Archives: 09/2009

David Brooks Is Confused about Counterinsurgency

brooksWould you buy a state-building mission from this man?

Today David Brooks (in the role of Teddy Roosevelt) debates George Will (as Edmund Burke) on the subject of Afghanistan without citing him.  This debate marks a high point of conservative politics where neoconservative ideology appears in concrete clarity.

First, Brooks makes clear that he is not interested in merely managing the problem of terrorism, but rather in “prevailing” in the war in Afghanistan.  He argues that “only the full counterinsurgency doctrine offers a chance of success,” but then proceeds to absurdly define population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine as one in which “small groups of American men and women are outside the wire in dangerous places in remote valleys, providing security, gathering intelligence, helping to establish courts and building schools and roads.”

Either Brooks is being cute here or demonstrating his ignorance.  With one word — “small” — Brooks has utterly mischaracterized what counterinsurgency is all about.

Population-centric counterinsurgency is all about large numbers of American men and women, not small numbers.  The promoters of COIN in Afghanistan have recently taken to including the Afghan National Army in the count of counterinsurgents, but the textbook — and as a result, obviously oversimplified — number of counterinsurgents you’d want in a place with a population, dysfunctional national government, and geography like Afghanistan pushes well up to around half a million.  It is an extraordinarily resource- and labor-intensive endeavor.  If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll take David Petraeus or David Kilcullen as authorities on the matter.

Brooks pushes his argument further, declaring that we possess only two choices in Afghanistan: “surrender the place to the Taliban or do armed nation-building.”  One paragraph later, Brooks writes of the fight against terrorism that “we shouldn’t pretend we understand how this conflict will evolve.”  That Brooks does not recognize the conflict between these views is telling.  See Rory Stewart for more on the swashbuckling certainty like what Brooks is displaying.

Then Brooks borrows from Stephen Biddle the claim that we must conduct a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan not because of the war on terrorism in that country per se, but rather because:

A Taliban conquest in Afghanistan would endanger the Pakistani regime at best, create a regional crisis for certain and lead to a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda at worst.

This is really cranking it up to 11 on the hyperbole meter.  We may recall that in the 1990s when the Taliban was running Afghanistan, Pakistan was arguably more stable than it is today.

In closing, Brooks wheels out a straw man:

When you interview people who know little about Afghanistan, they describe an anarchic place that is the graveyard of empires. When you interview people who live there or are experts, they think those stereotypes are rubbish. They usually take a hardened but guardedly optimistic view. Read Clare Lockhart’s Sept. 17 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get a sense of the way many knowledgeable people view the situation.

It is curious to hear David Brooks refer to a large number of people who agree with him on policy as “people who know little about Afghanistan.”  Like Gen. PetraeusSeth JonesAnthony Cordesman.  I could go on.

Brooks then undermines his case that the Taliban would certainly be able to set up a national government if we left by admitting that “the enemy is wildly hated. Only 6 percent of Afghans want a Taliban return, while NATO is viewed with surprising favor.”  Even for thugs like the Taliban, having a 6 percent approval rating, men like Rashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar running around your country, and the United States poking its nose in regularly looks a lot darker than Brooks makes it out.

There’s more in the piece, but combined with Will’s piece, it’s a peek through the keyhole where you can see the warring tribes within conservatism thrashing it out.

Update: I was also interested to see the argument Brooks made on behalf of a study I had not read by political scientists Andrew Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli. But Stephen Walt observes that on this score too Brooks is misinforming his readers.

The Zazi Case: Spread the Good News!

As has been widely reported, federal authorities believe an Aurora, Colorado man named Najibullah Zazi was preparing to commit acts of terrorism in the United States. Ben Friedman has provided some insight into the charge against him.

I don’t know how the case will come out, of course. I take it for what it is: an alleged terror plot. Terrorism is an acute security challenge because people who look like nincompoops to us might be activated by a capable leader and used as “muscle” in a real attack. If authorities act too early, it looks like there was never a threat. If they act too late, they might fail to prevent an attack.

Putting aside the merits, the press reaction to this case seems different from many past cases. Take this story from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Along with reporting the possibility of this being the first Al Qaeda cell in the United States since 9/11, it says:

Hundreds of terrorism-related prosecutions, many for far more serious charges than lying to investigators, have been filed by U.S. authorities since the 9/11 attacks. On numerous occasions, U.S. officials have made startling allegations about terrorism suspects, only to later significantly dial back their rhetoric.

I was interested also by the tone of this USA Today story which focused as much on the U.S. government’s issuance of terror alerts as on their number and validity. “Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the FBI and DHS have issued hundreds of similar bulletins,” the story said. It’s easy to see a reporter’s skepticism in that sentence, and his signal to readers that they shouldn’t get too agitated.

My sense — and it is only impressionistic — is that the media are starting to get their feet under them. After eight years of parroting official fear-mongering, serious reporters (I say mostly to exclude cable “news”) are prepared to question what officials tell them. That can only be good. The press plays an important role in digesting information and equipping society to address terrorism along many dimensions, including girding against unnecessary fear and overreaction.

The Zazi case has an important benefit. More muscular reporting or not, the episode gives Americans a chance to see what an alleged terror cell looks like. They see that law enforcement officials are working to discover and disrupt terror cells. It’s far less frightening than what Americans’ imaginations have been coming up with since 9/11. Terrorists are not geniuses, it turns out, and they have no magic powers.

When I visited Singapore in the spring of 2008, authorities there were looking for an alleged terrorist, an Indonesian who may have fled to Malaysia. They had posted pictures of him in the subway and elsewhere. He was a smallish man and he looked no different from any other accused criminal.

“What a relief to have a terrorist to look for,” I’ve joked since then. “If only we had one!”

It is a joke, irreverence is my stock in trade, and my true desire is the same as everyone’s — no terrorists anywhere — but there’s a serious kernel to it: Getting a look at terrorists is reassuring compared to what the imagination will produce in their absence.

Since 9/11, many Americans have been gripped by fear of Islamist terrorists. Learning how a terror cell might form up and seeing how it can be disrupted provides Americans some needed familiarity with actual terrorism. That familiarity provides reassurance to many Americans that they are safer than they thought.

Terrorists are fallible. Law enforcement is on the case. We are not confronted by anything close to an existential threat.

Whatever the outcome, thank you Zazi case! Spread the good news!

Michael Moore’s Billionaire Backers

I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer, “One difference between libertarianism and socialism is that a socialist society can’t tolerate groups of people practicing freedom, but a libertarian society can comfortably allow people to choose voluntary socialism.” (In the final section, “Toward a Framework for Utopia.”)

Now Ira Stoll notes the irony that it was very successful capitalists who put up the money that allowed Michael Moore to make his anti-market screed Capitalism: A Love Story:

The funniest moments of all in the movie, though, may just be in the opening and closing credits. We see that the movie is presented by “Paramount Vantage” in association with the Weinstein Company. Bob and Harvey Weinstein are listed as executive producers. If Mr. Moore appreciates any of the irony here he sure doesn’t share it with viewers, but for those members of the audience who are in on the secret it’s all kind of amusing. Paramount Vantage, after all, is controlled by Viacom, on whose board sit none other than Sumner Redstone and former Bear Stearns executive Ace Greenberg, who aren’t exactly socialists. The Weinstein Company announced it was funded with a $490 million private placement in which Goldman Sachs advised. The press release announcing the deal quoted a Goldman spokesman saying, “We are very pleased to be a part of this exciting new venture and look forward to an ongoing relationship with The Weinstein Company.”

So maybe I should add a corollary to my claim:

One difference between libertarianism and socialism is that a socialist society won’t put up the money for people to make libertarian movies, but in a capitalist/libertarian society the capitalists are happy to put up the money for anti-capitalist movies.

And if you doubt that a socialist society would discriminate against anti-socialist movies, you can either observe socialism in practice — in Cuba, China, the Soviet Union, East Germany, etc. — or read the chilling words of bestselling economist Robert Heilbroner in Dissent:

Socialism…must depend for its economic direction on some form of planning, and for its culture on some form of commitment to the idea of a morally conscious collectivity…

If tradition cannot, and the market system should not, underpin the socialist order, we are left with some form of command as the necessary means for securing its continuance and adaptation. Indeed, that is what planning means…

The factories and stores and farms and shops of a socialist socioeconomic formation must be coordinated…and this coordination must entail obedience to a central plan…

The rights of individuals to their Millian liberties [are] directly opposed to the basic social commitment to a deliberately embraced collective moral goal… Under socialism, every dissenting voice raises a threat similar to that raised under a democracy by those who preach antidemocracy.

The Seat-Warming Senate

With Gov. Deval Patrick’s appointment of longtime Kennedy courtier Paul Kirk to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s seat in the U.S. Senate, there are now at least three close aides holding on to Senate seats while their states go through the formality of an election. The governor of Delaware appointed Joe Biden’s longtime friend and former chief of staff to fill the rest of his term in the Senate. Can you name him? It is generally thought that he is obligingly holding on to the seat until Biden’s son Beau gets back from National Guard service and is able to run to succeed his father. And in Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist named his former chief of staff to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Mel Martinez until the 2010 election in which Crist is running for the seat. There are more seat-fillers in the Senate than at the Oscars.

Of course, Kennedy himself took his seat when he attained the age of 30, after it was kept warm for him by family retainer Benjamin A. Smith III.

Meanwhile, as of 2005 there were 18 senators who gained office at least partly through their family ties – sons, daughters, wives, nephews of former senators, governors, presidents, and so on.

The Founders envisioned the Senate as an assembly of wise and accomplished men, chosen for their experience and judiciousness. Political campaigns that favor the handsome, the glib, the panderers, and the best fundraisers are bad enough. But a Senate full of legacies and seat-warmers is especially unfortunate.

Thursday Links

  • More on the health care mandate: “Compulsory health insurance could require nearly 100 million Americans to switch to a more expensive health plan and would therefore violate President Barack Obama’s pledge to let people keep their current health insurance.”
  • Why the U.S. slapped a trade tariff  on Chinese tires: “President Obama’s decision was guided strictly by selfish, political considerations: He felt he owed American unions for their previous and continuing support, regardless of the economic and diplomatic fallout.”
Topics:

Geithner Ignores Bailout History

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Obama plan to “reform” our financial system is the impact it would have on the market perception surrounding “too big to fail” institutions.  In identifying some companies as “too big to fail” holders of debt in those companies would assume that they would be made whole if those companies failed.  After all, that is what we did for the debt-holders in Fannie, Freddie, AIG, and Bear.  Both former Secretary Paulson and Geithner appear under the impression that moral hazard only applies to equity, despite debt constituting more than 90% of the capital structure of the typical financial firm.

Geithner believes he’s found a way to solve this problem - he’ll just tell everyone that there isn’t an implicit subsidy, and there won’t be a list of “too big to fail” companies.  Great, why didn’t I think of that.  After all, the constant refrain in Washington over the years that Fannie and Freddie weren’t getting an implicit subsidy really prepared the markets for their demise.

Even more bizarre is Geithner’s assertion that the government can force these institutions to hold higher capital, maintain more liquidity and be subjected to greater supervision, all without anyone knowing who exactly these companies are.  Does the Secretary truly believe that these companies’ securities disclosures won’t include the amount of capital they are holding?  Whether there is an official list or not is besides the question, market participants will be able to infer that list from publicly available information and the actions of regulators. 

One has to wonder whether Geithner spent any of his time at the NY Fed actually watching how markets work.  Before we continue down the path of financial reform, maybe it would be useful for our Treasury Secretary to take a few weeks off to study what got us into this mess.  We’ve already been down this road of denying implicit subsidies and then providing them after the fact. Maybe it’s time to try something different.

New Report: Honduras Acted Constitutionally

A new report by the non-partisan Law Library of Congress now publicly available reviews the legal and constitutional issues surrounding Honduran President Zelaya’s removal from office. The report concludes that both the Supreme Court of Honduras and the Congress acted in full accordance with the constitution in removing the president from power. The study, first reported by Mary O’Grady in the Wall Street Journal this Monday, is consistent with the point she, Juan Carlos Hidalgo, and others have made with regard to Washington’s unbelievable policy of undermining Honduras’ rule of law by insisting on Zelaya’s return to power, calling his removal a coup, and otherwise sanctioning the small nation’s Supreme Court by suspending the visas of its justices.