Tag: terrorist

Woodward, Resilience, and Virtues of Partisan Foreign Policy

On the National Interest’s Skeptics blog, I have a new post about my lack of outrage over the revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book about Obama and Afghanistan.

Unlike John Bolton and Heritage, I don’t think that the President’s comment that we can withstand another terrorist attack like 9-11 is offensive. After all, we can, and saying so doesn’t mean you want to try it.

As I put it there:

What’s truly outrageous is the notion that the only valid response to terrorism is cowering fear at home and endless warfare abroad. Somehow, for much the right, crediting our enemies with the ability to wreck our society is required, and it is verboten to say that we are something other than a pathetic, brittle nation that cannot manage adversity.

I also fail to get upset about the President’s worry that expanding the war in Afghanistan would alienate his base. Politics not only doesn’t stop at the water’s edge; it shouldn’t. I’m not sure exactly when popular checks on the war-making power went out of style, but I think we could use more of that in Afghanistan, not less. If pandering to the base can get us out of there one of these years, pander away.

The solution to bad policies is better politics, not no politics, to paraphase.

*I also recommend Paul Pillar’s post on the same subject. He says that the real news here is the Pentagon’s refusal to offer the President a policy alternative between population centric counter-insurgency and exit.

The GOP and the “Ground Zero” Mosque

Some leaders within the Republican Party seem to have fixed on a useful club with which to bludgeon the president and his fellow Democrats – Cordoba House, aka the “Ground Zero” Mosque. Over the weekend, Republican strategist Ed Rollins explained how the party would use the issue in the coming months:

ROLLINS: Intellectually, the president may be right, but this is an emotional issue, and people who lost kids, brothers, sisters, fathers, what have you, do not want that mosque in New York, and it’s going to be a big, big issue for Democrats across this country.

“Face the Nation” Host Bob SCHIEFFER: So you see it as an issue that’s going to continue?

ROLLINS: Absolutely. No question about it. Every candidate – every candidate who’s in the challenge districts are going to be asked, how do you feel about building the mosque on the Ground Zero sites? 

This strategy, exploiting still-raw emotion and implicitly demonizing Muslims, threatens to trade short-term political gain for medium-term political harm to the party. And it most certainly will translate into long-term harm for the country at large.

Opposing the construction of a mosque near the Ground Zero site plays into al Qaeda’s narrative that the United States is engaged in a war with Islam, that bin Laden and his tiny band of followers represent something more than a pitiful group of murderers and thugs, and that all American Muslims are an incipient Fifth Column that must be either converted to Christianity or driven out of the country, else they will undermine American society from within.

It isn’t a political slam-dunk, either. Though 64 percent of Americans think a mosque near Ground Zero is ”inappropriate”, 60 percent of all respondents in the same survey, including 57 percent of Republicans, believe that the organizers have a right to build in that location, and presumably would not favor a government prohibition on this activity. (h/t  Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight) If anyone were to show evidence that the parties building the center were in any way linked to the 9/11 terrorists, or funded by or funding these same  terrorists, then the issues at stake would change.  But they haven’t done so, and are unlikely to do so. In the meantime, those GOP leaders who oppose the mosque betray a basic inability to discern public attitudes, even as they propel this country on a ruinous course, headlong into a civilizational war which pits all Americans against all Muslims.

A number of public officials and commentators, not all of them Obama supporters, have staked out a position that walks this country back from that precipice. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s courageous and eloquent statementon this issue should be read by all, not just Republicans. But Bloomberg is unlikely to swing opinion within the GOP base. So too with Fareed Zakaria, who nonetheless deserves enormous credit for distancing himself from any organization that would adopt a public position of thinly veiled bigotry, especially one whose mission is “to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.” Dan Drezner’s take is aimed squarely at right-of-center readers, and sprinkled with a tone of sarcasm; but he is a pointy-headed intellectual, so he’ll have a hard time convincing the most skeptical of the lot.

A more convincing spokesman for sensible voices on the Right is former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who wisely opposes a short-sighted and cynical political strategy to exploit anti-Muslim sentiments. Likewise, Mark Halperin recognizes the political salience of an anti-mosque stance, but advises party leaders to steer clearof that position. Josh Barro at National Review Online renders a devastating refutation of all the dubious arguments erected to block the mosque. 

Indeed, George W. Bush himself set the tone in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities, counseling against retaliation against innocent Muslims who had nothing to do with the attacks, and noting that a number of Muslims were killed on 9/11. Other conservative organizations and institutions took notice of Bush’s leadership, and wisely sacked the few voices who preached violence against all Muslims because nineteen of their coreligionists had perpetrated the attacks.

Not quite nine years later, we’ve come full-circle. With Bush enjoying retirement in Texas, who within the GOP will affirm the party’s position that declaring a war on Islam does not advance our nation’s security?

Fiscal Imbalance and Global Power

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question revolves around the health of the U.S. economy, and its relationship to U.S. power. 

The editors ask

How serious a threat is the mounting debt to the nation’s standing as the world’s only superpower? Can the U.S. continue to spend more than all other countries combined on its military forces given burdensome debt levels? In what other ways does the mounting debt undermine the country’s strategic position? […]

My response:

Our long-term fiscal imbalance, which increasingly amounts to a massive intergenerational wealth transfer, is clearly a sign of our decline. But it is a decline that has been a long time coming. (I first wrote about the insolvency of the Social Security system as a college sophomore, 23 years ago.) As such, it is tempting for people to assume that we’ll figure our way out of this mess before a complete collapse. Let’s call them, at the risk of a double negative, the declinist naysayers. And, even if they are willing to admit to the problem in the abstract, the naysayers can point to the more serious, and urgent, imbalances between pensioners and those who pay the pensions in Europe or Japan and say “At least we aren’t them.”

That is a pretty shoddy argument, but it seems to be ruling the day. We can talk about the obvious unsustainability of using taxes on current workers to pay benefits for retirees until we’re blue in the face. And my second grader can do the math on a system that was designed when workers outnumbered beneficiaries by 16.5 to 1, and in which, by 2030, that ratio will fall to 2 to 1. It simply doesn’t add up. (For more on this, much more, see my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s latest.)

But this isn’t a math problem; this is a political problem. The incentive to kick the can down the road is overwhelming. The pain in attempting to deal with the problem in the here and now is, well, painful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that members of Congress / Parliament / Bundestag / Diet, etc, have become very good at avoiding the issue altogether. And many of those who have chosen to tackle it are “spending more time with their families.”

What does all this mean for the United States’s standing as the world superpower? Less than you might think. Our difficulties in two medium-sized countries in SW/Central Asia have done more to puncture the illusion of American power than our political inability to deal with domestic problems. Our fiscal insolvency might convince other countries to play a larger role, if they genuinely feared for their safety. But other countries, especially our allies, are cutting military spending, while Uncle Sam continues to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. In other words, our ability to maintain our global superpower status isn’t driven by our economic problems. But it is strategically stupid.

It is here that I take issue with Ron Marks’s contention that we spend less today than during the Cold War. While technically accurate, measuring military spending as a share of GDP is utterly misleading (as I’ve argued elsewhere.) If the point is to argue that we could spend more, I agree. But the measure doesn’t address whether we should do so.

We should think of military spending not as a share of the American economy, but rather relative to the threats we face. In real terms (constant current dollars), we spend today more than when we were facing down a nuclear-armed adversary with a massive army stationed in Eastern Europe and a navy that plied the seven seas from Cam Ranh Bay to Cuba. We spend more than during the height of the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Today, terrorist leaders are hunkered down in safe houses somewhere in, well, somewhere. In other words, what we spend is utterly disconnected from the threats we face, a point that is easily obscured when one focuses on military spending as a share of total output.

We spend so much today not because we are facing down one very scary adversary, but because we are facing down dozens or hundreds of small adversaries that should be confronted by others. After the Cold War ended, our strategy expanded to justify a massive military. Since 9/11, it has expanded further. Our fiscal crisis alone won’t force a reevaluation of our grand strategy. It will take sound strategic judgement, and a bit of political courage, to turn things around.

In the cover letter to his just-released National Security Strategy, President Obama acknowledged that it doesn’t make sense for any one country to attempt to police the entire planet, irrespective of the costs. Unfortunately, the document fails to outline a mechanism for transferring some of the burdens of global governance to others who benefit from a peaceful and prosperous world order. We should assume, therefore, that the U.S. military will continue to be the go-to force for cleaning up all manner of problems, and that the U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

Talking about Terrorism

Terrorists are named after an emotion for a reason. They use violence to produce widespread fear for a political purpose. The number of those they kill or injure will always be a small fraction of those they frighten. This creates problems for leaders, and even analysts, when they talk publicly about terrorism. On one hand, leaders need to convince the public that they are on the case in protecting them, or else they won’t be leaders for long. On the other hand, good leaders try to minimize unwarranted fear.

One reason is that we shouldn’t give terrorists what they want. Another is that fear is a real social harm, particularly when it is exaggerated. Stress from fear harms health. It causes bad decisions. For example, if people avoid flying and drive instead the number of added fatalities on the road will quickly surpass the dead from a typical terrorist attack. Most important, excessive fear causes policy responses that often damage the economy without much added safety. Measured in lives on dollars, reactions to terrorism often cost more than the attack themselves.

If leaders talk only about the danger of terrorism and everything they are doing to fight it, without putting danger in context, they may be on safe political ground, but they risk causing or prolonging groundless fear and encouraging all sorts of harmful overreactions. That is the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism record, in a nutshell. If leaders just say “calm down and worry about something more likely to harm you,” they will be butchered politically.

So a reasonable approach is to sound concerned but reassuring. You want to convince people that they are mostly safe without appearing complacent. I don’t like many of this administration’s counterterrorism policies, starting with Afghanistan, but thus far its communication about terrorism is far more sensible than the last administration’s. That includes the aftermath of this attempted Christmas Day attack.

The administration made it clear that it is unacceptable that a guy we just got warned about got onto a plane wearing explosives. But the President also said Americans should be generally confident in their safety from terrorism. He didn’t act as if this incident was the most important thing on his schedule this year or compare the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen to the Third Reich or what have you, exaggerating their capability and power. I wish he had gone further and said that detonating explosives smuggled on to a plane is tricky and that flying remains incredibly safe. (Jim Harper will soon have more to say here on the security failures and how to talk about them.)

In a different political universe, the President could describe the terrorist threat honestly. He would say that recent attempted terrorist attacks in the United States show more amateurism and failure than skill and success. He could add that we are fortunate that our greatest enemy, al Qaeda and its fellow-travelers, are scattered and weak compared the sorts of enemies we historically faced. He would sound more like Michael Bloomberg, who told New Yorkers that they had a better chance of being struck by lightening than killed by terrorists, after a particularly inept terrorist plot on JFK airport was uncovered. He could even quote Nate Silver, who calculates that in the last decade of US flights, there was one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 miles flown. It’s true, as Kip Viscusi demonstrates, that people don’t think like actuaries. They rightly value different sorts of deaths in different ways, and want more protection against terrorism than other dangers. But knowing the odds is still important in weighing the appropriate amount of concern and forming policy preferences. The president could also have treated voters like grown-ups and pointed out that whatever flaws in airline security that this attempted attack reveals, there is no such thing as perfect safety, and sooner or later even the finest security systems fail.

I also disagree with the argument that the trouble with our airline security or national security policy-making in general is insufficient presidential attention. Overall, we could do with a little more masterly inactivity in security policy, to use an old British phrase. Aviation security is another matter, but I struggle to see how presidential involvement would have fixed this problem. The 9-11 Commission did claim that September 11 occurred because leaders failed to pay sufficient attention to al Qaeda, but there, as in other matters, the Commission is wrong. At least in the executive branch, the attention paid to the threat in the 1990s was quite substantial, as you can see in this essay by Josh Rovner or in my contribution to this book. The historical record shows that the threat was well understood by security officials and the reading public. Time, for example, called Osama bin Laden the most wanted man in the world when they interviewed him in 1998. The trouble, in my opinion, was not misperception but our policies and the difficult and unprecedented nature of problem–a terrorist group ensconced in hostile country that refused to do anything about it.

Getting the line between confidence and vigilance right is not easy, but it starts with acknowledgment that there is such a thing as overreaction. That subject will be the on the agenda for our January 13 counterterrorism forum with James Fallows, State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin, Paul Pillar and others.

*My attempts to explain this stuff to Politico yesterday resulted in some confused and inaccurate uses of my quotes in this story by Carol E. Lee, which unconvincingly compares the Obama’s response to this terrorist attempt to his silly involvement in the Henry Louis Gates arrest fiasco. First, Lee absurdly uses me as example of “predictable” attacks from the right on Obama, when I said I was glad that the President said Americans should feel confident but that I’d have preferred if he’d done it more forcefully by saying flying remains safe and al Qaeda weak. That is more or less the opposite of the predictable take on the right. Then, she says that my views on the President’s response to the attacks referred to his post-press conference golf outing. I was talking about his overall response, or lack thereof, over the last several days. I can’t decipher the meaning of presidential golf.

The FISA Amendments: Behind the Scenes

I’ve been poring over the trove of documents the Electronic Frontier Foundation has obtained detailing the long process by which the FISA Amendments Act—which substantially expanded executive power to conduct sweeping surveillance with little oversight—was hammered out between Hill staffers and lawyers at the Department of Justice and intelligence agencies. The really interesting stuff, of course, is mostly redacted, and I’m only partway though the stacks, but there are a few interesting tidbits so far.

As Wired has already reported, one e-mail shows Bush officials feared that if the attorney general was given too much discretion over retroactive immunity for telecoms that aided in warrantless wiretapping, the next administration might refuse to provide it.

A couple other things stuck out for me. First, while it’s possible they’ve been released before and simply not crossed my desk, there are a series of position papers — so rife with  underlining that they look like some breathless magazine subscription pitch — circulated to Congress explaining the Bush administration’s opposition to various proposed amendments to the FAA. Among these was a proposal by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) that would have barred “bulk collection” of international traffic and required that the broad new intelligence authorizations specify (though not necessarily by name) individual targets. The idea here was that if there were particular suspected terrorists (for instance) being monitored overseas, it would be fine to keep monitoring their communications if they began talking with Americans without pausing to get a full-blown warrant — but you didn’t want to give NSA carte blanche to just indiscriminately sweep in traffic between the U.S. and anyone abroad. The position paper included in these documents is more explicit than the others that I’ve seen about the motive for objecting to the bulk collection amendment. Which was, predictably, that they wanted to do bulk collection:

  • It also would prevent the intelligence community from conducting the types of intelligence collection necessary to track terrorits and develop new targets.
  • For example, this amendment could prevent the intelligence community from targeting a particular group of buildings or a geographic area abroad to collect foreign intelligence prior to operations by our armed forces.

So to be clear: Contra the rhetoric we heard at the time, the concern was not simply that NSA would be able to keep monitoring a suspected terrorist when he began calling up Americans. It was to permit the “targeting” of entire regions, scooping all communications between the United States and the chosen area.

One other exchange at least raises an eyebrow.  If you were following the battle in Congress at the time, you may recall that there was a period when the stopgap Protect America Act had expired — though surveillance authorized pursuant to the law could continue for many months — and before Congress approved the FAA. A week into that period, on February 22, 2008, the attorney general and director of national intelligence sent a letter warning Congress that they were now losing intelligence because providers were refusing to comply with new requests under existing PAA authorizations. A day later, they had to roll that back, and some of the correspondence from the EFF FOIA record makes clear that there was an issue with a single recalcitrant provider who decided to go along shortly after the letter was sent.

But there’s another wrinkle. A week prior to this, just before the PAA was set to expire, Jeremy Bash, the chief counsel for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent an email to “Ken and Ben,” about a recent press conference call. It’s clear from context that he’s writing to Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein and General Counsel for the Director of National Intelligence Ben Powell about this press call, where both men fairly clearly suggest that telecoms are balking for fear that they’ll no longer be immune from liability for participation in PAA surveillance after the statute lapses. Bash wants to confirm whether they really said that “private sector entities have refused to comply with PAA certifications because they were concerned that the law was temporary.” In particular, he wants to know whether this is actually true, because “the briefs I read provided a very different rationale.”  In other words, Bash — who we know was cleared for the most sensitive information about NSA surveillance — was aware of some service providers being reluctant to comply with “new taskings” under the law, but not because of the looming expiration of the statute. One of his correspondents — whether Wainstein or Powell is unclear — shoots back denying having said any such thing (read the transcript yourself) and concluding with a terse:

Not addressing what is in fact the situation on both those issues (compliance and threat to halt) on this email.

In other words, the actual compliance issues they were encountering would have to be discussed over a more secure channel. If the issue wasn’t the expiration, though, what would the issue have been? The obvious alternative possibility is that NSA (or another agency) was attempting to get them to carry out surveillance that they thought might fall outside the scope of either the PAA or a particular authorization. Given how sweeping these were, that should certainly give us pause. It should also raise some questions as to whether, even before that one holdout fell into compliance, the warning letter from the AG and the DNI was misleading. Was there really ever a “gap” resulting from the statute’s sunset, or was it a matter of telecoms balking at an attempt by the intelligence community to stretch the bounds of their legal authority? The latter would certainly fit a pattern we saw again and again under the Bush administration: break the law, inducing a legal crisis, then threaten bloody mayhem if the unlawful program is forced to abruptly halt — at which point a nervous Congress grants its blessing.

Greenwald on the Arrar Ruling

Glenn Greenwald has a good post about Arrar v. Ashcroft, an appeals court ruling that came down the other day.  Here’s an excerpt:

Maher Arar is both a Canadian and Syrian citizen of Syrian descent.  A telecommunications engineer and graduate of Montreal’s McGill University, he has lived in Canada since he’s 17 years old.  In 2002, he was returning home to Canada from vacation when, on a stopover at JFK Airport, he was (a) detained by U.S. officials, (b) accused of being a Terrorist, (c) held for two weeks incommunicado and without access to counsel while he was abusively interrogated, and then (d) was “rendered” – despite his pleas that he would be tortured – to Syria, to be interrogated and tortured.  He remained in Syria for the next 10 months under the most brutal and inhumane conditions imaginable, where he was repeatedly tortured.  Everyone acknowledges that Arar was never involved with Terrorism and was guilty of nothing.  I’ve appended to the end of this post the graphic description from a dissenting judge of what was done to Arar while in American custody and then in Syria.

Read the whole thing.   Also, the ACLU has put together a short film about the experiences of some prisoners released from Guantanamo.

Cause for Alarm in Iraq, or Just a Ripple?

Najim Abed al-Jabouri, former mayor of Tal Afar, has a piece in the Times that seems like cause for alarm:

Both the military and the police remain heavily politicized. The police and border officials, for example, are largely answerable to the Interior Ministry, which has been seen (often correctly) as a pawn of Shiite political movements. Members of the security forces are often loyal not to the state but to the person or political party that gave them their jobs.

The same is true of many parts of the Iraqi Army. For example, the Fifth Iraqi Army Division, in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad, has been under the sway of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Shiite party that has the largest bloc in Parliament; the Eighth Division, in Diwaniya and Kut to the southeast of the capital, has answered largely to Dawa, the Shiite party of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; the Fourth Division, in Salahuddin Province in northern Iraq, has been allied with one of the two major Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

More recently, the Iraqi Awakening Conference, a tribal-centric political party based in Anbar Province (where Sunni tribesmen, the so-called Sons of Iraq, turned against the insurgency during the surge) has gained influence over the Seventh Iraq Army Division, which was heavily involved in recruiting Sunnis to maintain security in 2006.

Hadi Mizban/Associated PressHadi Mizban/Associated Press

Now, via Spencer Ackerman, we find out that there may be support for al-Jabouri’s fear that “these political schisms are partly responsible for coordinated terrorist attacks like those on Sunday or the so-called Bloody Wednesday bombings of Aug. 19, which killed more than 100.”  61 Iraqi army and police officers were just arrested in connection with Sunday’s blasts, part of the effects of which you see over there on the side of the post.

Al-Jabouri writes ominously that

in a little more than two years, the United States drawdown of forces will be complete.  In that time, the Iraqi security forces can go further in the direction of ethno-sectarianism, or they can find a new nationalism.  True, the status quo offers a temporary balance of power between the incumbent parties, likely providing relative peace for the American exit. But deep down, ethno-sectarianism creates fault lines that terrorist groups and other states in the Mideast will exploit to keep Iraq weak and vulnerable. The better alternative is to reform and gain the confidence of Iraqis. The people will trust the security forces if they are seen as impartial on divisive political issues, loyal to the state rather than to parties, and if they embody the diversity and tolerance that we Iraqis have long claimed to be a defining characteristic.

President Bush was making a good point in 2005 when he said on al Arabiya that “the future of Iraq depends upon Iraqi nationalism and the Iraq character – the character of Iraq and Iraqi people emerging.” I think this overall point is right and fundamentally unanswered, at least according to al-Jabouri.  Barbara Walter, one of the leading academics studying civil wars, wrote in August that Iraq would likely melt down if U.S. troops left, worrying about what she called “the settlement dilemma”:

Combatants who end their civil war in a compromise settlement – such as the agreement to share power in Iraq – almost always return to war unless a third party is there to help them enforce the terms. That’s because agreements leave combatants, especially weaker combatants, vulnerable to exploitation once they disarm, demobilize and prepare for peace. In the absence of third-party enforcement, the weaker side is better off trying to fight for full control of the state now, rather than accepting an agreement that would leave it open to abuse in the future.

Finally, al-Jabouri’s “better alternative” seems to amount to praying for a miracle.  It’s not clear what can make Iraqis come to perceive sectarian security forces as “impartial on divisive political issues, loyal to the state rather than to parties,” and fundamentally national rather than sub-national.  (Perhaps I was suckered once again by Bill Kristol when he told me in January of this year that George W. Bush’s greatest achievement was “winning the war in Iraq.”)

Given the enduring sectarianism and the relative weakness of Iraqi nationalism al-Jabouri describes, it could be interesting or even scary to see what hatches out of the egg we’ve been perched atop for the last six and a half years.

Update: I neglected to include a link to Nir Rosen’s detailed Boston Review piece on the changing nature of inter- and intra-sectarian political allegiances in Iraq.  It’s definitely worth reading, for people interested in the issue.

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