Archives: November, 2009

The Search for Answers in Fort Hood

The country is unpacking the recent shooting at Fort Hood and analyzing the perpetrator intensely. Along with natural shock and curiosity, a principle reason for doing so is to discover what can prevent incidents like this in the future.

When faced with any risk, including rampaging gunmen, there are four options:

  • Prevention—the alteration of the target or its circumstances to diminish the risk of the bad thing happening.
  • Interdiction—any confrontation with, or influence exerted on, an attacker to eliminate or limit its movement toward causing harm.
  • Mitigation—preparation so that, in the event of the bad thing happening, its consequences are reduced.
  • Acceptance—a rational alternative often chosen when the threat has low probability, low consequence, or both.

(There is much more to risk management, of course. This handy simplification is taken from the DHS Privacy Committee’s “framework” document.)

Taking the facts as they appear now, what lessons can we take from Fort Hood that will help protect military forces and facilities, and the country in general? Let’s go through some of them option-by-option:

Prevention: What circumstances at Fort Hood and elsewhere could be altered to prevent this ever happening again? An obvious one is gun control—if there were no guns, there could be no shooting. But this prescription is complicated by the intrusions on individual rights required to implement it. Depriving citizens of arms directly violates the Second Amendment, and effectively enforcing a gun control regime would almost certainly violate the Fourth.

Removing guns from specific locations might be more palatable and achievable, but gun rampages do not restrict themselves to restricted areas, and widespread possession of guns by law-abiding citizens is an important form of interdiction. Indeed, appropriate gun violence was the interdiction that ultimately stopped further bloodshed.

Interdiction: What steps can be taken against attackers to limit their progress toward causing harm? This is a confounding option because learning what this attack looked like as an embryo won’t tell us what the next one will look like.

Thousands of people are like Nidal Hasan in one respect or another, but they will never commit any attack. There are thousands of people with turmoil or mental illness similar to his, for example. There are thousands of military servicemembers with doubts about U.S. policies. There are thousands of Muslims in the military (whose contributions are highly valuable). There are thousands of people who have investigated or sought contact with Al Qaeda.

If the conclusion from Fort Hood were that all people who share certain traits should be investigated/interdicted, this would violate fundamental rights and values while it wasted investigators’ time: Who is troubled enough in their minds, doubtful enough of U.S. foreign policy, etc. Whose contacts with Al Qaeda or jihadi Web sites indicate a desire to perpetrate bad acts and not curiosity or enmity?

Sending investigators into this quagmire would only work as a salve until some future rampage arose from another unique set of circumstances. We would be no safer for having investigated all who were “like” Nidal Hasan in the ways we decide are material.

Mitigation: I have seen no indication that the facilities and staff of Fort Hood were ill-equipped to deal with the results of this violence. There may be marginal ways they could improve—there always are—but medical services can’t be available everywhere always. There is little prescription for change here.

Acceptance: With the confounding difficulty of prevention and interdiction before us, this option rises a little bit in currency. Television news and commentary may make it feel differently to many people, but there is a very low probability of shootings like this happening. The costs of preventing and interdicting such violence is very high. This is a candidate for “acceptance.”

Acceptance is the least “acceptable” option, of course. Nobody thinks it is ‘ok’ for this kind of thing to happen. But like so many tragedies—indeed, part and parcel of tragedy—it is the loss of innocent life for no good reason.

Fort Hood presents the country with a choice: Invest extraordinary efforts in measures that cost a great deal, that invade prized rights, and that don’t work? Or show our sorrow to the families and community of Fort Hood and make peace with the grief and tragedy of this incident.

Obamacare Will Be a Budget Buster

Does anyone think that a huge new entitlement program will lead to lower budget deficits? Sounds implausible, yet proponents of government-run healthcare claim this is the case according to the official estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation.

To use a technical phrase, this is hogwash. This new 6-1/2 minute video, narrated by yours truly, gives 12 reasons why Obamacare will lead to higher deficits - including real-world evidence showing how Medicare and Medicaid are much more costly than originally projected.

By the way, this video doesn’t even touch on the mandate issue, which Michael Cannon explains is not being counted in order to make the cost of government-run healthcare less shocking.

Obama’s (In)Decision on Afghanistan

According to CBS News, President Barack Obama will send most, if not all, of the 40,000 additional troops that General Stanley McChrystal requested and reportedly plans to keep those troops in Afghanistan for the long-term.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

If the CBS report turns out to be true—the White House has backed away, and other news outlets are leaving the story alone for the moment—the president’s decision is disappointing, but expected. Last month, the administration ruled out the notion of a near-term U.S. exit from Afghanistan, arguing that the Taliban and al Qaeda would perceive an early pullout as a victory over the United States. But if avoiding a perception of weakness is the rationale that the administration is operating under then we have already lost by allowing our enemies to dictate the terms of the war.

Gen. McChrystal’s ambitious strategy hopes to integrate U.S. troops into the Afghan population. These additional troops might reduce violence in the short- to medium-term. But this strategy rests on the presumption that Afghans in heavily contested areas want the protection of foreign troops. The reality might be very different; western forces might instead be perceived as a magnet for violence.

McChrystal’s strategy also presumes that an additional 40,000 troops will be enough. But proponents of an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy need to come clean on the total bill that would be required. For a country the size of Afghanistan, with roughly 31 million people, the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine advises between 620,000 to 775,000 counterinsurgents—whether native or foreign. Furthermore, typical counterinsurgency missions require such concentrations of forces for a decade or more. Given these realities, we could soon hear cries of “surge,” “if only,” and “not enough.”

Even if the United States and its allies committed themselves to decades of armed nation building, success against al Qaeda would hardly be guaranteed. After all, in the unlikely event that we forged a stable Afghanistan, al Qaeda would simply reposition its presence into other regions of the world.

It is well past time for the United States to adapt means to ends. The choice for President Obama is not between counterterrorism or counterinsurgency; but between counterterrorism and counterterrorism combined with counterinsurgency. Protecting the United States from terrorism does not require U.S. troops to police Afghan villages. Where terrorists do appear, we hardly need to tinker with their communal identities. We can target our enemies with allies on the ground or, if that fails, by relying on timely intelligence for use in targeted airstrikes or small-unit raids.

President Obama’s decision on Afghanistan could define his presidency. If an escalating military strategy leads only to thousands of more deaths, and at a cost of tens or hundreds of billions of dollars, then that is a bitter legacy indeed.

Tuesday Links

  • Good question: Why would Congress compel young adults to buy health insurance they don’t need?

A Plug for Financial Fiasco

The distinguished Harvard economist Richard N. Cooper, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, praises Johan Norberg’s Financial Fiasco: How America’s Infatuation With Homeownership and Easy Money Created the Economic Crisis in Foreign Affairs:

The economic crisis of 2008-9 will no doubt spawn dozens of books. Here are two good early ones….

Norberg, a knowledgeable Swede, provides a much more detailed account of the broader events of 2007-9, from the useful perspective of a non-American. He finds plenty of blame with all the major players in the U.S. financial system: politicians, who thoughtlessly pushed homeownership on thousands who could not afford it; mortgage loan originators, who relaxed credit standards; securitizers, who packaged poor-quality mortgage loans as though these were conventional loans; the Securities and Exchange Commission, which endowed the leading rating agencies with oligopoly powers; the rating agencies, which knowingly overrated securitized mortgages and their derivatives; and investors, who let the ratings substitute for due diligence. Senior management in large parts of the financial community lacked an attribute essential to any well-functioning financial market: integrity. But solutions, Norberg warns, do not lie in greater regulation or public ownership. Politicians and bureaucrats are not immune from the “short-termism” that plagues private firms.

The other book he praises, by the way, is Paul Krugman’s The Return of Depression Economics. And oddly, his list of Norberg’s villains doesn’t include one implied in the title: the Federal Reserve Bank, which issued the “easy money” that allowed the boom to happen. Purchase Financial Fiasco here or on Kindle.

Abortion Funding and Health Care

President Obama’s approach to health care reform – forcing taxpayers to subsidize health insurance for tens of millions of Americans – cannot not change the status quo on abortion.

Either those taxpayer dollars will fund abortions, or the restrictions necessary to prevent taxpayer funding will curtail access to private abortion coverage. There is no middle ground.

Thus both sides’ fears are justified. Both sides of the abortion debate are learning why government should not subsidize health care. Tip of the hat to President Obama for creating this teachable moment.

Meanwhile, Catholics should be outraged at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (to which my grandfather served as counsel). Yes, the USCCB helped prevent taxpayer funding of abortions in the House bill. But at the same time, those naughty bishops have abandoned the Church’s doctrine of subsidiarity by endorsing the rest of the Democrats’ plan to centralize power in Washington.

As it happens, Caesar is the main source of funding for Catholic hospitals. That may explain why the bishops are so eager to render unto, ahem, Him.

Cross-posted at Politico’s Health Care Arena.

Bloggingheads on Afghanistan

Last night, CBS reported that President Obama has decided to send “four combat brigades plus thousands more support troops” giving Gen. Stanley McChystal “most, if not all, the additional troops he is asking for.”

If the story is accurate (and the White House, via National Security Advisor James Jones, says it is not), the bloggingheads diavlog that I recorded with Peter Beinart late Friday, and that went live yesterday afternoon, could be safely filed under “Day Late, Dollar Short.”

 
But I hope that is not the case for two reasons. First, I continue to hold out hope that President Obama will choose instead to focus our counterterrorism efforts in other ways, and in other places, instead of deepening our involvement in what is already the longest war in our history. And if he hasn’t made up his mind, perhaps my arguments (which build on those of my colleagues Malou Innocent and Ted Galen Carpenter, and many others) might still have an impact.

Second, if the president has decided to follow the advice of those who called for more troops (most of whom – it is worth noting – were also leading advocates for the disastrous Iraq war), it is important for those of us who harbored doubts to have publicly registered our concerns.

A similar willingness to speak out on the part of some Iraq war skeptics within the foreign policy community was sorely lacking in 2002 and 2003. Perhaps that unhappy experience has reminded people that the time for raising concerns is before, not after, a decision is made to escalate a war.