Tag: military

Gun Control for the Sake of Mexico: The Meme That Wouldn’t Die

Fox News already debunked the claim that 90% of the guns involved in Mexico’s drug war come from the United States.  Facts aside, the press onslaught continues in a new push for gun control.

The fact is that out of 29,000 firearms picked up in Mexico over the last two-year period for which data is available, 5,114 of the 6,000 traced guns came from the United States.  While that is 90% of traced guns, it means that only 17% of recovered guns come from the United States civilian market.

Where did the rest come from?  A number of places.  To begin with, over 150,000 Mexican soldiers have deserted in the last six years for the better pay and benefits of cartel life, some taking their issued M-16 rifles with them.

Surprisingly, a significant number of the arms are coming to the cartels via legitimate transactions.  They are produced and exported legally every year, regulated by the State Department as Direct Commercial Sales.  FY 2007 figures for the full exports are available here, and State’s report on end-use is available here, alleging widespread fraud and use of front companies to funnel the weapons into the black market.  (H/T to Narcosphere)  This doesn’t even take into account the thousands of weapons floating around Latin America from previous wars of liberation.  This Los Angeles Times article also shows how the cartels are getting hand grenades, rocket launchers, and other devices you can’t pick up at your local sporting goods store.

Perhaps this is why law enforcement officials did not ask for new gun laws to combat Mexican drug violence at recent hearings in front of Congress.

Never mind those pesky facts.  The story at the New York Times recycles the 90% claim.  The associated video is just as bad.  Narrator: “The weapons that are arming the drug war in Juarez are illegal to purchase and possess in Mexico.”  They’re also illegal in the United States.  As the narrator says these words, the Mexican officer is handling an M-16 variant with a barrel less than sixteen inches long.  This rifle would be illegal to possess in the United States without prior approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE).  As the video mentions the expired “Assault” Weapons Ban, the submachine gun in frame would also be classified as a short-barreled rifle and require BATFE approval.  Ditto for many of the rifles shown in the video.  The restrictions on barrel length would not apply to weapons exported as Direct Commercial Sales.  Law enforcement folks call this a “clue.”

The language of gun control advocates is changing subtly to demonize “military style” weapons.  “Military style” weapons is a new and undefined term that means either (1) automatic weapons, short barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, and destructive devices already heavily regulated by federal law; or (2) a term inclusive of  all modern firearms in a back-door attempt to enact a new gun control scheme.

Yes, ALL modern firearms.  Grandpa’s hunting rifle?  Basis for the system used by military snipers.  The pump-action shotgun you use to hunt ducks and quail?  Basis for the modular shotgun produced for the military.  The handgun you bought for self-defense, a constitutionally protected right?  Used by every modern military.

This is not a new tactic.  The Violence Policy Center has previously tried to fool people by portraying ordinary rifles as machine guns with the term “assault” weapons: “The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons-anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun-can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”

Making our domestic policies based on the preferences of other countries is unacceptable, especially in an activity protected by the Constitution.  One of Canada’s Human Rights Commissioners is on record saying that “[f]reedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”  (Apparently, it makes the folks at the Department of Homeland Security nervous too)  In a similar vein, the United Nations says “[w]e especially encourage the debate on the issue of reinstating the 1994 U.S. ban on assault rifles that expired in 2004.”

It’s not theirs to say, and we shouldn’t listen to an argument based on lies.  Related posts here and here.

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.

New at Cato

Here are a few highlights from Cato Today, a comprehensive daily email from the Cato Institute. You can subscribe, here.

  • Doug Bandow weighs the usefulness of NATO in the American Spectator.
  • David Isenberg discusses the use of private military and security contractors in war for United Press International.
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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.

Trying Harder in Afghanistan

President Obama today gave a statement about his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first thing to say here is that, according to those who attended a White House briefing, the strategy is not complete: the goals are not defined.

Second, there seems to be a gap between rhetoric and reality. On the one hand, the White House is rhetorically embracing the idea that, at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned,  the problem is insufficient U.S. effort. That is consistent with what Obama has said all along: that we are failing in Afghanistan because U.S. efforts there are starved of resources that went to Iraq.

So we need more trainers for the Afghan army (a brigade from the 82nd Airborne gets that job), more combat troops (although only the 17,000 already committed), more U.S. government civilians to aid local development, and more drug eradication (on the folly of this, read Ted Carpenter and David Rittgers). As an enthusiastic Robert Kagan points out, this seems to be a stronger embrace of the nation-building strategy. The partial departure is the willingness to try to buy off elements of the Taliban. 

On the other hand, the trainers being sent were requested long ago, and the troop increase is not new. The other shifts are minor. So, in terms of action, little has changed. There seems be a compromise here between the so-called minimalists and maximalists, which caused essentially a stalemate.

If you agree that the trouble in Afghanistan is that we weren’t trying hard enough, you should wonder why we aren’t trying even harder — doubling down on troops and effort, not just saying so. If you think, as I do, that we need a new strategy of radically reduced objectives, you have the opposite concern.

Nothing particularly new is happening with Pakistan, either, which matters more. We are continuing airstrikes and increasing aid. The White House recognition that the trouble with Pakistan is its vulnerabilty to India, which causes it to avoid policing its west and to embrace militants, is useful, even though it’s hard to see what we can do about it.

One particulary troubling observation that the president made today is this:

The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked. We have a shared responsibility to act — not because we seek to project power for its own sake, but because our own peace and security depends on it. And what’s at stake at this time is not just our own security — it’s the very idea that free nations can come together on behalf of our common security. That was the founding cause of NATO six decades ago, and that must be our common purpose today.

There are two problems here. First, we can pay the price of an Afghanistan in chaos if we figure out ways to prevent terrorist havens. That is possible at considerably less cost than we spend on that project today. The question is whether we can afford to resurrect Afghanistan from chaos. The president fully buys into the idea that Afghanistan would quickly revert to its 1990s state, with Al Qaeda sanctuaries, absent the U.S. military. That’s a claim in need of interrogation.

Second, it is silly to cast the war as a test of multilateralism.  Free nations consistently ally when their security obviously requires it. Europeans sensibly wonder if that is still the case in Afghanistan.  What we’re testing is how willing nations are to unify to fight wars where their security is not obviously at stake.

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.

An Intellectual Counterinsurgency

My friend (and noble peacemaker) Spencer Ackerman points us to Tom Ricks’ take on the Army’s new stability operations manual:

ricks1I wonder if the very title of the manual is incorrect. After all, we didn’t invade Iraq to provide stability, but to force change. Likewise in Afghanistan. And once we were there, we didn’t aim for stability, but to encourage democracy, which (the thought is not original with me) in a region like the Middle East generally undermines stability. I mean, if all we wanted was stability, why not find a strongman and leave?

What we really are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think, is instability operations… Personally, I think the mission of changing the culture of Iraq was nuts – but that was the mission the president assigned the military.

I think a more intellectually honest title for the manual would be “Revolutionary Operations.” Don’t hold your breath.

Ricks is right, but he misses a larger problem.  The argument of the folks who want to develop COIN capabilities has become completely circular.

Take, for example, the worry of Lt. Gen William Caldwell, in unveiling the original release of FM 3-7, that we live in an “era of uncertainty and persistent conflict.” Accordingly, says Caldwell, we need capabilities to produce stability.  Hence, the stability operations field manual.

This elides the fact that if we had to take an impartial look at where the instability is coming from, a hell of a lot of it is emanating from Washington, DC.  Our Rube Goldberg political science theories, based in large part on liberal international relations theory, have led us to knock over governments and pursue radical transformation everywhere from Latin America to Eastern Europe to the mountains of Central Asia, the jungles of Vietnam, and the sands of Iraq.

Then, when confronted with the wreckage of our policy, we convince ourselves that we are gravely threatened by the instability we have created, and must enhance our capabilities to rectify this instability.  Less kindly, it’s like the Tennessee Valley Authority with guns, Humvees and translators.

Look at the new “whole-of-government” counterinsurgency guide, for example.  The issuance of the volume was predicated on the logically-true-but-practically-misleading claim that “in today’s world, state failure can quickly become not merely a misfortune for local communities, but a threat to global security.” (emphasis mine) The COIN manual then quickly proceeds to tell us that any decision to do COIN “should not be taken lightly; historically COIN campaigns have almost always been more costly, more protracted and more difficult than first anticipated.”  Then it quickly becomes a cookbook on how to use the Agriculture, Treasury, and Transportation Departments to transform the way foreigners run their countries.

My colleague Ben Friedman recently remarked that “Both Creighton’s Abrams’ reforms ensuring that the president had to activate the reserves to start a war and the Weinberger-Powell doctrine were sneaky usurpations of authority. They were also realistic efforts to avoid bad wars and on balance good things.”  He’s right.  It would be good if we were devoting a tenth the resources toward stopping the next policy disaster as we are devoting to figuring out how to execute self-destructive policies more effectively.

In short, if, as the leading COIN advocate of the moment tells us, the best way to fight the “war on terrorism” is by engaging in a “global counterinsurgency,” we’re in deep, deep  trouble.  As long as the only people who can stop us are ourselves, I’m afraid we won’t be stopped.

Power, as Karl Deutsch once wrote, is “the ability to talk instead of listen.  In this sense, it is the ability to afford not to learn.”  And we’ve got loads of power.