Tag: Security

Tell Me How This Ends

Yesterday, President Obama defended his new approach to the war in Afghanistan. According to the president, our strategy is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies. In order to accomplish this goal, Obama’s strategy indicates we must create a functioning national state there.

Why?

Beltway orthodoxy tells us it’s because extremists will emerge in ungoverned parts of the world and attack the United States. As my colleagues Justin Logan and Chris Preble point out here, there’s reason to doubt whether state failure or poor governance in itself poses a threat.

But responsible leaders would be upfront about the expected costs of our policy: to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, non-corrupt, stable democracy would require a multi-decade commitment—and even then there’d be no assurance of success.

Why Afghanistan’s form of governance directly implicates America’s security, or why it demands the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to police it are questions rarely asked let alone addressed.

Fun With DHS Press Releases!

Let’s fisk a DHS press release! It’s the “Statement by DHS Press Secretary Sara Kuban on Markup of the Pass ID Bill by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.” Here goes:

On the same day that Secretary Napolitano highlighted the Department’s efforts to combat terrorism and keep our country safe during a speech in New York City,

This part is true: Secretary Napolitano was in New York speaking about terrorism.

Congress took a major step forward on the PASS ID secure identification legislation.

There was a markup of PASS ID in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. It’s a step – not sure how major.

PASS ID is critical national security legislation

People who have studied identity-based security know that knowing people’s identities doesn’t secure against serious threats, so this is exaggeration.

that will break a long-standing stalemate with state governments

Thirteen states have barred themselves by law from implementing REAL ID, the national ID law. DHS hopes that changing the name and offering them money will change their minds.

that has prevented the implementation of a critical 9/11 recommendation to establish national standards for driver’s licenses.

The 9/11 Commission devoted three-quarters of a page to identity security – out of 400+ substantive pages. That’s more of a throwaway recommendation or afterthought. False identification wasn’t a modus operandi in the 9/11 attacks, and the 9/11 Commission didn’t explain how identity would defeat future attacks. (Also, using “critical” twice in the same sentence is a stylistic no-no.)

As the 9/11 Commission report noted, fraudulent identification documents are dangerous weapons for terrorists,

No, it said “travel documents are as important as weapons.” It was talking about passports and visas, not drivers’ licenses. Oh – and it was exaggerating.

but progress has stalled towards securing identification documents under the top-down, proscriptive approach of the REAL ID Act

True, rather than following top-down prescription, states have set their own policies to increase driver’s license security. It’s not necessarily needed, but if they want to they can, and they don’t need federal conscription of their DMVs to do it.

– an approach that has led thirteen states to enact legislation prohibiting compliance with the Act.

“… which is why we’re trying to get it passed again with a different name!”

Rather than a continuing stalemate with the states,

Non-compliant states stared Secretary Chertoff down when he threatened to disrupt their residents’ air travel, and they can do the same to Secretary Napolitano.

PASS ID provides crucial security gains now by establishing common security standards for driver’s licenses

Weak security gains, possibly in five years. In computer science – to which identification and credentialing is akin – monoculture is regarded as a source of vulnerability.

and a path forward for ensuring that states can electronically verify source documents, including birth certificates.

We’re on the way to that cradle-to-grave biometric tracking system that will give government so much power over every single citizen and resident.

See? That was fun!

Maybe Europe Isn’t Lost to Islamic Terrorism

Europe has come into a lot of criticism lately.  Much of it is justified.  For instance, cutting military forces while expecting the U.S. to maintain security guarantees is more than little irritating for Americans facing trillions of dollars in deficits and tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities for various bail-outs and social programs.

However, predictions of a radical Islamic takeover of Europe look  less realistic these days.   Forecasting the future is always risky.  Nevertheless, the feared growing population of Islamic extremists hasn’t appeared.  Reports the Guardian:

A district of derelict warehouses, red-brick terraces, and vibrant street life on the canals near the centre of Brussels, Molenbeek was once known as Belgium’s “Little Manchester”. These days it is better known as “Little Morocco” since the population is overwhelmingly Muslim and of North African origin.

By day, the scene is one of children kicking balls on busy streets, of very fast, very small cars with very large sound systems. By night, the cafes and tea houses are no strangers to drug-dealers and mafia from the Maghreb.

For the politically active extreme right, and the anti-Islamic bloggers, Molenbeek is the nightmare shape of things to come: an incubator of tension and terrorism in Europe’s capital, part of a wave of “Islamisation” supposedly sweeping Europe, from the great North Sea cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam to Marseille and the Mediterranean.

The dire predictions of religious and identity-based mayhem reached their peak between 2004 and 2006, when bombs exploded in Madrid and London, a controversial film director was shot and stabbed to death in Amsterdam, and angry demonstrators marched against publication of satirical cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.

For Bruce Bawer, author of While Europe Slept, the continent’s future was to “tamely resign itself to a gradual transition to absolute sharia law”. By the end of the century, warned Bernard Lewis, the famous American historian of Islam, “Europe will be Islamic”. The Daily Telegraph asked: “Is France on the way to becoming an Islamic state?” The Daily Mail described the riots that shook the nation in the autumn of 2005 as a “Muslim intifada”.

Yet a few years on, though a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic forecasts continues, such fears are beginning to look misplaced. The warnings focus on three elements: the terrorist threat posed by radical Muslim European populations; a cultural “invasion” due to a failure of integration; and demographic “swamping” by Muslim communities with high fertility rates.

A new poll by Gallup, one of the most comprehensive to date, shows that the feared mass radicalisation of the EU’s 20-odd million Muslims has not taken place. Asked if violent attacks on civilians could be justified, 82% of French Muslims and 91% of German Muslims said no. The number who said violence could be used in a “noble cause” was broadly in line with the general population. Crucially, responses were not determined by religious practice - with no difference between devout worshippers and those for whom “religion [was] not important”.

“The numbers have been pretty steady over a number of years,” said Gallup’s Magali Rheault. “It is important to separate the mainstream views from the actions of the fringe groups, who often receive disproportionate attention. Mainstream Muslims do not appear to exhibit extremist behaviour.”

Obviously, the future is uncertain.  Terrorism will remain a threat to both America and Europe.  However, we must reduce the number of those hostile to the the U.S. and allied countries as well as stop those already determined to do us ill.  So far, thankfully, the news from Europe in this regard appears to be good.

Would PASS ID Really Save States Money?

The proposed PASS ID Act is a national ID just like REAL ID, and it threatens privacy just as much. Some argue that a national ID under PASS ID should be palatable, though, because it reduces costs to states.

But savings to states under PASS ID are not at all clear. Let’s take a look at the costs of creating a U.S. national ID.

The REAL ID Act, passed in May 2005, required states to begin implementing a national ID system within three years. In regulations it proposed in March 2007, the Department of Homeland Security extended that draconian deadline. States would have five years, starting in May 2008, to move all driver’s license and ID card holders into REAL ID-compliant cards.

The Department of Homeland Security estimated the costs for this project at $17.2 billion dollars (net present value, 7% discount). Costs to individuals came it at nearly $6 billion – mostly in wasted time. Americans would spend more than 250 million hours filling out forms, finding birth certificates and Social Security cards, and waiting in line at the DMV.

The bulk of the costs fell on state governments, though: nearly $11 billion dollars. The top three expenditures were $5.25 billion for customer service at DMVs, $4 billion for card production, and $1.1 billion for data systems and IT. Getting hundreds of millions of people through DMVs and issuing them new cards in such a short time was the bulk of the cost.

To drive down the cost estimate, DHS pushed the implementation schedule way back. In its final rule of January 2008, it allowed states a deadline extension to December 31, 2009 just for the asking, and a second extension to May 2011 for meeting certain milestones. Then states would have until the end of 2017 to replace all cards with the national ID card. That’s just under ten years.

Then the DHS decided to assume that only 75% of people would actually get the national ID. (Never mind that whatever benefits from having a national ID drop to near zero if it is not actually “national.”)

The result was a total cost estimate of about $6.85 billion (net present value, 7% discount). Individual citizens would still spend $5.2 billion worth of their time (in undiscounted dollars) on paperwork and waiting at the DMV. But states would spend just $1.5 billion on data and interconnectivity systems; $970 million on customer service; and $953 million on card production and issuance—a total of about $2.4 billion. (All undiscounted—DHS didn’t publish estimates for the final rule the same way it published their estimates for the proposed rule.)

Maybe these cost estimates were still too high. Maybe they weren’t believable. Or maybe Americans’ love of privacy and hatred of a national ID explains it. But the lower cost estimate did not slow the “REAL ID Rebellion.” Given the costs, the complexity, the privacy consequences, and the dubious benefits, states rejected REAL ID.

Enter PASS ID, which supposedly alleviates the costs to states of REAL ID. But would it?

At a Senate hearing last week, not one, but two representatives of the National Governors Association testified in favor of PASS ID, citing their internal estimate that implementing PASS ID would cost states just $2 billion.

But there is reason to doubt that figure. PASS ID is a lot more like REAL ID – the original REAL ID – in the way that most affects costs: the implementation schedule.

Under PASS ID, the DHS would have to come up with regulations in just nine months. States would then have just one year to begin complying. All drivers’ licenses would have to be replaced in the five years after that. That’s a total of six years to review the documents of every driver and ID holder, and issue them new cards.

How did the NGA come up with $2 billion? Maybe they took the extended, watered-down, 75%-over-ten-years estimate and subtracted some for reduced IT costs. (The NGA is free to publish its methodology, of course.)

But the costs of implementing PASS ID to states are more likely to be closer to $11 billion than the $2 billion figure that the NGA puts forward. In just six years, PASS ID would send some 245 million people into DMV offices around the country demanding new cards. States will have to hire and train new employees to handle the workload. They will have to acquire new computer systems, documents scanners, data storage facilities, and so on.

There is another source for cost estimates that draws the $2 billion figure into question: the National Governors Association itself. In September 2006, it issued a report with the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators finding that the costs to re-enroll drivers and ID holders over a 5-year period would cost states $8.45 billion (not discounted).

Just as with REAL ID, re-enrollment under PASS ID would undo the cost-savings and convenience that states have gained by allowing online re-issuance for good drivers and long-time residents. As the NGA said:

Efficiencies from alternative renewal processes such as Internet and mail will be lost during the re-enrollment period, and states will face increased costs from the need to hire more employees and expand business hours to meet the five year re-enrollment deadline.

Angry citizens will ask their representatives why they are being investigated like criminals just so they can exercise their right to drive.

PASS ID does reduce some of the information technology costs of REAL ID, such as requirements to use systems that still do not exist, and requirements to pay for driver background checks through the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements system and the Social Security Online Verification system.

But PASS ID still requires states to “[e]stablish an effective procedure to confirm that a person [applying] for a driver’s license or identification card is terminating or has terminated any driver’s license or identification card” issued under PASS ID by any other state. How do you do that? By sharing driver information. The language requiring states to provide all other states electronic access to their databases is gone, but the need to share that information is still there.

A last hope for states is that the federal government will come up with money to handle all this. But the federal government is in even tougher financial straights than many states. The federal deficit for this fiscal year is projected to reach $1.84 trillion.

Experienced state leaders recognize that the promise of federal money may not be fulfilled. The weakly funded PASS ID mandate will likely become a fully unfunded mandate.

So, does PASS ID really save states money? I wouldn’t put any money on it … .

PASS ID and National ID - Rejoinder to Schwartz

Ari Schwartz responded in characteristic even tones to my critique of his testimony in favor of the PASS ID Act, which would revive the moribund REAL ID law. It’s worth a rejoinder, and I’ll offer him the same again here if he wishes.

Ari clouds matters slightly by suggesting that my “strong biases” obscure certain facts. I readily admit having a strong bias in favor of liberty – it’s why I do what I do. Ari admits several biases, including one in favor of consensus-building, which was what I accused him of prioritizing over principle. Let’s put aside the question of bias.

It’s good to see Ari state that CDT does not support a national ID system. It would be better to see him state that CDT opposes having a national ID system. (I imagine this is just a matter of word choice, but it would be good to have clarity.)

Next, Ari says his testimony “makes it clear that we believe that PASS ID prevents the creation of a National ID system.” I don’t believe this is clear from his testimony. More importantly, this is not a sound assessment of what a national ID is or what PASS ID does.

We need some defined terms, so let’s tease out what he means by “national ID.” (He has told me that there is some distinction between a “national ID,” a “national ID system,” and perhaps a “national ID card,” but the distinction is lost on me. I believe a national ID card is part of a national ID system, both of which are commonly referred to in shorthand as a “national ID.”)

Twice in his testimony, he correctly calls REAL ID a national ID system. The factors that make it so appear to be “the very real possibility that individuals would not be able to function in American society without a REAL ID card” and “giving unfettered discretion to DHS to expand the ‘official purposes’ for which REAL ID cards could be required.”

In my recent post on the subject, I defined a national ID as being a card: 1) nationally uniform in its key elements; 2) the possession of which is either practically or legally required; and 3) that is used for identification.

I think 1) and 3) are both given. Ari’s take on 2) - inability to function without it – and my formulation – practically required – are equivalent, so Ari and I agree on that much.

But is DHS discretion to expand “official purposes” an essential element of a national ID card? I don’t think so.

Let’s say Congress passes a law requiring employers to check a certain card before they hire new workers. What if Congress requires credit issuers to check the card? States require presentation of the card at the voting booth? What if Congress requires pharmacists to check it before selling people cold medicine?

Is this card system saved from being a “national ID system” because someone other than DHS came up with these ideas? Of course not. DHS discretion to expand usage is not what makes an ID system a “national ID system.”

The better definition is what we agree on: A national ID is national, identifying, and practically or legally required, meaning the lack of it disables people from functioning in society.

Do REAL ID and PASS ID differ in ways that make the one a national ID and the other not a national ID? No, and Ari doesn’t say so. He merely says PASS ID would slow national ID mission creep by some margin because it denies DHS some discretion. (PASS ID “[r]emoves from DHS’s authority the ability to unilaterally determine new official purposes for which a PASS ID-compliant card can be required … .”)

This is not central to “national ID-ness,” and PASS ID doesn’t actually deny DHS that authority – it simply removes the specific grant of authority in REAL ID. Removing a grant of authority in one law does not deny an agency authority it has elsewhere. (It’s like the difference between “not supporting” and “opposing” something.) DHS and other agencies almost certainly have power under other law to require the IDs they choose for functions that are plausibly related to security or fraud prevention.

I was wrong to assume that it was lack of principle driving CDT and Ari to endorse the PASS ID Act, which revives our moribund national ID law. Other explanations are no more palatable, though, and no other group that I am aware of missed the true import of PASS ID.

Here’s a memorable Bruce Schneier quote to emphasize the importance of opposing a national ID, which so many civil liberties groups are doing:

History will record what we, here in the early decades of the information age, did to foster freedom, liberty and democracy. Did we build information technologies that protected people’s freedoms even during times when society tried to subvert them? Or did we build technologies that could easily be modified to watch and control? It’s bad civic hygiene to build an infrastructure that can be used to facilitate a police state.

No civil liberties group supports PASS ID. CDT can’t claim that mantle while it does.

Review of the Big REAL ID Hearing

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing yesterday on the REAL ID Act and the REAL ID revival bill, known as PASS ID. I attended and want to share with you some highlights.

Good News!

Little good came from the hearing, as it was primarily focused on how to get the states and people to accept a national ID. But there is some good news.

First, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared REAL ID dead (much as I did in my testimony two-plus years ago). “DOA” is how she referred to it.

She also said that no state will be in compliance with REAL ID by the current December 31, 2009 deadline. This is important because a lot of people think that states doing anything about the security of drivers’ licenses and ID cards are complying with REAL ID.

Another highlight was the commentary of Senator Roland Burris (D-IL). He is a beleaguered outsider to the Senate and evidently wasn’t coached on the talking points around REAL ID and PASS ID. So he flat out asked why we shouldn’t just have “a national ID.”

Senator Susan Collins’ (R-ME) nervous smile was particularly noticeable when Burris asked why the emperor had no clothes. No one was supposed to talk about national IDs at this hearing! But that’s what PASS ID is.

REAL ID and PASS ID are two versions of the same national ID system, and nobody is denying it. That’s good news because the effort to rebrand REAL ID through PASS ID has failed.

A Fake Crisis

Some other issue-framing is worth pointing out. Chairman Lieberman and Secretary Napolitano took pains to point out the importance of acting on PASS ID soon, claiming that the TSA would have to seriously inconvenience travelers with secondary searches at the end of the year if nothing was done.

But this is the same “crisis” that the DHS navigated a little over a year ago. States across the country were refusing to implement REAL ID. The DHS Secretary rattled his saber about inconveniencing travelers. And the DHS Secretary ended up giving all states a deadline extension. Secretary Napolitano will do the same thing if PASS ID fails - saber-rattling included. There is no crisis.

Vermont Governor Jim Douglas Supports a National ID

As I noted above, PASS ID is a national ID, just like REAL ID.

By testifying in support of PASS ID, Vermont governor Jim Douglas (R) put himself on record as supporting a U.S. national ID. He can pretend it’s not a national ID, of course, and he did his best to paper over the issue when Senator Burris asked about it. But Governor Douglas supports a national ID.

There was a time when Republicans stood for resisting federal incursions on state power. In the 104th Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee had a subcommittee that focused on federalism and the preservation of state power (the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Federalism, and Property Rights). But the National Governors Association, with Douglas at the helm, is now in the process of negotiating the sale of state power over driver licensing and identification policy to the federal government.

Rampant Security Ignorance

The reason why he supports this national ID law, Governor Douglas said, is that he, like every governor, “is a security governor.”

With so many Senators and panelists conjuring security and the 9/11 Commission report, it would be a delight if someone actually examined the security benefits of a national ID. The information is there for them. Again, my testimony to the committee two years ago supplied at least some. Then, I said, “Implementation of REAL ID would impose more costs on our society than it would provide in security or other benefits,” and I articulated how and why a national ID fails to secure.

But Senator Lieberman said he “assumes” REAL ID provides national security benefits. Assumes? He and his staff apparently haven’t familiarized themselves with the level of national security that a national ID would create, taking into account the counterattacks and complications of such a system.

Five years after the vaunted 9/11 Commission report - and the three-quarters of a page it devoted to identity security - Senator Lieberman, the chairman of a committee dealing with domestic security, has yet to look into the merits.

In case Senator Lieberman needs some help …

I’m So Sick of the 9/11 Commission Report!

Speaking of the 9/11 Commission, it has been five years since that report came out, and people continue to parrot the line that REAL ID was a “key 9/11 Commission recommendation.”

The 9/11 Commission dedicated three-quarters of a page to the question of identity security, out of 400+ substantive pages. Its entire treatment of the subject is on page 390.

The 9/11 Commission did not articulate how a national ID system would defeat future terror attacks. It did not even articulate how a national ID would have defeated the 9/11 attacks had it been in place. A minor shift in behavior by the 9/11 attackers, such as using their passports to board planes, would have defeated REAL ID and PASS ID, were we somehow allowed “do-overs.”

We are not allowed “do-overs,” and the problem we face is not 9/11, but securing against current and future threats - including people who might shift their behavior in light of security measures we take.

These shifts in behavior might include taking a few extra steps to get the documentation they need, for access to the country or targets. These shifts in behavior might include attacking targets that do not require documentation. Identity-based security is a Maginot Line.

The 9/11 Commission report was written at a time when little research on identity-based security had been done. It was written by fallible humans who knew little about identity-based security, and who got it wrong. The report is not a religious text.

The report did say something important, though: “For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons”! (page 384) It’s a terrific turn of phrase because it shuts down the logic centers in the brain - eek, terrorists! - and ends the discussion.

The “travel documents” the report was talking about, though, were passports and visas, not drivers’ licenses and birth certificates - the things foreign terrorists use to get into the country. If we’re going to turn the driver’s license into an internal passport - and TSA checkpoints are the beginning of such a policy - then perhaps these are travel documents. Just, please, Secretary Napolitano, train your TSA agents to not say, “Your papers, please.”

Even as to international travel documents, though, the 9/11 Commission got it wrong. Weapons are the only things as important as weapons. And the 9/11 terrorists didn’t actually use weapons any more substantial than box cutters. They “weaponized” a non-weapon. (Security is complicated, you see.)

Denying terrorists travel documents, drivers’ licenses, and IDs simply presents them some inconveniences - such as using people with no record of terrorism. Seventeen of nineteen 9/11 attackers were unknown to U.S. officials as threats, so it’s obviously not that much of an inconvenience.

Evading identity-based security is so easy. People do it all the time. And it won’t stop under anyone’s version of a national ID. But the 9/11 Commission said … !

Something New to Worry About

Much of the national ID battle happens at the federal level with these national ID laws, of course, but it’s important to realize that federal officials, state officials, companies, and non-profit groups are working to knit together a cradle-to-grave national ID system no matter what happens with REAL ID and PASS ID.

Here’s one worth highlighting: Thirteen states apparently are already scanning, or have scanned, their birth certificates into databases for use in the national ID system. The effort is being led by the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems in Silver Spring, Maryland. This group will undoubtedly have access to your private health information should federal e-health records be implemented, so you might want to familiarize yourself with them.

Is your state one of them? How many copies of your birth certificate can be found in how many places around the country? You might want to ask your state legislators about that. The future of this effort is to collect biometrics at birth, of course. This is a privacy problem.

But maybe all the privacy concerns have been taken care of. The proponents of REAL/PASS ID found themselves a fig leaf on that score.

Token Cover on Privacy Issues

Ari Schwartz from the Center for Democracy and Technology testified in favor of PASS ID. (Senator Akaka noted in his opening statement that CDT endorses PASS ID.)

He characterized opponents of REAL/PASS ID as wanting to “do nothing.” It’s a classic ploy - but cheaper than we’re used to seeing from Ari and CDT - to mischaracterize opponents as wanting to “do nothing.” As Ari knows well, I have advocated endlessly for a diverse and competitive identification and credentialing system that would provide all the security ID systems can, without government surveillance.

But Ari testified imaginatively about how PASS ID makes a national ID okay. He has concerns with it, of course, yadda yadda yadda - the privacy fig leaf obliged to wear a fig leaf himself.

And this is the unexpected bad news from the hearing. The Center for Democracy and Technology supports having a national ID in the United States.

Many would find this inexplicable, but it’s not. Though the people who work at CDT personally want very much to do the right thing, there are no principles to the organization beside compromise and having a seat at the table (neither of which are actually principles, of course).

CDT plays a wonderful convening role on many issues, and the name of the organization implies that it reconciles technology programs with fundamental societal values. But here it has given political cover to the push for a national ID in the United States. One can’t help wondering if there is anything that would cause CDT to push back from the table and say No.

Who’s the Isolationist?

There may be no more vicious epithet from neoconservatives these days than “isolationist.”  One would think the term would mean something like xenophobic no-nothings who want to have nothing to do with the rest of the world.  No trade or immigration.  Little or no cultural exchange and political cooperation.  Autarchy all around.

But no.  ”Isolationist” apparently means something quite different.  Never mind your views of the merits of international engagement.  If you don’t want to kill lots of foreigners in lots of foreign wars you are automatically considered to be an isolationist.

President Bill Clinton called Republican legislators “isolationists” for not wanting to insert the U.S. military into the middle of a complex but strategically irrelevant guerrilla conflict in Kosovo.  (He made the same criticism against them for not supporting even more money for foreign aid, which presumably meant the Heritage Foundation was filled with isolationists at the time). 

But the definition is even broader today.  It means not willing to go to war for any country that clamors for a security guarantee irrespective of its relevance to American security.  At least, that appears to be the definition applied by Sally McNamara of Heritage.

On Monday in National Interest online I criticized the argument advanced by Ms. McNamara and others that alliances and military commitments automatically prevent war.  More specifically, the claim is that  if only the U.S. would bring the country of Georgia into NATO – or simply issue a Membership Action Plan, which neither offers a security promise nor guarantees NATO membership – Moscow would never dare take the risk of attacking Georgia.

History suggests this is a dangerous assumption.  Both World Wars I and II featured alliances that were supposed to prevent conflict but which instead acted as transmission belts of war.  One can argue whether or not the alliances were prudent.  One cannot argue that they prevented conflict as so many people thought (and certainly hoped) they would.

Thus, alliances should be viewed as serious organizations.  A promise to defend another nation should be treated as a momentous undertaking.  And the public should be aware of all of the risks of policies advanced by the nation’s leaders.  This should go double when a nuclear-armed power is involved and treble when the geopolitical stakes are trivial for the U.S. while significant for the opposing state.

For suggesting this Ms. McNamara argues that I am both an isolationist and a neo-isolationist.  (I’m not sure of the difference between the two.  Maybe the latter indicates that she realizes I believe in free trade, increased immigration, and international cooperation, which makes for a curious kind of “isolationism.”  Still, advocating a reduction in military commitments and the consequent risk of war, rather than a policy of galloping about the globe tossing security guarantees hither and yon, apparently means I am at least a “neo-isolationist.”)

Even worse, I am accused of “appeasement” for suggesting that being prepared to trade Washington for Tbilisi is a bad bargain.  Ah, the “A” word.  To count the cost and not support every commitment, no matter how distant or irrelevant, is the same as encouraging the next Adolf Hitler.

Please.

It is time for a serious discussion as to why we have alliances today.  If it isn’t to promote American security, let’s be clear about that.  If NATO is an international social club, or a second European Union, or a global Good Housekeeping seal of sorts, then policymakers should level with the American people who are paying the bills.

Even more so, if the alliance is geared to defending everyone else, then let’s admit that too.  Georgia would not be defending America.  Nor will Albania, Croatia, Estonia, and the other geopolitical titans recently inducted into the NATO fraternity.  The security commitment effectively runs one way.

So for what stakes are NATO expansion advocates willing to risk war with nuclear-armed Russia?  To hope that America’s commitment is never called is no substitute for honestly assessing the risks, interests, and trade-offs at stake.

If none of these considerations is relevant – if failing to constantly add new defense welfare clients is the same as “withdrawing from the world” and giving Hitler a green light – is there any stopping point? Presumably no.  If Georgia is to come in, then presumably Ukraine too.  If Ukraine, how about Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia?  Why not Mongolia, Nepal, and Bhutan?  Maybe go a bit further.  Perhaps Sri Lanka? 

But why stop there?  Should not any nation which desires protection from any other nation be entitled to American protection?  After all, to say no would, in Ms. McNamara’s words, offer “a geo-political victory to Moscow” or someone else, whether Beijing, New Delhi, Ankara, or whoever.  Failing to protect weak states – East Timor, Congo, Belize, and more – would demonstrate that we have failed to learn the lesson that “appeasement simply does not work.”

It is easy to conjure up new missions for the U.S. military.  But the most important question is whether these tasks advance the security of America – this nation, its people, and its system of constitutional liberty.  Scattering security guarantees about the globe as if they were party favors – treating them as a costless panacea to the problem of war – makes America less, not more secure. 

And making that argument does not mean one is an “isolationist” advocating “appeasement.”  Unless the Founders were isolationist appeasers as well.

As George Washington observed in his Farewell Address:

Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

His sentiments apply even more today, when America’s adversaries are pitiful and few, and America’s friends are many and dominant.  The U.S. need not – and should not – withdraw from the world.  But Washington should stop making unnecessary and dangerous military commitments.