Tag: American foreign policy

Hacking and the Era of Fragile Secrets

Written with Christopher E. Whyte of George Mason University

What would it mean if a country couldn’t keep any secrets? 

The question may not be as outlandish as it seems. The hacks of the National Security Agency and the Democratic National Committee represent only the most recent signposts in our evolution toward a post-secrecy society. The ability of governments, companies, and individuals to keep information secret has been evaporating in lock step with the evolution of digital technologies. For individuals, of course, this development raises serious questions about government surveillance and people’s right to privacy. But more broadly, the inability for governments to keep secrets foreshadows a potential sea change in international politics.

To be sure, the U.S. government still maintains many secrets, but today it seems accurate to describe them as “fragile secrets.” The NSA hack is not the first breach of American computer networks, of course, but the nature of the hack reveals just how illusory is our ability to keep secrets. The Snowden affair made clear that the best defense isn’t proof against insider threats. The Shadow Brokers hack – against the NSA’s own top hacker group – has now shown that the best defense isn’t proof against outsider threats either. Even if the Shadow Brokers hack is a fabrication and the information was taken from the NSA in other ways – a traditional human intelligence operation, for instance, where a man with a USB drive managed to download some files – it seems clear that we’re in an era of informational vulnerability.

And what is true for the federal government is even more clearly true for private organizations like the Democratic National Committee. The theft and release of the DNC’s email traffic – likely carried out by Russian government hackers – illustrates that it’s not just official government information at risk. Past years have made it clear that civil society organizations – both venerable (political parties, interest groups, etc.) and questionable (the Church of Scientology, for instance, was the target of a range of disruptive attacks in 2008-‘09) – are as often the targets of digital intrusion as are government institutions.

At this point, it seems fair to think that there is no government or politically-relevant information that couldn’t, at some point, find its way into the hands of a hacker. From there, it is just a short hop into the public domain.

Make America (Realize It’s) Safe Again

Donald Trump keeps insisting we live in dangerous times. “I don’t think America is a safe place for Americans” he said earlier this year. And most Americans agree with him. In June 71% of Americans said they expected further terrorist attacks in the United States over the next several weeks. And 53% recently said they worry a great deal about crime while 70% believe that there is more crime in the United States than there was a year ago.

It may have been smart politics for Trump to use Make America Safe Again as the theme for the opening day of the Republican National Convention. The facts, however, suggest Americans are already quite safe.

Take crime, for example. The statistics suggest that the public has it entirely backwards. In 2013 and 2014 Americans experienced their safest years on record. The murder rate per hundred thousand was 4.5, well below half of what it was at its worst point in the 1980s and early 1990s, lower even than the murder rate in 1963, the previous safest year on record. The numbers are nearly identical for other types of violent crime. According to the FBI’s crime statistics, the past five years have been the safest of the last half century.

Terrorism is another case where the numbers don’t support the heightened level of fear. The attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando certainly set people on edge, but Americans have a better chance of being killed by lightning or drowning in their own bathtubs than being killed by a terrorist.

Over the past two decades, the tragic attacks of 9/11 included, Muslim extremists were responsible for less than one percent of murders in the United States. And in the past 10 years that number has dropped substantially, with radical Islamists responsible for less than one-tenth of one percent of the killings in America.

The American Public Is Not Very Hawkish on China

China’s economic rise over the past decades has been meteoric, during which time the volume of rhetoric about the “China threat” has also grown at historic rates. In the early 1990s the Pentagon needed a new superpower rival to justify Cold War-sized defense budgets. But displays of American military power in the first Gulf War and the 1995-96 crisis in the Taiwan Strait also prompted China to develop a military strategy designed to keep American forces out of its neighborhood. Now, with counterterrorism missions in Iraq and Afghanistan down from their peak and China’s military posture maturing significantly, the U.S. military has been devoting more time and resources to figuring out ways to counter China’s new strategy.

Beyond the military, political hawks have been quick to draw attention to the China threat. During last weekend’s Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said that China has a choice between peaceful cooperation and engaging in a “zero-sum game for regional power and influence.” Even academics have gotten in on the game, with many arguing that China’s rise will not be peaceful.

Though China’s saber rattling in East Asia and the South China Sea hasn’t made a big splash in the 2016 presidential campaign so far, the question of how the United States should respond to China’s rising military and economic power is one of the most important foreign policy challenges the next president will face.

Both candidates have staked out aggressive positions on China. Trump has promised to impose steep tariffs on Chinese imports, suggested that South Korea and Japan should acquire nuclear weapons, and has called for a strong military presence in Asia to discourage “Chinese adventurism.” Clinton, for her part, was a lead architect of the “pivot to Asia” as Secretary of State, redirecting U.S. military and diplomatic efforts from the Middle East to Asia to confront China’s rise.

A close look at public opinion, however, reveals that although complex, the American public’s attitudes towards China are more sanguine than those of its fearful leaders.

Survey: 58% of Americans Favor Iran Nuclear Agreement, but Worry about Its Efficacy

A new Cato Institute/YouGov poll finds a solid majority—58%—of Americans supports the main components of the Iran nuclear deal, in which the United States and other countries would ease oil and economic sanctions on Iran for 10-15 years in return for Iran agreeing to stop its nuclear program over that period. Forty percent (40%) oppose such a deal.

Americans also prefer Congress to allow such a deal to go forward (53%) rather than block the agreement (46%). Support declines slightly when the deal is described as an agreement between the “Obama administration and Iran.”

Full poll results found here

Despite support for the deal, Americans remain skeptical it will stop Iran’s nuclear program. Fifty-two percent (52%) of Americans say the agreement is “unlikely” to “stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” including 32% who say it’s “extremely unlikely.” Conversely, 46% believe the deal is likely to achieve its primary goal.

However, Americans are more optimistic the deal will delay Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The poll found 51% of Americans think the deal will likely “delay” Iran’s nuclear development while 47% disagree.

The survey also offered Americans an opportunity to select which one of several policy options would be “most effective” in reducing the likelihood Iran develops nuclear weapons. Doing so found a plurality –40%— think the Iran nuclear agreement would be more effective than taking military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities (23%), imposing new economic sanctions against Iran (23%) or continuing existing sanctions against Iran (12%).

Ultimately, 63% of Americans say it would be a “disaster” if Iran developed nuclear capabilities while 32% say the problem could be managed and 5% say it wouldn’t be a problem. Nevertheless, Americans tend to have confidence that the Iran nuclear agreement may be the next best step toward reducing that possibility.

Marco Rubio’s Breathtaking Myopia

Sen. Marco Rubio might fancy himself as a new type of leader for a new era, but his speech yesterday to the Council on Foreign Relations was trapped in the past. Invoking John F. Kennedy’s final speech as president, more than 50 years ago, was bad enough. But Rubio’s overarching message – the Rubio Doctrine – amounts to warmed over Cold War dogma, sprinkled with the language of benevolent global hegemony favored by so many Washington elites, but disdained by most Americans beyond the Beltway. It is difficult to understand the depths of his political and strategic myopia.

Rubio misperceives the American public’s willingness to sustain the current model indefinitely, and therefore fails to appreciate the need for a genuinely new approach to U.S. global affairs. He minimizes the costs and risks of our current foreign policies, and oversells the benefits. He ignores the way in which U.S. security assurances to a host of some-of-the-time allies have discouraged these countries from taking reasonable steps to defend themselves and their interests. And he fails to see any reasonable alternative to a world in which the United States acts – forever, it seems – as the sole guarantor of global security. Specifically, Rubio pledged: “As president, I will use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space.” (Any? Whew!) 

To be sure, many people around the world may be happy to allow U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to attempt such an ambitious undertaking, and to have American taxpayers pick up the tab. It is reasonable to guess that most foreign leaders are anxious to preserve the current order – so long as the U.S. government provides for their defense, they are free to spend their money on other things. But the fact that foreigners like this arrangment doesn’t explain why most Americans would. When Rubio calls for huge increases in the Pentagon’s budget, he is telling Americans that they should be content to accept higher taxes, more debt, and less money to spend here at home, so that U.S. allies elsewhere can neglect their defenses, and feed their bloated welfare states.

Use Education to Transform China From Within

BEIJING—China’s university system is growing.  However, the People’s Republic of China still lags behind the U.S. and other Western nations.  Chinese students increasingly are heading to America for higher education. 

While recently playing tourist in Beijing I spoke to a number of young Chinese.  They were bright and inquisitive, ambitious and nationalistic.  They worried about finding good jobs and were irritated by government restrictions on their freedom. 

Beijing’s global influence depends upon domestic economic growth and political stability.  And that ultimately depends upon China’s young. 

The PRC’s university students today are most likely to become the country’s leaders tomorrow.  The number of college graduates has increased to seven million, a four-fold jump over the last decade. 

While the number of universities in China is growing, few have national, let alone international, reputations.  Undoubtedly that will change over time.  Today, however, competition for the few available spots at top schools is extraordinary. 

For instance, Peking and Tsinghua Universities are the only Chinese universities among the world’s top 100.  They have space only for 6000 new students a year. 

Obviously, far more Chinese students could succeed, indeed thrive, at fine universities.  So more than 400,000 young Chinese are heading abroad every year. 

The Interventionist Bias (on Both the Left and Right)

Over at Reason today, I have more to say (beyond here and here) about recent goings on in Iraq and Syria, and the debate over what, if anything, the United States might have done, or might do now, to change things.

As I note:

some commentators insist that the current chaos is a direct result of President Obama’s reluctance to intervene decisively in the multi-year conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Most notably, Obama’s own former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, suggested that Obama’s failure to aid the Syrian rebels led to the rise of [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Clinton claims “that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” Inherent in that statement is the belief that there was a cadre of relatively liberal-minded opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime inside of Syria, and that American support would have been the decisive factor in ensuring that they would triumph over both Assad and the ISIL extremists. By this logic, if the United States had chosen to arm the “correct” anti-Assad rebels in Syria, we would not now be bombing ISIL in Iraq.

But experts, including George Washington University’s Marc Lynch, aren’t so sure. Others question how “moderate” some of the so-called moderates really are. Indeed, many so-called moderates, in turns out, are just “Caliphate, later” people. That is, unlike their “Caliphate, now” brethren, they are willing to use U.S. support to overthrow Assad. Once his regime is defeated, however, many will fight to implement an extremist government, one that is likely to be a thorn in the side of their regional neighbors, as well as the United States. That explains, in part, why we are now fighting in Iraq at least some of the people who we trained in Syria, And yet, the interventionist bias—do something—remains pervasive inside the Washington Beltway.