Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Fear Factory

Via Hit and Run, the article from the February 7 Rolling Stone that Ben Friedman blogged about recently is now online. “The Fear Factory” discusses multiple cases where the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces have brought cases against defendants who “posed little if any demonstrable threat to anyone or anything.” Crucially, the story illustrates how information about the JTTFs’ activities are shrouded behind claims of secrecy.

This is no way to do law enforcement - or to secure a free country.

Nuclear Terror: How Big a Threat?

Steve Chapman has a typically smart piece describing John Mueller’s provocative “who’s afraid of nuclear terror?” argument. (.pdf)

The events required [for nuclear terror to] happen include a multitude of herculean tasks. First, a terrorist group has to get a bomb or fissile material, perhaps from Russia’s inventory of decommissioned warheads. If that were easy, one would have already gone missing.

Besides, those devices are probably no longer a danger, since weapons that are not scrupulously maintained (as those have not been) quickly become what one expert calls “radioactive scrap metal.” If terrorists were able to steal a Pakistani bomb, they would still have to defeat the arming codes and other safeguards designed to prevent unauthorized use. As for Iran, no nuclear state has ever given a bomb to an ally—for reasons even the Iranians can grasp. Stealing some 100 pounds of bomb fuel would require help from rogue individuals inside some government who are prepared to jeopardize their own lives. The terrorists, notes Mueller, would then have to spirit it “hundreds of miles out of the country over unfamiliar terrain, and probably while being pursued by security forces.”

Then comes the task of building a bomb. It’s not something you can gin up with spare parts and power tools in your garage. It requires millions of dollars, a safe haven and advanced equipment—plus people with specialized skills, lots of time and a willingness to die for the cause. And if Al Qaeda could make a prototype, another obstacle would emerge: There is no guarantee it would work, and there is no way to test it…

Chapman concludes:

None of this means we should stop trying to minimize the risk by securing nuclear stockpiles, monitoring terrorist communications and improving port screening. But it offers good reason to think that in this war, it appears, the worst eventuality is one that will never happen.

My eyebrows went up an inch or three the first time I heard this argument at the APSA convention last year, but as with so much of John Mueller’s work, when you stop to think about his arguments, it’s hard to find a genuinely weak link in his logic. In any event, it’s a discussion that deserves to be had.

Airport Security Technology Stuck in the Pipeline

The Washington Post has a story today on the slow pace of progress in airport security technology. We would see faster development of better, more consumer-friendly security technology if the airlines were entirely responsible for it. Here’s a glimpse of what I said about this in an written debate hosted by Reason magazine a few years ago:

Airlines should be given clear responsibility for their own security and clear liability should they fail. Under these conditions, airlines would provide security, along with the best mix of privacy, savings, and convenience, in the best possible way. Because of federal involvement, air transportation is likely less safe today than it would be if responsibility were unequivocally with the airlines.

Musical Chairs

How much will Russia change when Vladimir Putin hands over the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev in the spring?  Putin’s chosen successor has suggested in campaign speeches this month that his regime will be different. Medvedev has eschewed the anti-Western rhetoric of his boss and promised to crack down on corruption. He has even made nice noises about non-government organizations. Putin, of course, imposed tough restrictions on NGOs, especially those of foreign origin or funded by foreign sources, a policy he adopted after seeing the crucial role NGOs played in the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine.

Last month, two government officials appeared to break ranks with Putin’s Kremlin and called for a change in the country’s strident foreign policy. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, the deputy prime minister in charge of economic policy, told an investment conference in Moscow that the government “should adjust [its] foreign policy goals in the nearest future to guarantee stable investment.” His comment was supported by Anatoly Chubais, head of state utility Unified Energy System.

So, will there be a Moscow Spring after the foregone presidential election puts Medvedev in the Kremlin?

Cato’s Andrei Illarionov warned recently that Putinism will not end with Putin relinquishing the presidency. “I don’t think so, because we are talking about the policy and philosophy of aggression against Russian people, against Russia’s neighbors, against other countries in the world,” he told the BBC’s Hard Talk program.  “It does not and should not be attributed to one particular person. This is the philosophy and ideology of a group of people, of the Corporation, of the organizations that exist in the country for a long period of time, almost for a century.”

And news out of Russia suggests that the “Corporation” – constituted predominantly by former state security officials and others linked to the so-called “power ministries” – is tightening its grip on Russia business, government agencies and the media with a host of new appointments and nominations to company boards being announced. For example, Igor Sechin, the deputy chief of staff at the Kremlin, has been nominated for the board of Rosneft, the massive state oil company. Viktor Zubkov, the prime minister, has been nominated for the board of Gazprom, and he is likely to become the next chairman of the natural gas business when Medvedev relinquishes the post on becoming the Russian President.

The list goes on and the flurry of appointments is reminiscent of the early days of Putin’s presidency when the neo-KGB state started to form. Medvedev may not come from a KGB background but the state security men will be all around him with their hands on key levers of power. Even if he is independent minded, how can he withstand the interests of the security services and of his likely Prime Minister, one Vladimir Putin?

Our Big, Fat Defense Budget

I suppose I should be happy to live in a country that can afford to spend nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars a year on defense even though we are relatively safe, historically speaking. But the defense spending that the President proposed to Congress Monday is so excessive that I can only manage outrage. Everyone complains about earmarks, but they cost $17 billion across the government last year. That’s just two months in Iraq; pocket change in the Pentagon.

Hawks, like Admiral Mike Mullen, the new Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, argue that, hey, it is only 4 percent of GDP. After all, they say, we used to spend far more of our wealth on the military, especially during wars – 35 percent of GDP in World War II and 9 percent in Korea.

That argument, popular as it is, baffles me. The US is about six and half times as rich it was in 1950, adjusting for inflation. Economic growth means that devoting a pegged portion of GDP to the Pentagon is to annually increase defense spending, whatever happens with foreign threats. That’s a silly way to spend tax dollars, to put it mildly. The sensible way to provide defense is look at your enemies’ capabilities and likely scenarios for defeating them and back spending out from that – whether that amounts to one percent of GDP or 30.

And it is not just the waste that offends. According to Steve Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the budget will leave the Pentagon short – by $10 to 20 billion a year – of the cash it needs to meet its own requirements. That’s because the budget avoids choice, the essence of strategy. As Fred Kaplan noted the other day, instead of selecting a method of providing defense that would create winners and losers among military services and their platform communities, the non-war budget basically gives the services what they want under a topline. It also gives each service roughly the same relative share of the total as they received in each year since the Kennedy administration, with only a slight uptick this year for the ground forces. That tells you a great deal about George Bush’s claim to have transformed the military.

The worst thing about the budget is that it is bipartisan. No one influential complains. Congressional Republicans on the defense committees are either for it or want more. Democrats knock the Iraq funds, but accept the other $560 billion. History says that the defense budget – at least the non-war portion – that emerges as law next fall will deviate only slightly from what the President submitted.

Why is no one opposed? For one (and I could go on), both parties embrace brands of militaristic hegemony – the idea that that we are better off with massive military predominance over all other powers and that there is a military solution to most foreign policy concerns. Want a liberal world? Buy enough carriers and F-22s so that we can dominate it. China’s growing? Arm so heavily that they cannot compete. Pakistan troubles you? Draw up an invasion plan. Africa is disorderly? Create Africa Command.

But really you can’t blame politicians, who have to get elected. You have to blame the intellectuals who shape public opinion. Blame my field, political science, which has largely decided to avoid studying such unsophisticated questions as the requirements of our defense (and hiring those who do), leaving security debates short of truly independent experts. Blame the beltway pundits who avoid challenging the post September 11 explosion of militarism or lead the parade.

The good news is that bad things, the Iraq war and the growth of entitlements’ cost, are waking people up to the idea that maybe this isn’t the best use of tax dollars. DoD plans and insiders say FY 2009 will be a peak year for defense spending, and that we are about to hit a downward trend. Here’s hoping.

Straight Talk and Militarist Madness

In the New Hampshire primary, exit polls revealed that 38 percent of those voting in the Republican primary who “strongly disapprove” of the war in Iraq cast their ballot for John McCain. In Michigan, 35 percent of those strongly disapproving of the war cast their ballots for him. Somehow, McCain’s repeated indications that he would be more favorably inclined toward war than the current president haven’t broken through the fog of media adulation that surrounds the Arizona senator.

One of the first, most striking indications was McCain’s serenading an audience in South Carolina last April with a rendition of the Beach Boys’ song “Barbara Ann” with the lyrics changed to “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” His campaign spokesman later spun the outburst as “adding levity to the discussion,” but his campaign kept up the theme, playing the real “Barbara Ann” at subsequent appearances. The mainstream media, of course, gave a pass to McCain–who is truly a press darling–but the video was posted on YouTube and other websites, and downloaded by millions of viewers across the world–many of whom probably didn’t find it funny.

Before the New Hampshire primary, McCain was at it again. Speaking to an audience in New Hampshire on January 3, one questioner remarked with concern that the current president has spoken about staying in Iraq for 50 years. How, the questioner wondered, did Senator McCain feel about this? Before the man had a chance to finish his question, McCain interrupted him, blurting out “make it 100 [years]! … That would be fine with me!”

It was a stunning, candid admission. If elected, McCain acknowledges that his policies would help ensure that when our grandchildren sign up for military service, some of them will deploy to Iraq. More broadly than Iraq, Senator McCain has a clear track record of supporting war and militarism, and if elected, there’s every reason–from his twitchy statements on the campaign trail to his actions in Congress–to believe that Senator McCain is the all-war-all-the-time candidate.

In the past decade, Senator McCain has supported unsheathing the saber against a variety of enemies from Serbia to Iraq, Iran, and Sudan. And in the present, as Matt Welch writes in his new book The Myth of a Maverick, the senator from Arizona “envisions a more militaristic foreign policy than any U.S. president in a century.”

In fact, Senator McCain has indicated that not only would he like to unleash the U.S. military on substantial portions of the rest of the world, as president, he would work to militarize American society. In a 2001 article in the Washington Monthly, after lamenting that it was “not currently politically practical to revive the draft,” McCain went on to praise and argue for the expansion of the National Civilian Community Corps, a federally-administered program where volunteers “wear uniforms, work in teams, learn public speaking skills, and gather together for daily calisthenics, often in highly public places such as in front of city hall.”

McCain glowed at the fact that the participants “not only wear uniforms and work in teams…but actually live together in barracks on former military bases.” There is already a place where young people wear federal uniforms, live in military barracks, and gather for calisthenics in front of government buildings: It’s called North Korea.

Getting back to Iraq, perhaps the best one can say is that Senator McCain has made his views plain: staying is victory, and leaving is defeat. While this may be a soothing idea for those like Senator McCain who urged us to start a war with Iraq in the first place, as a governing principle for our presence in the Middle East, it is extremely dangerous.

But give Senator McCain credit: he isn’t falsely marketing a “humble” foreign policy on the campaign trail. To the contrary, when voters go to the polls, there will be plenty of information available to indicate that a vote for McCain is a vote for perpetual war and occupation. Voters may even obtain that information—if the media could stop fawning over the deliciously “mavericky” Senator McCain and just reveal his platform for what it really is.

DHS Was Bluffing

Last week, I published an Op-Ed in the Detroit News predicting chaos at the border in the face of ramped up document checks. I was wrong.

In fact, the DHS was bluffing. Border crossers who lacked government-issued photo ID and proof of citizenship like birth certificates or naturalization certificates weren’t prevented from crossing. They were given fliers.

As the AP reports:

Bobby and Genice Bogard of Greers Ferry, Ark., … who winter in Mission, Texas, knew the requirements were coming but thought they took effect in June. So even though they have U.S. passports, they had left them at home.”He allowed us to pass with a driver’s license,” Bobby Bogard said of a border agent.

“But next time he said he wouldn’t,” added Genice Bogard.

Yeah.

Something to keep in mind as the DHS threatens to make air travel inconvenient for people from states that don’t comply with the REAL ID Act’s national ID mandate.