Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

As Congress Prepares for Vote, Syria’s Inflation Hits 257%

As prospects of a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria hang in limbo, the foreign exchange black market for the Syrian pound (SYP) has become increasingly volatile. In countries with troubled currencies, such as Syria, black-market exchange rates provide a reliable gauge of economic expectations. Judging by the erratic performance of the black-market Syrian pound/U.S. dollar (USD) exchange rate, the Syrian people’s expectations have been on quite the roller coaster ride, as the U.S. Congress prepares for what will likely be a very close vote on a Use of Force resolution.

  • Following Secretary of State John Kerry’s initial call for military intervention in Syria, on August 26th, the SYP experienced a one-day drop of 24%—reflecting Syrians’ heightened fears of U.S. military conflict.  
  • On August 29th, two events occurred that reversed this slide. In Damascus, the Syrian government renewed its attempts to crack down on black-market currency trading. And, over 4,000 miles away in London, the British Parliament voted down a motion authorizing military action in Syria. In consequence, the SYP rebounded by a whopping 26% over the course of two days.
  • The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s consideration of a use of force resolution seems to have once again raised Syrians’ expectations of a U.S. military strike, as it set the SYP on another slide. Since September 3rd, the pound has lost 10% of its value.

For some perspective on how the West’s march to war has affected Syria’s currency, and ultimately inflation, let’s take a look at how things have changed over the course of the past month: On August 6th, the black-market SYP/USD exchange rate was 205, yielding an implied annual inflation rate of 191%. As of September 6th, the black-market SYP/USD exchange rate sits at 250, yielding an implied annual inflation rate for Syria of 257%.

For more on the Syrian pound, see the Troubled Currencies Project.

NSA’s War on Global Cybersecurity

In its myopic quest to ensure that no digital communication remains hidden from its panoptic gaze, the National Security Agency has worked to undermine the security of all Internet users, a new story in the New York Times reveals. As security expert Bruce Schneier aptly summarizes the report, “Government and industry have betrayed the internet, and us.” 

In this case, the Times notes, the NSA has not just arrogated power to itself in secret, but has done so after unambiguously losing an extended public political debate in the 1990s over whether the government should be legally provided with backdoor access to encrypted communications, or attempt to prevent strong encryption software from being available to users around the world. As security experts understood, and successfully argued at the time, ensuring that companies and individual users around the world could trust the security of their communications was vastly more important than ensuring the NSA or FBI would never encounter a message they couldn’t decipher—something that, in any event, would be impossible to guarantee.

Having justly lost the public debate, the NSA secretly decided to sacrifice the rest of the world’s interests to its own goals anyway:

According to an intelligence budget document leaked by Mr. Snowden, the N.S.A. spends more than $250 million a year on its Sigint Enabling Project, which “actively engages the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’ designs” to make them “exploitable.” Sigint is the acronym for signals intelligence, the technical term for electronic eavesdropping. […]

Simultaneously, the N.S.A. has been deliberately weakening the international encryption standards adopted by developers. One goal in the agency’s 2013 budget request was to “influence policies, standards and specifications for commercial public key technologies,” the most common encryption method.

Cryptographers have long suspected that the agency planted vulnerabilities in a standard adopted in 2006 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and later by the International Organization for Standardization, which has 163 countries as members.

Classified N.S.A. memos appear to confirm that the fatal weakness, discovered by two Microsoft cryptographers in 2007, was engineered by the agency. The N.S.A. wrote the standard and aggressively pushed it on the international group, privately calling the effort “a challenge in finesse.”

Free Advice from Bill Kristol

Republicans who still look to Bill Kristol for political advice will find his case that “yes” is “The Right Vote” over at The Weekly Standard today. Ignore those melting phone lines, Kristol urges congressfolk: despite what your constituents are telling you, “no” on the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Syria is actually “the risky vote.”

If Republicans refuse authorization, Kristol argues, “the GOP can be blamed for whatever goes wrong in Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, over the next months and years. And plenty will go wrong.” If they don’t want the Middle East mess hung around their necks, he says, then Republican lawmakers should vote for bombing Syria—and “consider moving an authorization for the use of force against the Iranian nuclear weapons program.” See, that’s how you minimize your political risk. With double the bombing, what could possibly go wrong?     

It’s not the most persuasive bit of political analysis I’ve ever read. But, disturbingly, Kristol’s on to something in this paragraph:

A Yes vote is in fact the easy vote. It’s actually close to risk-free. After all, it’s President Obama who is seeking the authorization to use force and who will order and preside over the use of force. It’s fundamentally his policy. Lots of Democrats voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war. When that war ran into trouble, it was President Bush and Republicans who paid the price. If the Syria effort goes badly, the public will blame President Obama…. If it goes well, Republicans can take credit for pushing him to act decisively, and for casting a tough vote supporting him when he asked for authorization to act. 

There’s genuine insight there into the way we war now, and how Congress shirks its constitutional responsibilities. Domestically, as David Schoenbrod has observed, broad delegations of power allow Congress “to kiss both sides of the apple,” taking credit for the benefits of the legislation they pass and railing against whatever costs the executive branch imposes.

Congress plays the same “shell game” abroad. Where possible, modern Congresses have preferred to punt to the president and reserve their right to criticize him should military action go badly—to be for the war before they were against it, or vice versa, depending on which way the political winds blow. That’s how it worked in Vietnam and in Iraq—and that’s the danger with the Senate’s loosely crafted Syria AUMF. The provisions that purport to limit presidential action are too weak to stick, but if we get a wider, bloodier war, they’ll allow legislators to say: “That is not what I meant at all.” It’s TARP with Tomahawks. 

Still, there’s always the risk that the marks will see through the shell game. And at this point, Congress seems unconvinced that a “yes” vote is “close to risk free.” 

The Senate’s Draft AUMF: Don’t Fix What the President Shouldn’t Have

Yesterday, I commented on the strikingly broad authority the Obama administration proposed in its draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria, and argued that Senate leaders’ attempts to narrow the proposed authorization were misguided: “Congress shouldn’t ‘fix’ what the president shouldn’t have.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s revised AUMF, released this morning, hasn’t changed my mind. 

  • They’ve added some adjectives to the operative clause, authorizing the president “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in a limited and tailored manner” (bespoke airstrikes?) against “legitimate military targets,” and tightened the stated goals somewhat. But again “he determines” whether those conditions have been met. 
  • Worst of all, despite purporting to bar “the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations” (Sec. 3) and limit airstrikes to targets “in Syria,” (Sec. 2(a)), the draft (unwittingly?) undermines those restrictions at the outset. The revised AUMF gives away the game in the last clause of Section 1 with a gratuitous and overbroad concession about the scope of the president’s authority to use force without congressional authorization: “the President has authority under the Constitution to use force in order to defend the national security interests of the United States.” That’s far broader than the WPR’s description of the president’s independent constitutional authority to take action in “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States… or its armed forces”–and broader than the original understanding that the president retained the power to “repel sudden attacks.” The language in the Commitee’s draft AUMF implicitly endorses a power to launch sudden attacks when the president deems them in “the national security interests of the United States.” 

Former Bush OLC head Jack Goldsmith calls it “the broadest such clause I have ever seen”–“the draft AUMF enhances, through congressional recognition, the President’s claims of independent constitutional authority to use force in Syria.” Coupled with other provisions in Section 1 affirming that Syria’s possession and use of unconventional weapons “constitute a grave threat to … the national security interests of the United States,”–that phrase again–it gives President Obama additional cover to go beyond what’s authorized in the resolution–flouting the time limits, introducing ground troops, striking targets outside of Syria, and the like.

Goldsmith sums up: “If the Senate draft becomes law, the President should be very pleased.” Americans, who are rightly sick of Middle Eastern entanglements and Tomahawk humanitarianism, will likely have a very different view  

Time for Congress to Decide on War in Syria

On Saturday, President Barack Obama made the right decision and asked Congress for authority to go to war in Syria. Now Congress should make the right decision and vote no. Conflicts and crises abound around the globe, but few significantly impact U.S. security. So it is with Syria.

The bitter civil war obviously is a human tragedy. However, the conflict is beyond repair by Washington. Ronald Reagan’s greatest mistake was getting involved in the Lebanese civil war. The U.S. invasion of Iraq sparked civil conflict which killed tens or even hundreds of thousands of civilians. Civil wars are particularly resistant to outside solution. 

The fighting is unlikely to end even if the U.S. ousted the Assad regime. Insurgent factions, including increasingly influential jihadists, would fight for dominance in that power vacuum. For many rebels, revenge would become a top priority. 

Even if nation-building in Syria wasn’t such a daunting task, the U.S. government should not risk the lives of its citizens in conflicts where Americans have no substantial stake.  Protecting this nation’s, territory, people, liberty, and prosperity remains the highest duty for Washington. 

Accurately Predicting the Potential Costs of War in Syria

On July 19, 2013, General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a letter to Sen. Carl Levin detailing the costs of various military options in Syria. Dempsey also explained the purpose of the cost-estimating exercise. “The decision over whether to introduce military force is a political one that our Nation entrusts to its civilian leaders,” the general wrote to the Chair of the Senate Armed Serves Committee. “I also understand that you deserve my best military advice on how military force could be used in order to decide whether it should be used.” (emphasis in original)

To train and assist the Syrian rebels would cost U.S. taxpayers $500 million, and the costs only increase from there. Gen. Dempsey estimated a no-fly zone will cost “$500 million initially, averaging as much as a billion dollars per month.” Establishing a buffer zone where opposition forces could organize and train would require a limited no-fly zone, which, when “coupled with U.S. ground forces would push the costs over one billion per month.”

A mission to control chemical weapons in Syria would involve “thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces…Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month.”

Even if the U.S. limits the mission to missile strikes against Syrian targets, the costs would “be in the billions.”

But the real unknown is the costs that could accumulate if the civil war deepens, including possibly after Assad’s ouster. Dempsey didn’t attempt to estimate the costs to U.S. taxpayers if the U.S. military becomes involved in such circumstances. He did recommend, however, that “we must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our actions,” and he warned that “we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

Washington Is Pursuing Risky Regime Change in Syria

In the days before President Obama retreated from his arrogant, unconstitutional stance that he could order missile strikes on Syria without congressional passage of even a vague resolution of approval, much less the required declaration of war, administration officials insisted that the goal of such strikes was merely to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons, not carry out regime change. That rationale was, and remains, profoundly illogical—and less than candid.

The reality is that Washington has sought the overthrow of the Assad regime almost from the moment that fighting erupted in 2011.  Assad’s departure has been the stated goal of U.S. policy for the past year, and the Obama administration has provided aid to insurgent forces.  Although the aid began as humanitarian and supposedly nonlethal items, it now includes military assistance and training.  Given that track record and the nature of the overall U.S. policy toward Syria, it is preposterous for the administration to argue that missile strikes would not have a similar goal of regime change.  One cannot segregate elements of policy in that fashion. 

The administration needs to be honest with Congress and the American people and admit that the proposed U.S. attacks on Assad’s forces would be designed to advance the goal of regime change.  Representatives and Senators should also ask hard questions about just how Assad’s overthrow would be in the best interests of the American people.  Yes, Assad presides over a thuggish regime, but the insurgent movement seeking to oust him is hardly an association of secular democrats.  Most worrisome, it includes an increasingly powerful faction of radical Islamists, some of whom are directly connected to al Qaeda.

Legislators also should keep in mind that Syria is a fragile ethno-religious tapestry.  To a large extent, the current insurgency is a Sunni Arab bid to overthrow Assad’s “coalition of religious minorities” government (consisting of Alawites—a Shiite offshoot—Christians, and smaller groups.)   It is no coincidence that two especially prominent external sponsors of the insurgency are Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the two leading Sunni powers in the region, while Shiite Iran is Assad’s principal ally.

The most likely outcome of Assad’s overthrow is a fragmented Syria, similar to what has occurred in Libya, the target of the most recent U.S.-led campaign of missile strikes. The second most likely scenario is a Syria dominated by Sunni Islamist elements. A secular, pro-Western successor regime based on the reconciliation of feuding ethno-religious factions is—by far—the least likely outcome.  Members of Congress need to press Obama administration officials to explain how either of the first two scenarios would benefit America’s security in any conceivable way. 

Above all, Congress should not let the administration continue the fiction that missile strikes would have only a limited objective and result in minimal U.S. involvement in the Syrian maelstrom.