Tag: Strategy

Obama’s National Security Strategy: Long on Rhetoric, Short on Change

The key theme that the Obama administration wants us to take away from the National Security Strategy (PDF) is “burden sharing.” The United States, the document explains, can no longer afford to be the world’s sole policeman. We need capable and willing partners to preserve global peace and prosperity.

These are valid concerns. Unfortunately, the Obama administration lacks a vision for addressing them.

Real change can only come from a fundamental reorientation of our current approach. We need a new grand strategy predicated on restraint both at home and abroad. Instead, for all the talk of new directions, the Obama administration has given us more of the same.

In geopolitics, as in life, actions speak louder than words. So long as the United States spends nearly as much on its military as the rest of the world combined, and so long as it deploys its military in ways that discourage other countries from defending themselves, Americans will continue to shoulder the burdens of policing the planet.

In a cover letter accompanying the NSS, President Obama explains “The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone.” But they most certainly will, so long as the United States maintains a massive military oriented more towards defending others than to defending Americans.

There are common security challenges, to be sure, and many other nations in Europe and East Asia should share an interest in addressing them. They lack the capacity to do so, however, because they have diverted resources away from defense and into social welfare programs. The capabilities gap between the United States and the rest of the world will only grow wider as other countries continue to reduce force structure, cut military procurement, and short-change defense-related R&D, while the U.S. military budget climbs higher and higher.

But other countries also lack the will to play a larger global role. US policies for the past few decades have impeded such activity, and it is naive in the extreme to think that the latest round of exhortations will make a difference.

John Brennan on Countering Terrorism

Earlier today, I attended a lecture at CSIS by John Brennan, a leading counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to President Obama. His speech highlighted some of the key elements of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, in advance of tomorrow’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS).

I hope that many people will take the opportunity to read (.pdf) or listen to/watch Brennan’s speech, as opposed to merely reading what other people said that he said. Echoing key themes that Brennan put forward last year, also at CSIS, today’s talk reflected a level of sophistication that is required when addressing the difficult but eminently manageable problem of terrorism.

Brennan was most eloquent in talking about the nature of the struggle. He declared, with emphasis, that the United States is indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, but not at war with the tactic of terrorism, nor with Islam, a misconception that is widely held both here in the United States and within the Muslim world. He stressed the positive role that Muslim clerics and other leaders within the Muslim community have played in criticizing the misuse of religion to advance a hateful ideology, and he lamented that such condemnations of bin Laden and others have not received enough exposure in the Western media. This inadequate coverage of the debate raging within the Muslim community contributes to the mistaken impression that this is chiefly a religious conflict. It isn’t; or, more accurately, it need not be, unless we make it so.

I also welcomed Brennan’s unabashed defense of a counterterrorism strategy that placed American values at the forefront. These values include a respect for the rule of law, transparency, individual liberty, tolerance, and diversity. And he candidly stated what any responsible policymaker must: no nation can possibly prevent every single attack. In those tragic instances where a determined person slips through the cracks, the goal must be to recover quickly, and to demonstrate a level of resilience that undermines the appeal of terrorism as a tactic in the future.

I had an opportunity to ask Brennan a question about the role of communication in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. He assured me that there was such a communications strategy, that elements of the strategy would come through in the NSS, and that such elements have informed how the administration has addressed the problem of terrorism from the outset.

This was comforting to hear, and it is consistent with what I’ve observed over the past 16 months. Members of the Obama administration, from the president on down, seem to understand that how you talk about terrorism is as important as how you disrupt terrorist plots, kill or capture terrorist leaders, and otherwise enhance the nation’s physical security. On numerous occasions, the president has stressed that the United States cannot be brought down by a band of murderous thugs. Brennan reiterated that point today. This should be obvious, and yet such comments stand in stark contrast to the apolocalytpic warnings from a few years ago of an evil Islamic caliphate sweeping across the globe.

Talking about terrorism might seem an esoteric point. It isn’t. Indeed, it is a key theme in our just released book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It. Because the object of terrorism is to terrorize, to elicit from a targeted state or people a response, and to (in the terrorists’s wildest dreams) cause the state to waste blood and treasure, or come loose from its ideological moorings, a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy should aim at building a psychologically resilient society. Such a society should possess an accurate understanding of the nature of the threat, a clear sense of what policies or measures are useful in mitigating that threat, and an awareness of how overreaction does the terrorists’s work for them. The true measure of a resilient society, one that isn’t in thrall to the specter of terrorism, is the degree to which it can conduct an adult conversation about the topic.

We aren’t there yet, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and by what I heard today.

Is the War in Afghanistan Winnable?

The Economist is featuring an online debate this week around the proposition “This house believes that the war in Afghanistan is winnable.” John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security agrees. Peter Galbraith takes the opposing view.

The organizers of the event invited me to contribute my two cents. Excerpts of my essay (“Featured Guest,” on the right side of the page) are posted below:

The appropriate question is not whether the war is winnable. If we define victory narrowly, if we are willing to apply the resources necessary to have a reasonable chance of success, and if we have capable and credible partners, then of course the war is winnable. Any war is winnable under these conditions.

None of these conditions exist in Afghanistan, however. Our mission is too broadly construed. Our resources are constrained. The patience of the American people has worn thin. And our Afghan partners are unreliable and unpopular with their own people.

Given this, the better question is whether the resources that we have already ploughed into Afghanistan, and those that would be required in the medium to long term, could be better spent elsewhere. They most certainly could be.

[…]

America and its allies must narrow their focus in Afghanistan. Rather than asking if the war is winnable, we should ask instead if the war is worth winning. And we should look for alternative approaches that do not require us to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, cohesive and stable electoral democracy.

If we start from the proposition that victory is all that matters, we are setting ourselves up for ruin. We can expect an endless series of calls to plough still more resources—more troops, more civilian experts and more money, much more money—into Afghanistan. Such demands demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the public’s tolerance for an open-ended mission with ill-defined goals.

More importantly, a disdain for a focused strategy that balances ends, ways and means betrays an inability to think strategically about the range of challenges facing America today. After having already spent more than eight and a half years in Afghanistan, pursuing a win-at-all-costs strategy only weakens our ability to deal with other security challenges elsewhere in the world.

The other guest contributor is Bruce Riedel from Brookings. He had a hand in shaping the Obama administration’s strategy, and therefore is a reliable “yes” vote for continuing the war.

Sentiment so far has been running nearly three to one against the proposition. Most of the comments reject the premise, and a few doubt U.S./NATO’s intentions. Nagl has at least one more bite at the apple to turn things around, but the prospects don’t look good. The key weaknesses in the pro-war position are the lack of credible local partners in Afghanistan, and the uncooperative (and, often, counterproductive) role played by Pakistan. Nagl focuses chiefly on the former, and Riedel on the latter; they ultimately fail, however, to offer credible solutions to either problem.

We all hope that things turn around in Afghanistan, and soon. But, as Galbraith points out, hope is not a strategy. I’m among those actively searching for an alternative definition of ”winning” that does not envision tens of thousands of U.S. troops being in Afghanistan for another eight (or 80) years.

Obama Proposes Further Delay on Fannie & Freddie

President Obama seems to be slowly waking up to the fact that the American public has grown tired of the endless bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The public has also rejected the talking point that Fannie and Freddie were simply victims of a 100 year storm in the housing market.  So what’s Obama’s response?  To ask for public comment and have public forums.

This strategy is clearly one of delaying and avoiding any reform of Fannie and Freddie while pretending to care about the issue.  Where was the public comment and forums on the Volcker rule?  Seemingly the standard is that fixing the real causes of the financial crisis should be delayed and debated while efforts like the Dodd bill, which do nothing to avoid future financial crises, should be rushed without debate or comment.

Even more disingenious is couching reform of Fannie and Freddie under the rubic of “fixing mortgage finance”.  This is no more than an attempt to take the focus away from Fannie and Freddie and shift it to “abusive lending” and other non-causes of the crisis.

This isn’t rocket science.  The role of Fannie and Freddie in the financial crisis is well understood.  The only thing missing is the willingness of Obama and Congress to stand up to the special interests and protect the taxpayer against future bailouts.

Reactions to al Qaeda Terrorism Have Opened a Flank

Excellent recent posts by my colleague David Rittgers have covered the legal (and practical) issues involved in terrorist detention. Take a look at “The Case against Domestic Military Detention” and his follow-up, “Playing Chicken Again.” He has also lectured on the Hill about terrorism strategy, relating themes I used to open our 2009 and 2010 counterterrorism conferences.

The gist is that terrorism seeks overreaction on the part of the victim state. Lacking power of their own, terrorists try to goad states into overzealous and misdirected responses that serve their aims.

A prominent aim among members of the al-Qaeda franchise is mobilization of others, one of five strategies that U.S. National War College professor of strategy Audrey Kurth Cronin lays out in a chapter of the forthcoming Cato book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix it. Writes Cronin:

Mobilization has been al Qaeda’s most effective strategy thus far. A global environment of democratized communications has increased public access to information and has sharply reduced the cost…  If a group is truly successful in mobilizing large numbers, this strategy can prolong the fight and may enable the threat to transition to other forms, including insurgency and conventional war.

Chances are extremely remote that al Qaeda will ever make this transition. But a recent AP story illustrates how groups in the weakened al Qaeda network may be stumbling onto a strategic option that our political leaders opened to them with their reactions to the Fort Hood shooting and the 12/25 bombing attempt:

For the first time, the group that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and has prided itself on its ideological purism seems to be eyeing a more pragmatic and arguably more dangerous shift in tactics. The emerging message appears to be: Big successes are great, but sometimes simply trying can be just as good.

U.S. officials and counterterrorism experts say the airline attack and last November’s shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, prove that simple, well-played smaller attacks against the United States can be just as devastating to the democratic giant as complex and riskier ones.

In a recent Internet posting, U.S.-born al-Qaida spokesman Adam Gadahn made a public pitch for such smaller, single acts of jihad.

“Even apparently unsuccessful attacks on Western mass transportation systems can bring major cities to a halt, cost the enemy billions and send his corporations into bankruptcy,” Gadahn said in a video released and translated by U.S.-based Site Intelligence Group, which monitors Islamic militant message traffic.

Al Qaeda is a franchise—not a single group or even necessarily a cohesive network—so Gadahn almost certainly speaks only for his own outfit.  But the progression of al Qaeda groups from coordinating attacks to encouraging lone wolves shows that their capabilities have been degraded. Lone wolf attacks are comparable to other terrorist threats that are always out there, including white supremacists, black separatists, eco terrorists, tax protesters with planes, random spree shooters, and so on.

But the “al Qaeda” label has a special power. U.S. politicians’ response to Fort Hood and the 12/25 bombing attempt signaled to al Qaeda terrorists that small—even failed—attacks can help them achieve their aims. With rare exceptions, the political class and media have yet to recognize that cool, phlegmatic public reponses to terrorism are an essential part of dismantling the strategy.

Poorly considered reactions to al-Qaeda-branded terror attacks are part and parcel of making those attacks succeed. Our so-called leaders should not give 9/11- or 7/7-style publicity and panic to failed attacks.

“Deem and Pass” and TARP

The leaders of the House of Representatives plan to address health care through a “deem and pass” strategy.  Professor Michael McConnell believes this strategy violates the Constitution.  But put that aside for now. Ms. Pelosi has chosen “deem and pass” because, as she said, “people don’t have to vote on the Senate bill.” The “people” in question are House Democrats whose votes are essential to passing the bill.  These members fear voters would penalize them for voting for the Senate bill. As the Washington Post put it, “deem and pass” would “enable House Democrats not to be on record directly as supporting the Senate measure.”  A House Democrat running in a tough election will be able to deny voting for the Senate bill if it passes into law. We would then have an odd situation in which a bill became law even though only a minority of House members are willing to take responsibility for having supported it. It would be, as it were, a mystery how the bill became law.

This all reminds me of the TARP legislation. In my recent policy analysis of how Congress performed badly in the TARP case, I found that members of both of chambers were concerned mostly with avoiding responsibility for voting for the bailouts. In the tough cases, and probably many others, Congress does what it can to avoid being held accountable.

Many people inside DC will look at “deem and pass” through the lens of political hardball. If Pelosi can pull it off, she will be praised as tough and shrewd, a risk taker who gets her way by any means necessary.

But there is a larger problem here.  The willingness and capacity of Congress to shirk responsibility for its acts suggests deep institutional decline and corruption.  That decline implicates more than Congress itself. How can representative democracy work if voters cannot hold their representatives accountable?

Afghanistan Withdrawal in July 2011? Don’t Bet on It

Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton, among other administration officials, indicated this weekend that the July 2011 date for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan should not be interpreted as an exit strategy, but as a “ramp rather than a cliff.” It now appears the president will not be obligated to adhere to any withdrawal date and can adjust as he deems fit.

President Obama’s decision to include a withdrawal date in his speech sends a mixed message to allies and enemies about America’s commitment to the region. It is a misguided effort to placate the American public’s waning support for the mission. Obama should instead be looking for ways to leave Afghanistan, not excuses to dig us in deeper.

Essentially, the strategy is to apply the Iraq model to Afghanistan: a rapid infusion of troops followed by a painfully slow withdrawal. Of course, that strategy is premised on the hope that everything will run smoothly. There is little reason to believe it will.

In the end, the strategy aimed at defeating the Taliban and securing Afghanistan will never be perfect. Instead, a strategy of narrowly defined objectives that center on our original mission in entering the country—disrupting al Qaeda—is the only policy that is acceptable given the costs that the U.S. will incur.

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