture for Global Threats

I hope to have a bit more to say on Robert Kagan's long piece in the Weekly Standard where he makes the case (again) for American global hegemony, but I wanted to highlight this short bit where he sketches out the historical grounds for America's expansive global posture:

Under Franklin Roosevelt, and then under the leadership of Harry Truman and Dean Acheson, American leaders determined that the safest course was to build “situations of strength” (Acheson’s phrase) in strategic locations around the world, to build a “preponderance of power,” and to create an international system with American power at its center. They left substantial numbers of troops in East Asia and in Europe and built a globe-girdling system of naval and air bases to enable the rapid projection of force to strategically important parts of the world. They did not do this on a lark or out of a yearning for global dominion. They simply rejected the offshore balancing strategy, and they did so because they believed it had led to great, destructive wars in the past and would likely do so again.

That's true, but this leaves out a fairly glaring fact: the Soviet Union. America's post World War II global strategy developed not simply with the war's lessons in mind, but with the specter of a globally powerful strategic competitor threatening the post-war balance. That's a fairly significant factor to simply skirt around in the retelling of American strategy following the second World War.

The U.S. faces new threats today and is justified in maintaining some military forces abroad as a forward line of defense and to protect some vital interests, but clearly the situation is a lot different, and a lot more favorable to American security, than it was in the 1950s.

January 20, 2011

World Energy Use


BP has released their annual Review of World Energy. The above chart highlights oil trade movements around the world. You can read the whole report here. Also check out a very cool interactive tool to find various statistics about world energy use.

January 11, 2011

Learning From Bad Mistakes

Part of what's disheartening about the current debate over the defense budget is the idea that future American policy makers will make the same poor decisions as those in the past. Here's Max Boot:

Indeed, even as we were winning in Iraq, we were losing in Afghanistan, because we didn’t have enough troops to adequately garrison both countries. In the 1990s, it never occurred to force planners from the Bush and Clinton administrations that we would be making such large ground-force commitments, so they did not create an army big enough to handle such commitments. Today we are hearing the same refrain we heard back then: that there is scant chance we will fight a major ground war in the future, so why bother preparing for one? Unfortunately, history has a tendency to make a mockery of such certainties, in part because our very unreadiness to fight increases the odds that we will have to do so by encouraging potential enemies to test our will. [Emphasis mine]

If the Bush administration did not decide to invade and occupy Iraq, there would be no strain on America's armed forces - even accounting for a larger troop commitment to nation build in Afghanistan. It is worth restating this because it's a point that seems somewhat lost (or deliberately obscured) in the debate over the size of American ground forces: the U.S. decided to attack Iraq, it was not compelled to, as it was in Afghanistan.

So what you have here is not a deficit of military strength but a civilian leadership that made a very bad strategic decision and, because it made a bad decision, put huge strains on the American military (and American economy). The way to reverse this problem is not to put more money into building bigger ground forces to occupy future Middle Eastern or North African countries, but to put in place decision makers who will be more responsible stewards of American power.

January 10, 2011

Global Responsibilities vs. Bond Vigilantes


James Joyner examines Secretary Gates' defense budget:

Again, this is hardly "austerity" in the sense the rest of the NATO Allies are experiencing. But that's a reflection of not only greater financial resources here but of the responsibilities that come with being a global superpower.

Further, let me again re-emphasize that Gates is not pretending that these are deep cuts. Or "cuts" at all. Rather, he's recognizing that the era of unlimited growth in the American defense budget are over, at least for a while, and acting accordingly.

I think this reality - taken together with an obvious unwillingness on the part of the political establishment to tackle entitlement spending - means that some form of bond market-provoked crash austerity program of the likes that is currently roiling Greece and Ireland has now become more likely for the U.S. over the medium term. But at least we'll have met our "global responsibilities."

(AP Photo)

January 5, 2011

Why the Status Quo Endures

Benjamin Friedman has a good take U.S. foreign policy analysis and the factors that shape it:

Analysts tend to reflect the views of one party because they hope to serve it or because their employer does. Those pining for jobs in the Obama or Thune administration are not going to tell you exactly what they think about Afghanistan without considering how their would-be bosses would react.

A fourth bias in defense analysis is what academics call a selection bias. Just as people that go into the international development business are likely to support increased foreign aid, defense analysts are more likely than most to be hawkish people.

Fifth is social convention. When these pressures point in a particular direction, it seems impolite and for many people uncomfortable to swim against the tide. And we unconsciously adjust our political views to fit in with those around us.

As Friedman writes, you really can't change this incentive structure but it would benefit everyone to be more open and honest about it.

December 22, 2010

U.S. Bombing Plans for China

Thomas Barnett reposts maps produced by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment detailing all the areas inside China that the U.S. would want to bomb in the event of hostilities over Taiwan. Barnett:

If somebody publishes maps of the U.S. delineating all the places they'd want to bomb on the first day of the war . . . I'd take that kinda personally. No, I'm not naive enough to believe the Chinese don't have theirs. But it takes a certain chutzpah to publish yours so openly while decrying Chinese "provocations" and "throwing their weight around." China hasn't waged war in a very long time. The U.S. does so regularly. Whose maps should we take more seriously?

This gets to the nub of one of the odder complaints the Pentagon makes about China's military build-up - its "lack of transparency." Would we feel better about China if they came out and said, ala the U.S., that they're developing their military capability so that they can blow up our carrier battle groups?

December 14, 2010

Mission Accomplished


Kori Schake offers a hats off to Defense Secretary Robert Gates for his efforts on Afghanistan. After reading it, I came away a bit confused. It's clear that Schake thinks Gates is a skilled bureaucratic operator, and obviously any good policy needs skilled bureaucrats to shepherd it through the White House. But nowhere in the encomium is anything about how Gates strategy in the actual war in Afghanistan (not Washington) is faring.

The Gates strategy - to put in place a sustained surge of forces in Afghanistan until 2014 when the Afghans will be able to fight the Taliban on their own - has hardly been proven effective yet. By all means, credit Secretary Gates for seeing his preferred policy outcome prevail in the U.S. but it hasn't prevailed in Afghanistan yet. Nor is there much evidence to suggest that if it does, that the U.S. will commensurately safer from Islamic terrorism than had we pursued a less costly and ambitious plan.

(AP Photo)

Drivers of Suicide Terrorism


I've pointed out in the past the work of Robert Pape on how military occupations promote suicide terrorism, so I think it's worthwhile to point out that in his suicide note, the Swiss bomber Taimour al-Abdaly credited offensive cartoons as the reason he attempted to slaughter innocent Swedes out shopping for the holidays.

That doesn't mean the U.S. and the West shouldn't expect blow-back if it plunges military forces into the Middle East, but that there's more to the phenomena of suicide terrorism than attempts to drive infidels off of holy soil.

(AP Photo)

December 6, 2010

Muslim Public's View of Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda

Pew Research highlights this surveys Muslim publics for their views on Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda:


It's worth noting here that Turkey is the least receptive to these groups. In a later question from Pew, on the whether Islam in politics is a good or bad thing, Turks had the lowest percent of respondents (45 percent) suggesting it was a good thing.

December 3, 2010

The Tangled Web

The United States will agree to a demand by Kyrgyz officials that their impoverished country be given a share of lucrative fuel contracts for a critical transit hub here for troops headed to Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.

Clinton's announcement, made during a five-hour visit to the fragile Central Asian democracy, appeared designed to assuage growing anger over Pentagon contracts that have been worth about $3 billion over eight years to Mina Corp. and Red Star Enterprises, a secretive business group registered in Gibraltar.

The new arrangement should also please Russia, which is expected to play a big - and profitable - role. Gazpromneft, part of Russia's state-controlled energy giant Gazprom, will probably supply much of the jet fuel.

Moscow has frequently used Gazprom to further its political and strategic goals, but the Obama administration is gambling that its efforts to "reset" relations with Russia - and the prospect of large profits for Gazprom - will help ensure that jet fuel keeps flowing to the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, known as the Manas Transit Center. - Washington Post

Now the specifics of this seem rather pragmatic - if everyone gets to wet their whistle, no one complains. But it's worth pondering the contortions that U.S. policy must endure all so that we can stop under 100 al-Qaeda fighters from maybe someday crossing into Afghanistan.

New Weapon Hits Afghanistan

The Army is deploying its new XM-25 a "smart rifle" in its efforts to pare back the Taliban insurgency:

The Pentagon has rolled out prototypes of its first-ever programmable "smart" grenade launcher, a shoulder-fired weapon that uses microchipped ammunition to target and kill the enemy, even when the enemy is hidden behind walls or other cover....

The gun fires 25mm air-bursting shells up to 2,300 feet, well past the range of most rifles used by today's soldiers, and programs them to explode at a precise distance, allowing troops to neutralise insurgents hiding behind walls, rocks or trenches or inside buildings.

The Army is calling it a "game changer" which is unlikely given that killing the Taliban is something we've been good at for quite some time, with little impact on Afghanistan's overall stability and coherence.

November 23, 2010

Obama and Missile Defense

Michaela Bendikova doesn't want the Obama administration to put its faith in arms control treaties but instead to trust in conservative nostrums:

Arms control treaties should be negotiated from a position of strength. After all, Ronald Reagan’s “Peace Through Strength” maxim brought about the end of the Cold War. This enduring principle suggests an alternative path to New START. Pursuing nuclear disarmament in a proliferated world without employing missile defense and maintaining credible nuclear deterrence increases instability, which can lead to nuclear war.

The Obama administration is employing missile defenses. It was literally the headline news out of the NATO summit. And they are maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent: when (if) the New START reductions occur, the U.S. will still have enough nuclear weapons to utterly destroy the capitals and industrial centers of basically any conceivable combination of adversaries. And that's before you account for America's overwhelming advantage in conventional arms.

Israel's Preemptive Strike?


I think the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg may need to revise his prediction that there's a 50 percent chance that Israel will bomb Iran in the next twelve months:

Iran's nuclear program has suffered a recent setback, with major technical problems forcing the temporary shutdown of thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium, diplomats told The Associated Press on Monday.

The diplomats said they had no specifics on the nature of the problem that in recent months led Iranian experts to briefly power down the machines they use for enrichment — a nuclear technology that has both civilian and military uses.

But suspicions focused on the Stuxnet worm, the computer virus thought to be aimed at Iran's nuclear program, which experts last week identified as being calibrated to destroy centrifuges by sending them spinning out of control.

North Korea might want to remove the USB ports from any computers inside their uranium enrichment facility.

(AP Photo)

November 22, 2010

American Military Spending


The Council on Foreign Relations' Geo-Graphics blog highlights the underlying factors of America's defense spending relative to the world's:

Any change in the U.S. share can be attributed to the operation of four factors: (1) changes in U.S. GDP, (2) changes in rest-of-world GDP, (3) changes in U.S. military spending as a percent of GDP, and (4) changes in rest-of-world military spending as a percent of GDP. Real GDP growth is a sustainable source of change, whereas changes in spending as a percent of GDP require painful tradeoffs and are ultimately unsustainable. Over the past twenty years, the increase in the ratio of U.S. military spending to world military spending has been driven primarily by unsustainable forces.

Fortunately, the U.S. could make defense spending cuts and still retain an edge over any potential competitor, but it cannot do so while simultaneously insisting on the same scope of commitments.

November 18, 2010

Obama in Space

The Union of Concerned Scientists is, well, concerned about the Obama administration's space policies:

“As space gets more crowded, risks to satellites are growing,” said UCS Global Security Program Senior Scientist Laura Grego, one of the report’s authors. “And increasingly, insecurity about space activities and the motives behind them are creating friction among spacefaring countries. Unfortunately, the response from the international community, including the United States, has been inadequate. If the Obama administration adopted our recommendations, it could help defuse these tensions and ensure a more secure future in space.”

As David Axe explains, one of the key sources of "friction" is the Air Force's X-37 "space plane" - an unmanned, stealthy vehicle currently orbiting the Earth.

November 15, 2010

How to Survive a Pirate Hijacking

The European Naval Force for Somalia has released a helpful brochure in the event that you find yourself captured by Somali pirates. The advice is here. (pdf) Among its many recommendations:

Be aware that the ransom payment process is very stressful for the pirates and they may be more agitated than normal. Try to avoid contact with the pirates at this time. Confine yourself to established routines and behaviour patterns so as not to attract unnecessary attention on you. It may be some days after payment before you are released. Do not expect to be released immediately....

Khat is a common drug used in the Somali region. If the pirates onboard your vessel use this or other drugs, you should be careful to avoid any confrontations whilst they are under the influence of such substances. You should not be tempted to take drugs, other than for legitimate medical conditions, whilst in captivity. The taking of drugs may offer temporary relief, however the negative effects of withdrawal symptoms and increased tension due to cravings could result in unnecessary violence from your captors.

[Hat tip: Danger Room]

Defending Stasis


Gary Schmitt and Thomas Donnelly take a look at the Simpson/Bowles deficit cutting proposal:

No, what ultimately drives their push for defense cuts is the idea of, in Bowles and Simpson’s phrase, “rethinking our 21st century global role.” This is shorthand for a reduced American role in the world. What the libertarian right and liberal left want, in other words, is nothing short of a reversal in America’s six-decade-long strategic posture.

America certainly faces a budget crisis. And to the degree that economies can be found in the Pentagon budget, they ought to be found. But people should not kid themselves: Proposals for treating defense as if it were on an equal footing with the Department of Education are not about getting America’s fiscal house in order. They are back door efforts to reduce America’s global leadership role.

The funny thing about this argument is that it contains the seeds of its own refutation. We have, as the authors admit, a strategic posture that dates back sixty years, back when the world was a considerably different place. Why wouldn't you want to rethink that posture in light of both America's budgetary capacity and the geopolitical circumstances?

(AP Photo)

November 11, 2010

How the Pentagon Will Fight China


David Axe gives us a glimpse of the AirSea Battle concept:

It seems AirSea Battle mostly involves better communications and command procedures for integrating ships and planes into the same task forces. But there’s at least one new piece of hardware: a new, more deadly anti-ship missile. On Wednesday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded Lockheed Martin a 3-year, $160 million contract to develop the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile. The goal is for LRASM to give Navy ships “the ability to attack important enemy ships outside the ranges of the enemy’s ability to respond with anti-ship missiles of their own.”

LRASM must fit into the Navy’s existing vertical-launch cells and should rely less on “off-board” targeting — drones, planes, satellites — than current weapons. In other words, the LRASM must have its own, smart sensors. That would allow even isolated or electronically-jammed American ships to sink enemy vessels.

It's good to see the Department of Defense finding inspiration in old Atari games. More, in a serious vein, here.

(AP Photo)

A Nation Building Army?

Matt Duss isn't impressed with Dominic Tierney's effort to cast nation-building as a Jeffersonian pursuit:

Tierney’s attempt to rope in Thomas Jefferson, specifically, seems especially questionable given the huge debts that the U.S. has racked up to pay for our current foreign nation-building efforts. Jefferson’s opposition to saddling one’s descendants with debt is well-known (even if he failed to meet this standard in his personal affairs). In 1816, Jefferson wrote, “The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity under the name of funding is but swindling futurity on a large scale.” In 1820 he added, “It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.” And on and on.

November 9, 2010

China and the U.S. Navy


Alvin Felzenberg and Alexander Gray make the case for bolstering the U.S. Navy to contain China:

Actions such as these suggest that the people formulating current U.S. military posture may have forgotten a vital lesson of the Cold War: that perception can often be just as important as reality. It was America’s unprecedented investments in rebuilding and protecting Western Europe through the Marshall Plan and deterring an outside threat against it through NATO that demonstrated to the Soviet Union America’s commitment to defending the West against aggression. But for the perception that the U.S. was willing to go to war to protect democratic countries on that continent, the history of the last half-century would have been the story of either the loss of freedom through accommodation to Soviet aggression, or war.

The trouble with this version of Cold War history is that it leaves out a rather important fact: the U.S. fought two massive wars - at a cost of over 100,000 lives - to sustain the "perception" that we were willing to stand up to Soviet Communism. Are the authors suggesting that the U.S. embark on similar endeavors to impress upon the Chinese leadership our seriousness?

They continue:

Absent an overwhelming superiority in naval strength to back up trade and other negotiated agreements, President Obama’s efforts to re-engage in Asia will be worthless. China respects power and will adjust its foreign policy to the realization that the interests of America and its allies are both immutable and capable of being defended. That is the true path to an enduring peace.

I think it's correct for the U.S. to sustain a good deal of military power in Asia, of which the Navy plays a huge role. But this kind of advice really, really falls apart without a clear definition as to the American interests that are supposed to be "immutable." It's particularly important to spell out which of our allies' interests we are expected to treat as immutable and worthy of dying for.

(AP Photo)

November 1, 2010

Energy Security


Robert Bryce's piece on the newly launched RealClearScience on the "Looming Rare Earths Train Wreck" is worth a read. While the piece is ostensibly aimed at shooting down the hype over electric cars, it can also be read as an antidote to concerns about nascent "Iranian hegemony" over the Persian Gulf:

The diversity and size of the global oil market provides the U.S. with real energy security. The numbers tell the tale. In 2009, the U.S. imported an average of 11.7 million barrels per day of crude or refined oil products from 82 different countries while it exported – yes, exported -- an average of 2 million barrels per day to customers in 83 countries.

And here’s even better news for energy security: domestic oil production is increasing. In 2009, America produced an average of 5.3 million barrels per day, the highest level since 2004.

Obviously, Iran has the potential to cause oil prices to spike temporarily, causing serious economic pain to consuming nations in the short term. But the U.S. has a lot more energy security than all the worrying about the Persian Gulf would suggest.

(AP Photo)

October 26, 2010

U.S. Views on Combating Terrorism

According to a new Pew Research poll, Americans give the federal government good marks for combating terrorism:

About seven-in-ten (69%) say the government is doing very (15%) or fairly well (54%) in reducing the threat of terrorism, numbers that have changed only slightly since January. Still, 30% say the ability of terrorists to attack the U.S. is now greater than it was on 9/11, while 41% think it is about the same. Just a quarter (25%) say the ability of terrorists to attack is less now than it was in 2001. These numbers also are little changed since the start of the year.

Not surprisingly, there's been a partisan shift:

Democrats are now more likely than Republicans to say the government is doing very or fairly well in reducing the threat of terrorism. Fully 84% of Democrats give the government positive ratings compared with 64% of Republicans.

October 20, 2010

Britain's Defense Cuts

The Guardian published a full list of what's on the chopping block. From a companion report:

Britain's armed forces will no longer be able to mount the kind of operations conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan, the government's strategic defence review made clear today. For at least a decade it will also be impossible to deploy the kind of carrier taskforce which liberated the Falklands 28 years ago.

Though defence chiefs said today they will still have significant expeditionary forces, they will not be able to intervene on the scale of recent years. According to new defence planning assumptions, UK forces will be able to carry out one enduring brigade-level operation with up to 6,500 personnel, compared to the 10,000 now in Afghanistan, plus two smaller interventions, at any one time.

Alternatively, they will be able to mount a one-off, time-limited major intervention – "with sufficient warning" – of up to three brigades with about 30,000 personnel, which is two-thirds of the force deployed to Iraq in 2003.

This is being greeted with dismay in many corners but I think it's useful to keep in mind that if we accept the fact that waging preventative wars followed by large-scale military occupation is not the proper way to combat terrorism, then fielding a smaller army is not necessarily a major setback to international security. But it is rather absurd to build an aircraft carrier without the attendant aircraft to carry.

Collective Defense


With NATO member states slashing defense budgets, Ian Brzezinski and Damon Wilson ask the obvious question: what becomes of a defensive alliance if none of the allies are meeting their defense spending obligations:

All allies are cutting or flat-lining defense spending. Italy reduced its budget by 10 percent. Germany may reduce the Bundeswehr from 250,000 soldiers to 163,000. The U.K. defense review could generate budget cuts of up to 15 per cent. Denmark is considering $500 million in savings by 2014 out of an annual budget of just under $4 billion. Central European allies are contemplating cuts of similar magnitude, and growth of the Pentagon budget will be surpassed by inflation. These trends are likely to be enduring....

A new Strategic Concept will be meaningless if the alliance allows its financial strains to undercut co operation, cripple capabilities and undermine solidarity with international arms sales. The summit’s success will be determined by how NATO leaders harness budgetary austerity to reinforce unity, drive forward collaboration and deliver military effectiveness. Only then will NATO’s new concept have real strategic substance.

On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense to wring defense savings through tighter integration between NATO members. But integrating the hardware is one thing, integrating the "software" of political decision-making is quite another. And it's difficult to see a post-Afghanistan NATO having the kind of political cohesion necessary to make a truly integrated NATO defense posture feasible.

(AP Photo)

October 19, 2010

Britain's Defense Cuts

David Cameron's coalition announced plans to pare back defense spending as part of a wide-ranging effort to eliminate the country's deficit. The video above provides a good overview of both the strategic rationale behind Cameron's defense review and the possible pitfalls of how Britain is arraying her military forces.

The U.S. reaction to this is horror:

While Cameron pledges to safeguard funding for British forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. has already raised worries that cuts could leave its key ally unable to take on a major role in military missions in the future.

"This is not a time where you can forget about defense or you don't reinvest your savings as best you can in defense," said Jim Townsend, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. "This is not a time where you can slacken in the need to keep strong and to invest in your military."

Last week, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus visited London for talks and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a stop in Europe to emphasize that NATO members must be able to make "appropriate contributions," despite pressures on national budgets.

And if they don't? If I you were a NATO member looking at crippling debt loads and the urgent need to slash government expenditures and you knew you had the world's most powerful military obligated by treaty to ride to your rescue, where would you make cuts?

There's apparently some worry that the U.S. will "give up" on Britain now that she's proposed to build aircraft carriers without aircraft (seriously) but that strikes me as misunderstanding what the alliance was about.

October 18, 2010

The Benefits of Off-Shore Balancing


By Robert Pape

Robert A. Pape is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago specializing in international security affairs. He currently serves as Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. This analysis first appeared on the CPOST blog.

Kori Schake, a valuable participant in our Capitol Hill conference on “Cutting the Fuse,” raises a number of important issues with the policy of off-shore balancing. I am delighted to respond and believe our exchange is an example of thoughtful thinking about how to move beyond the War on Terror.

Schake is right that U.S. policy makers are well-meaning; sending our ground troops overseas to advance our interests. But she overlooks how our ground forces often - and inadvertently - produce the opposite of what they intend: more anti-American terrorists than they kill. In 2000, before the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there were 20 suicide attacks around the world and one (against the USS Cole) was anti-American. In the last 12 months, by comparison, 300 suicide attacks have occurred and over 270 were anti-American. We simply must face the reality - no matter how well-intentioned, our current war on terror is not serving American interests.

Schake is also right that, once we know that nearly all suicide terrorism occurs in response to military occupations by democracies, it is perfectly reasonable to ask "why some occupations and not others?" And, this has been a core element of my research, as readers will see in Chapter 1 of Cutting the Fuse and in my 2008 article in the American Political Science Review, among other publications.

In a nutshell, two factors matter.

The first is social distance between occupier and occupied, because the wider the social distance, the more the occupied community may fear losing its way of life. Although other differences may matter, research shows that occupations are especially likely to escalate to suicide terrorism when there is a difference between the predominant religion of the occupier and the predominant relation of the occupied.

Religious difference matters not because some religions are predisposed to suicide attack - indeed, there are religious differences even in purely secular suicide attack campaigns, such as the LTTE (Hindu) against the Sinhalese (Buddhists).

Rather, religious differences matter because it enables terrorist leaders to claim that the occupier is motivated by a religious agenda that can scare both secular and religious members of a local community – which is why bin Laden never misses an opportunity to describe U.S. occupiers as “Crusaders” – motivated by a Christian agenda to convert Muslims to Christianity, steal Muslim oil and resources, and change the local population’s way of life whether they liked it or not.

This first factor of religious difference explains why some occupations escalate to suicide terrorism, but not others – not only in recent times, but also in the past – such as why the Japanese started kamikaze attacks in October 1944 to defend their home islands from U.S. occupation, while the Germans did not.

The second factor is prior rebellion. Suicide terrorism is typically a strategy of last resort, often used by weak actors when other, non-suicide methods of resistance to occupation fail. This is why we see suicide attack campaigns so often evolve from ordinary terrorist or guerrilla campaigns, as in the cases of Israel and Palestine, the PKK in Turkey, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, etc. So, if the South Koreans ever began to resist American military presence in a serious way, this would be more worrisome than it may at first appear.

On the next issue she raises, Schake is simply wrong that “an offshore balancing approach means that we will not be engaged with military forces on the ground.” As readers will see in throughout my book, working with local allies is a core element of off-shore balancing. And, America has used the strategy of off-shore balancing to great benefit numerous times and often in concert with local allies - in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s, in 1990 to kick Saddam out of Kuwait and in 2001 to topple the Taliban (it controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan and 50 U.S. troops, U.S. air and naval power, and U.S. economic and political support for the Northern Alliance kicked them and al-Qaeda out of the country!).

Finally, I agree that replacing mass boots with mass drones would be a mistake - since vast numbers of air strikes could inflict more than enough collateral damage to incite terrorism in response - which is exactly what Cutting the Fuse explains, and it's also why off-shore balancing means responding with stand-off military forces against significant size terrorist camps like Tarnak Farms (a military base larger than the Pentagon), and not every third ranking cadre in individual houses in Quetta, where more selective or even non-military means may well be more effective.

I hope Ms. Schake will have an opportunity to read Cutting the Fuse and to consider the research behind it. Governor Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton - both heads of the 9/11 Commission - have, as did Thomas Schelling (Nobel laureate in Economics) and Adm. Gary Roughhead (the current Chief of Naval Operations). They too raised the issues Schake did (and more), and found convincing answers in the book.

(AP Photo)

October 14, 2010

Myths, Facts and Defense Spending

Today on Capitol Hill, representatives of the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Foreign Policy Initiative will gather to present a brief on the subject of Defending Defense: Setting the Record Straight on US Military Spending, which will reportedly "separate myth from fact in the current defense-spending debate."

As I've noted in the past, the push to make defense spending off limits is all about convincing the incoming wave of small government populists who are about to descend on Congress to leave defense pork off the cutting list. Cato President Ed Crane responded to the Wall Street Journal oped kicking off this project (authored on behalf of AEI's Arthur Brooks, Heritage's Ed Feulner, and FPI's Bill Kristol) with the point: "Rather than Congress constantly writing a blank check, the process of military budgeting should begin with a discussion about security necessities and their costs." But one doesn't need to be a libertarian or be opposed America's efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan to think that the massive waste and inefficiencies of the defense budget need to be curtailed.

When listening to Heritage's Mackenzie Eaglen, former advisor to Sen. Susan Collins, and John Noonan, a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard, defend this viewpoint, I simply don't find their arguments convincing. I can't see the conservative justification for the view that defense spending needs to be placed off-limits for cutbacks, nor why the Tea Party movement should view this argument with anything but skepticism. In Noonan's interview here, he names a number of expanding and changing missions (soft power, cyber-security, two wars overseas), but then reverts to the standard two "big money" arguments: "the Air Force has old planes and we should make new ones", and "the Navy has the smallest fleet since World War I." Of course, neither of those things really impact the "new" missions for the United States military.

Deterrence is important. But just having more carriers and fighters isn't the answer. The United States already outnumbers the next 20 navies combined, most of which are our allies. The point is not the size of the fleet, but the capabilities. China and Russia have been achieving a good deal of technological success when it comes to anti-carrier low-flying missiles. The more such technology progresses, the less our ability to stick a carrier between China and Taiwan matters. Deterrence depends on spending money wisely, investing it with a mind toward proper priorities, and without a cap on the pocketbook, there's no incentive for making those decisions.

I have yet to hear one suggestion on expanding the defense budget from the groups involved in this effort that focuses on what the United States is doing right now. Next-war-itis has been a problem within the military acquisition process since the Cold War -- to the benefit of many suppliers -- and it's a "Myth of the Next" approach Sec. Gates rejected when he slashed the Army's Future Combat Systems while massively expanding the MRAPs budget.

Yet there's a more fundamental problem here: a question of conservative hypocrisy. Today, writing in Politico, Feulner and Sen. Jim DeMint hail the arrival of the Tea Parties as an enduring force in American politics. They note the disgust of these small government populists with the establishment forces of both parties. That frustration didn't come from nowhere, of course: it came from years of being ignored when it comes to matters of policy. It came from seeing the dilution of principle in favor of power. And it came from seeing their elected officials make small government promises and then defending bloated pork.

Those conservatives who claim that defense spending should be off-limits at Capitol Hill meetings of Washington, D.C. think tanks aren't going to find an eager audience with these new anti-establishment populists. And that, in my judgment, is a fact.

October 12, 2010

Policing Sea Lanes


One common refrain among proponents of boosting defense expenditures is that failure to do so would, among other things, leave sea lanes unguarded. The reality is quite different, as Peter Apps explains in a report for Reuters:

The U.S. Navy estimates that on any given day as many as 30 to 40 warships are engaged in operations to keep shipping safe from young Somalis in skiffs with AK-47s and ladders.

While U.S., NATO and European Union forces make up the majority, the last two years have seen a growing presence from China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea and others.

While piracy -- which has redrawn shipping routes and driven up insurance costs -- is seen the main driver, all are seen also wanting to stake a claim to increasingly important sea lanes.

This growing presence suggests precisely what many libertarian advocates of reduced defense spending have long argued: that removing the U.S. from some security missions doesn't mean chaos and terror consumes the Earth, but that other stakeholders get off the sidelines and bear the costs for these missions. In this particular case I think keeping maritime routes open is a much better use of American defense dollars than nation building in Afghanistan or Iraq, but there's no reason to believe that this dynamic - of other nations filling in gaps left by the U.S. - couldn't be profitably replicated elsewhere.

(AP Photo)

October 7, 2010

Should Britain Give Up Her Nukes?

Robert Farley makes the case:

The debate currently taking place in London matters for Washington, and U.S. defense officials have already expressed concern about the extent of British defense cuts. However, since taking office, President Barack Obama has made global nuclear abolition a central focus of his nonproliferation agenda, both rhetorically and in policy. A decision by the United Kingdom to forego the replacement of Trident and to eschew any other nuclear delivery system would advance this goal enormously. No major nuclear power has ever given up its weapons, despite the formal requirement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to work towards abolition. In the context of growing concern about nuclear proliferation, abolition of British nuclear weapons might provide an important symbol of commitment to Global Zero. However, there's no guarantee that a British policy shift would bring about a change in behavior in North Korea, Iran, or any other nuclear aspirant.

Just as important, however, is the money that would be saved from foregoing Trident replacement, which could be spent in other areas.

Yes, but what if Britain decides to eliminate its nuclear deterrent and a new U.S. president assumes office with a dimmer view toward such Utopian optimistic plans for "global zero?" Efforts to slash their arsenal to curry favor with the U.S. would then fall rather flat.

October 5, 2010

How Much Defense Spending Is Enough?

It is unrealistic to imagine a return to long-term prosperity if we face instability around the globe because of a hollowed-out U.S. military lacking the size and strength to defend American interests around the world.

Global prosperity requires commerce and trade, and this requires peace. But the peace does not keep itself. The Global Trends 2025 report, which reflects the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community, anticipates the rise of new powers—some hostile—and projects a demand for continued American military power. Meanwhile we face many nonstate threats such as terrorism, and piracy in sea lanes around the world. Strength, not weakness, brings the true peace dividend in a global economy.

We have not done enough to help our military preserve the peace and deter (and if necessary, defeat) our enemies. Americans have fought superbly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have prevented any further terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11. But faced with a nuclear Iran, or a Chinese People's Liberation Army that can deny access to U.S. ships or aircraft in the Asian-Pacific region, there are many missions ahead.

Yet we face those challenges with a baseline defense budget—defense spending minus the cost of the wars—that is 3.6% of GDP, significantly less than the Reagan-era peak of 6.2%. Our active-duty military is two-thirds its size in the 1980s. - Brooks, Deulner, & Kristol

Ben and Drezner have tackled this op-ed already but to add my own two cents, I think some perspective is in order:

Between June 2007 and November 2008, Americans lost an estimated average of more than a quarter of their collective net worth. By early November 2008, a broad U.S. stock index the S&P 500, was down 45% from its 2007 high. Housing prices had dropped 20% from their 2006 peak, with futures markets signaling a 30-35% potential drop. Total home equity in the United States, which was valued at $13 trillion at its peak in 2006, had dropped to $8.8 trillion by mid-2008 and was still falling in late 2008. Total retirement assets, Americans' second-largest household asset, dropped by 22%, from $10.3 trillion in 2006 to $8 trillion in mid-2008. During the same period, savings and investment assets (apart from retirement savings) lost $1.2 trillion and pension assets lost $1.3 trillion. Taken together, these losses total a staggering $8.3 trillion. Since peaking in the second quarter of 2007, household wealth is down $14 trillion.

So yes, Brooks, Kristol, et. al. are right, there are threats to global commerce. But they overwhelmingly stem from the world's parliaments, central banks, debt-strapped consumers, and financial markets. The People's Liberation Navy and Somali pirates? Not so much.

September 13, 2010

Military Reform

The Bush administration entered office with a clear national security vision of transforming the military. There were a number of elements to this: redressing a decade of drift on weapons procurement and readiness; investing in generation-skipping technologies to extend America's military advantage into the out-years; reforming wasteful Pentagon practices; creating a more agile and lethal force; and downsizing the extremely expensive ground forces (expensive not only because of up-front operational costs but even more because of downstream personnel costs). This transformation agenda was premised on the notion that we were in a period of strategic pause -- we would not need to deploy the military in combat in the near future, certainly not for a lengthy ground combat operation, so we could afford to take some near-term risk to invest in long-term improvements. After 9/11, that premise was less plausible, though the Afghanistan operation arguably was sustainable under the old assumptions. Iraq clearly was not. The error was a strategy gap combining a decision to confront Iraq with a decision not to expand the size of the ground forces. By the time the administration had closed this gap in 2007, the strains to the All-Volunteer Force were acute. - Peter Feaver

This is why it is somewhat frustrating to hear Secretary Gates insist that the military has to be shaped to reflect the "lessons learned" from America's recent counter-insurgency missions. If the Bush administration had decided not to invade and occupy Iraq, many of the supposed deficiencies Gates has set about to address would not have materialized. There'd be plenty to argue about with respect to the size, purpose and distribution of the U.S. military, but the idea that it would have to be "reformed" into a better counter-insurgency force would not be the order of the day.

August 17, 2010

Kaplan Is All Wrong About Gates

By Benjamin Domenech

Slate's Fred Kaplan is not particularly impressed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates' approach to budgetary decision making, pronouncing it "crafty but inadequate. ... Much of what he wants to do seems the sort of thing somebody should have done years ago," Kaplan writes, and on that point, he's right - yet minimizing the importance of what Gates is doing here seems foolish upon closer inspection.

Gates isn't just providing a model for how you can achieve responsible Pentagon cutbacks - he's doing so in a time of war; a profoundly difficult political reality for any Secretary of Defense to confront. The truth is that there isn't anyone else who could be in Gates' role who would even attempt this kind of reform.

As Kaplan concedes, there is "an interlocking web of officers, bureaucrats, corporations and legislators, all of whom have an interest in their survival." This is hardly unique to the Pentagon - in fact, survival is the primary motivation of any bureaucrat. But it is made all the more challenging within the defense policy sphere, where Gates is essentially announcing he's stealing cookies from powerful general officers and members of Congress - and they all have a sweet tooth.

Consider for a moment how unprecedented this is within Washington: a secretary of a department telling his underlings to expect modest growth at best, and putting the pressure on the services to make cuts in order to keep their babies. While Kaplan mocks the idea slightly, this is the real innovation within Gates' approach - the reason many of these bloated programs get kept at all is that the individual services simply want to defend their territory, and keep the money they now view as their rightful possession.

Gates is essentially giving the services a chance to cut fat out of the system without risking their overall budget numbers - he's manipulating the love for the pet programs in the military culture, and using it to force cuts in bureaucracy. This is an ingenious bit of Winston Wolfe problem solving, the sort for which Gates is already well known.

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