Tag: intelligence

Will the Military Industrial Complex Save American Foreign Policy?

Missing from most of the commentary on the Secretary of Defense’s big defense spending speech yesterday is the fact that the program cuts he proposed are largely a result of freezing the topline – keeping defense spending level (once you adjust for inflation) for the next decade.

For nearly a decade the country has really had two defense budgets – one for imagined conventional wars against states like China, another from nation-building, peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. The first budget requires a small ground force and lots of big platforms operated by the Air Force and Navy. The latter requires much larger ground forces, a few niche capabilities like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and less high technology wonders.

The current American love affair with counterinsurgency has resulted in a gradual shift of dollars from the conventional budget to the unconventional one. We are reversing the old idea that the American way of war is to replace labor with capital, or manpower with technology. We are becoming a land power first.  We have been increasing manpower in the Army and Marines – adding 90,000 new troops – and paying them way more (compensation per service member is up by almost half since 1998). Personnel costs are taking more of the budget.  And for more complex reasons, including health care costs, the operations and maintenance part of the budget – essentially the day to day cost of running the military – has also been growing fast when measured per service member.  (For details on these issues, read this testimony by Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service.)

That was bound to squeeze the other big parts of the defense budget – research, development and procurement of new weapons systems. There is too much future cost in the budget for everything to fit without topline growth, so something had to give. Big weapons programs are where the most give is, if you don’t want to cut manpower.

That conflict was delayed while the budget topline grew, but now that it is flat, it erupts. The manpower intensive military that follows from our current policies is eating into the conventional military that delivers manufactoring jobs across the country and the high-technology dreams of our military leaders.

What will be interesting to see is whether this shift encourages those leaders and their friends on the Hill to take up the arguments that people like me have been making for years: that small wars are mostly dumb wars.  Preparation for these wars didn’t much hurt the military industrial complex before, now it does. 

An additional note: Gates’ criticism of the acquisition process was on the mark. Rather than blaming out of control weapons costs on the kind of contracts we write or crafty contractors, as the President seems to, Gates noted correctly that the trouble is the requirements process – what we want, not how we buy it.

The State of Play in the Bomb-Iran Debate

Via Philip Weiss, I see that last week Karim Sadjadpour and Martin Indyk debated Elliott “Get Down Out of Those Trees and Be Democrats” Abrams and Joshua Muravchik on the proposition: “America cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran and must go to any lengths to prevent it.”  It’s a topic that’s been of interest to me for some time now.

Indyk and Sadjadpour acquitted themselves rather well, but it made me chuckle to see Abrams and Muravchik throwing some very familiar-smelling handfuls of argument into the discussion.  I thought it might be worth passing a few of them along.

Muravchik responds to the argument that bombing would merely delay an Iranian nuclear capability by a period of years by saying that we’ll just keep bombing them, then:

muravchikif we bomb and do wholesale damage to its nuclear weapons program, then the clock starts running on the next round.

And I donʹt see any reason to assume that, technologically, Iran is going to beat us in the next round. That is, they will be trying to find new ways to fortify and hide and whathave‐you, their rebuilt nuclear weapons program, if, in fact, they do attempt to rebuild it.

And we, in turn, will move forward with developing better bunker‐busting bombs or whatever else we need, and with additional intelligence, to find out where those things are and to have the capability to hit them …

Note in that last paragraph that we’re supposed to accept, arguendo, perfect intelligence and military technology endowed with borderline-magical powers.  This is a variant of the “I don’t know, the military will have to figure that stuff out” argument.

Elliott Abrams, freshly minted as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons and is poised to cause trouble in the Middle East, it’s possible that the countries in that region will lay down and decline to defend themselves:

if the Arab states look at Iran growing in power and see that what the United States has done, to prevent it from going nuclear, is nothing or something that failed, itʹs not at all clear that they will then further side with the United States against Iran, they may appease Iran.

Abrams then reaches for a 2003-vintage “greet us as liberators” selection, proposing that the Iranians might thank us for bombing their country by overthrowing their government for us:

abrams-cheneywe are not talking about the Americans killing civilians, bombing cities, destroying mosques, hospitals, schools. No, no, no – weʹre talking about nuclear facilities which most Iranians know very little about, have not seen, will not see, some quite well hidden.

So they wake up in the morning and find out that the United States if attacking those facilities and, presumably with some good messaging about why weʹre doing it and why we are not against the people of Iran.

Itʹs not clear to me that the reaction letʹs go to war with the Americans, but rather, perhaps, how did we get into this mess? Why did those guys, the very unpopular ayatollahs in a country 70 percent of whose population is under the age of 30, why did those old guys get us into this mess.

When Indyk protests that this reasoning didn’t pan out terribly well for the Israelis in Gaza recently, Abrams shrugs that he’s “not persuaded” that Gazans blame Israel for the IDF killing between a thousand and two thousand Palestinians during their incursion.

Then Muravchik reaches for the trump card: “our talks with North Korea have completely failed but if we bomb Iran they may well succeed the next day.”

It goes on and on like this.  If you’re interested in these type of arguments, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of Jack Snyder’s Myths of Empire.  These sorts of arguments are literally straight from the pages of Myths, a book where Snyder attempts to generalize the “myths” that empires endorse as they overexpand.

No No-Fly Zones over Darfur

Should the United States lead a Western coalition to enforce a no-fly zone over Darfur, Sudan?

This idea, which has been kicking around since at least 2006, was articulated recently in the Washington Post by former Air Force Chief of Staff and Obama advisor Tony McPeak, writing with Kurt Bassuener. Back when they were campaigning, President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all backed it. So it stands a good chance of becoming US policy.

The goal is to protect Darfurians from their nominal government without a costly US effort. But the opposite seems a more likely outcome. The no-fly zone may increase the violence in Darfur. And by committing the US to Darfur’s protection and failing, it may suck us deeper into Sudan’s civil war.

Like most advocates of U.S. intervention in Sudan, McPeak and Bassuener avoid saying that what is occurring in Sudan is a war with sides rather than an irrational slaughter.  Attacks on civilians in Darfur, however reprehensible, are a tactic used by a weak, brutal central government to maintain power.

Sudan has some helicopters and Russian cargo aircraft converted into bombers that they use to support a counterinsurgency campaign executed mainly by its army and allied militias, some of which used to be rebels. The militias, in particular the horse-riding Janjaweed, kill and displace civilians because Darfur’s insurgent groups rely on them for things rebels need: intelligence, supply, and recruits.  According to the Christian Science Monitor, about 400 civilians died as result of air strikes in 2007 and 2008, a fraction of the total killed by ground forces.

Take away the air strikes, McPeak and Bassuener say, and you get leverage over Sudan’s government. The leverage can be used to compel Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force to augment the largely useless African Union force there now.

Leaving aside the question of logistics (patrolling Darfur would be very costly given its the massive size), this plan simply doesn’t bear much logical scrutiny.

It is an application of strategic airpower theory, which tends to make magical assumptions about the political impact of aircraft.  That theory tends to depict the enemy as an extremely cost sensitive actor ripped from the pages of economic textbooks rather than what we find in history:  governments motivated by nationalistic norms to pursue their political aims at extraordinary cost.  Sudan is not going to give up trying to unify its country because we won’t let helicopters and aircraft fly over it.

Because Darfur’s rebels could arm and police their territory behind the peacekeeper lines, allowing a real peacekeeping force into Sudan would be de facto recognition of Darfur’s secession. What leader of Sudan would accept that?

Beyond that, a no-fly zone is likely to make life worse for Darfur’s civilians. As Alan Kuperman notes, a no-fly zone, rather than forcing Khartoum to the table, is likely to drive it to increase ground attacks. We might see accelerated ethnic cleaning and slaughter occurring beneath NATO aircraft powerless to stop it, a repetition of past experience. Likewise, a no-fly zone may further discourage Darfurian rebels from coming to terms with the government, pouring further accelerant on the war. It would also keep Sudan from allowing aid workers to travel to Darfur.

A no-fly zone will also symbolize a US commitment to the dissolution of Sudan and the protection of Darfurian civilians. By accomplishing neither, it would likely produce calls for a more robust intervention – either US boots on the ground or air strikes against people on the ground. Acceding to these calls would make the United States a combatant in Sudan’s civil war. Those who push military intervention in Sudan should recognize that is the logical result of their position.

That position is not unreasonable. Full fledged intervention might protect civilians. And who wouldn’t be sympathetic to a revolt against an awful central government like Sudan’s?

But the United States needs to get out of the other people’s civil war business, not double down.  We are participating in two civil conflicts abroad now. That is too many already. And Darfur is not the world’s only humanitarian nightmare. Peacekeeping the Congo might have more humanitarian payoff.  We can’t fix everything.

That does not mean doing nothing. We should push Sudan to allow humanitarian workers full access to Darfur, condemn atrocities, and push the rebel factions to sign the peace deal outlined in 2006 or something like it.

The Problem of Guantanamo

The Constitution obviously does not leave Americans helpless in fighting against those who wish them ill.  But it also sets standards of conduct that should not – indeed, cannot – be carelessly tossed aside.

The prison at Guantanamo Bay has become such an international symbol of the U.S. abandoning its principles because it reflects an anti-terrorism policy gone badly awry.  First, the Bush administration was both callous and careless in imprisoning people, even paying unreliable tribal allies for captives.  Second, the U.S. government created no effective and objective truth-determining process to assess guilt.  Third, Washington employed torture, violating both domestic and international law.

No doubt dangerous terrorists have been incarcerated at Gitmo.  But so too have many innocent people.  Indeed, the claims of former State Department Chief of Staff Larry Wilkerson are particularly sobering:

Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, admitted today that of the approximately 800 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay since the controversial detention center opened, only “two dozen or so” were actually terrorists. Wilkerson told the Associated Press today that “there are still innocent people there,” and that “some have been there six or seven years.”

Wilkerson made other comments earlier in the week in an internet posting entitled “Some Truths About Guantanamo Bay.” In that posting he said that “several in the US leadership became aware of the lack of proper vetting very early on and thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.”

Wilkerson also claimed that then-Secretary Powell and Richard Armitage were pressuring for the repatriation of as many detainees as possible, and that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney were unphased by the fact that “among the detainees was a 13 year old boy and a man over 90,” standing in opposition to returning detainees.

Even if Wilkerson exaggerates–and he has been a credible witness so far–he points to the price America has paid for failing to live up to its principles.  The U.S. has locked up many who were neither terrorists nor otherwise dangerous.  Doing so undoubtedly has helped turn some people in and out of Gitmo towards violence against America.  And mistreating the innocent has badly sullied America’s reputation as a shining city upon a hill.

Confronting terrorism will never be easy.  But violating America’s principles is no way to defend the America in which we all claim to believe.

National-ID-Backing Intel Chief Steps Down

No sooner had I posted here about Chas Freeman’s support for a national ID than he withdrew his candidacy to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

With a number of controversies roiling, the national ID issue may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back of Freeman’s aspirations to the intelligence post. Indeed, it may have been the mighty power of this blog, the acid keyboard of yours truly, that served as the catalyst … maybe.

Obama Intel Chief Sought National ID?

While Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have written a letter objecting to the experience level of National Intelligence Council Chairman Chas Freeman, Ashley Rindsberg at the Huffington Post reveals that Freeman advocated creating a national identity system in the US as a part of the “war on terror.”

During a 9/11 Commission interview, Freeman remarked that of three major changes the US government should make to effectively combat terror, one was that “the United States should implement a national identity system, so we better know who is who.”

Seems Freeman lost track of why we have intelligence and security - to preserve our freedoms. We don’t abandon our freedoms to preserve our intelligence. Not that a national ID would help with that … .