Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

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.

Is The Domestic Terror Threat ‘Overblown’?

As Cato’s new research fellow for Defense and Homeland Security (and someone who’s written extensively on how the terror threat to the United States is hardly an “existential” one), I was glad to see this headline on the cover of latest Rolling Stone (right behind the left ear of Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke): “The Fake Domestic Terror Threat: How the FBI Became a Factory of Fear” — even if it’s a bit hyperbolic. (The article is not online.)

The author, Guy Lawson, does not tell readers much that they could not have gathered from the Washington Post or the New York Review of Books. But he repeats something that bears repeating: Six plus years of fevered searching for terrorists on American soil has turned up precious little of the real thing.

The hunt, led by the FBI, has found several wanna-be jihadis willing to sign up for phony terror plots often organized by FBI informants, various illegal immigrants with shady overseas connections, a number of people gathering funds for foreign terrorist organizations, and only a handful of true terrorists (and not particularly formidable ones). A report from NYU’s Center for Law and Security finds that from September 11, 2001 through September 11, 2006, only “four individuals have been convicted of federal crimes of terrorism” in the United States and “no sleeper cell with logistical or tactical links to al Qaeda has been convicted of plotting an attack to be carried out within the U.S.” That means we have found no terrorist sleeper cells in the United States since September 11, as the FBI admitted.

Time and again, federal officials held press conferences to announce the break-up of a terrorist plot and vaguely described the disaster prevented. The evening news and the headlines repeated their lurid claims. Months later, the inside pages of the papers would report that the plot was not what we were told — and TV doesn’t even bother. The plans have turned out to be unfeasible or preliminary. On other occasions, it turned out the plotters visited a terrorist camp but did little plotting. Some charges have been dismissed. Some have been completely bogus.

Experts, like an FBI agent Lawson quotes, say that just because you haven’t found something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. That’s indisputable. But when several federal agencies, local police, alarmed citizens, and ambitious federal prosecutors search for terrorists for years and find almost none, you have good evidence that there just aren’t many to find. To that some will say that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. But that expression is illogical. If you spent two hours spent searching your car for your lost wallet, it is good evidence that it’s not there, though it’s not proof.

Don’t mistake me. The domestic terror threat is not altogether false. Most of those the government has prosecuted in the name of counter-terrorism should have gone to prison or been deported, and the FBI should not quit looking. The point is simply that the threat is greatly exaggerated.

Without that exaggeration it would be harder, obviously, to justify illegal wiretapping and other brazen assertions of unconstitutional executive power. Lawson mentions another consequence of overreaction to domestic terrorism; one that is mostly ignored: fewer resources devoted to fighting good old-fashioned crime. He quotes a Northern Illinois police officer frustrated by the funds the FBI devotes to chasing terrorists when there is plenty of real federal crime going unsolved and wonders if this is the best use of our tax dollars. He could have gone further.

The FBI has shifted about 2,400 agents from crime to counter-terrorism in recent years, despite the doubling of its topline budget — now $6.4 billion. The result is likely more fraud, more racketeering, more mafia. In a 2005 report, Justice Department inspector general Glenn Fine notes that the FBI opened 45 percent fewer criminal investigations in 2004 than 2001 and referred 27 percent fewer cases to a U.S. Attorney for prosecution. Cases opened on violent crime dropped 47 percent, financial crimes 40 percent, public corruption 42 percent and American criminal enterprises — often the mafia — 50 percent.

Even readers skeptical about the merits of federal policing ought to agree that it is wiser for the feds to chase real criminals than imaginary terrorists. As Jim Harper recently said here, terrorists usually impose large costs only by inducing the unwitting help of their victims. By encouraging the FBI to ignore its traditional responsibilities, we magnify the costs of terrorism. A recalibration of priorities is in order. But American politics being what they are, that will take a few hundred more articles like Lawson’s.

Terrorism and Terrorism Counter-Strategy: Some Rudimentary, Necessary Thoughts

I share Tim Lee’s disagreements with our colleague Roger Pilon’s WSJ op-ed. Roger received far less gentle treatment elsewhere. I’m impressed, as usual, with Tim’s depth on the FISA law and the FISA debate.

This stir reminds me of a broader problem that pervades debates on anti-terror policies. Many perfectly intelligent public policy experts still lack a sound understanding of terrorism as a strategy. This degrades their ability to conceive of counter-strategic responses, causing them to promote ideas that would not help and that would even hurt our efforts to control terrorism.

In early January, I presented at a conference held by the International School on Disarmament and Research on Conflicts, the Italian branch of the 1995 Nobel-Prize-winning Pugwash Group. The topic of the conference was “Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and Human Rights.” I have done some work on the privacy implications of technical anti-terrorist efforts, of course, and am increasingly (and necessarily, it seems) focusing on terrorism strategy and counter-strategy. I presented on both and learned a great deal from the perspectives represented at the conference.

Though I don’t feel fully expert yet, I’d like to share some more detailed thinking about terrorism and counter-terrorism strategy. I hope more people will put their thinking into this kind of context.

To Define or Not to Define “Terrorism”

The terrorism definition I offered was: “a strategy used by the weak to goad the strong into self-injurious overreaction.” Rightly, my colleagues prompted me to refine this to “A strategy of violence used by the weak to goad the strong into self-injurious overreaction.” Civil disobedience is designed to elicit overreaction, of course, but it is as far from terrorism as one can get.

Some questions emerged during the conference that are relevant:

  • Can states use terrorism? Or is it only used by non-state actors? - These are important questions. My preference is to find that terrorism is only used by non-state actors. When a state tries to provoke another in some way (even using proxies who look like non-state terrorists), this can and should be treated as a tactic in war. The terrorism counter-strategy I’ll discuss below is inapposite for when a state does terrible things, and this should be treated as a separate problem.
  • Is terrorism only used by the weak? - Regrettably to me, I have heard the United States cited as a possible example of a “strong terrorist.” It is possible that the strong might use terror to provoke, but the strong are almost always states whose use of terror may be acts of war or crimes against humanity, but not acts of terrorism that can be addressed with terrorism counter-strategy.
  • Does terrorism require attacks on civilians? - I think not. Terrorism can be committed by attacks on civilian or military infrastructure, or even without attack - by making a credible threat. To the extent it can be defined at all, terrorism can not be defined with reference to specific targets or acts.
  • Is terrorism a crime or an act of war? - Placing terrorism in a conceptual box like this is a part of developing a counter-strategy, which I discuss below.

Intentional creation of fear would also seem to be an element of terrorism. Not all fear-creating is terrorism, of course. Legitimate war-making probably includes and requires instilling fear at key times in key populations.

Despite all this, I’m tentatively persuaded that it is not actually useful to spend a lot of time parsing it down to the “definitive definition” - not for these purposes, at least. Terrorism requires a definition if you’re going to extradite people for “terrorism,” but as I conclude below, terrorist acts are best treated as crimes and made extraditable as such. States, especially, will use the process of defining terrorism for self-preservation, treating all non-state violence as terrorism. They do this to have a rhetorical upper-hand when confronting any rebellion, even a legitimate one, fought fairly. George Washington’s army may have been considered “terrorist” by the British.

What matters is not the definition, but how terrorism works.

Terrorism at Work: Overreaction
I do believe that terrorism has a defining characteristic: it seeks to goad the strong into self-injurious overreaction, with results falling into the following categories:

  • Waste of Blood and Treasure - Terrorist attacks - or well-placed threats of attack - can prompt the victim to waste its own resources, both the blood of its soldiers and the wealth of its people. The U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks provides many examples of both. It terms of blood, there is the Iraq War. (n.b., I was sympathetic to the war at the beginning and quite capable of defending its rationale, but the result now is clear: that we have wasted many lives and much treasure.) The creation and operation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration are basically permanent multi-billion-dollar drains on the public fisc. The REAL ID Act and Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative are similarly wasteful, self-destructive programs. These are just a few examples and they all were prompted by a $500,000 al Qaeda investment. Ohio State professor John Mueller’s legendary Regulation article is required reading for anyone studying terrorism or thinking in terms of terrorism counter-strategy.
  • Recruitment and Sympathy Gains - A strong power victimized by terrorism is very likely to do violence or take other responses that are badly directed, or even entirely misdirected. This will tend to engender sympathy for the terrorists and aid in their recruiting and support. The Iraq War has drawn energy to al Qaeda, as the U.S. is widely perceived as a Middle East menace, its good intentions unknown. Not just the war-making matters, of course; its conduct does, as well. Think Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo - gigantic PR victories for terrorists, and many other opponents of U.S. power. Paddy Hillyard from Queen’s University Belfast has articulated well how British responses to IRA terror won sympathy and recruits for them. Lashing out against the communities in which terrorists live, or the places where they hide, forces local neutrals into the wrong camp. These are people who are uniquely positioned to undermine those terrorists should they so choose.
  • Weakened Political Order/Society - Finally, terrorism causes what I have tentatively called a “weakened political order/society.” Terror attacks on the Western democracies have caused them to come somewhat loose from their (classical) liberal moorings. In the U.S. since 9/11, we have seen proposals for massive domestic surveillance, we have seen Americans taken prisoner and held without charges, we have seen surveillance conducted in violation of the law. These are just a few of the more prominent examples. (A list Paddy Hillyard produced with reference to Northern Ireland looks remarkably familiar.) Now, naming all these “civil liberties violations” is not mere (neo) liberal carping. Mike German’s book Thinking Like a Terrorist shows that terrorists are battling for legitimacy. With little ability to build their own legitimacy, they can at least degrade their opponent’s. Overreaction by the victim state erodes its claim of moral authority to rule. This is more relevant when a terrorist group makes a credible claim on territory or when it represents a distinct population, of course, but look at how Osama bin Laden has occasionally offered to make “great power”-like deals with European states. This is a man seeking after legitimacy. Unfortunately, U.S. officials have given it to him in their rhetoric by allowing HIM to declare war! U.S. officials have likewise undermined U.S. legitimacy (and grown the terrorists’) by seeking excessive new powers, exaggerating threats, and undermining the rule of law. It is a successful execution of the terrorism strategy when an attack causes a state to deviate from its ordinary practices and founding ideals.

So now that we have the terrorism strategy in hand, and how it works, we can turn to counter-strategy. My potentially-clever line summarizing good terrorism counter-strategy is:

Do what you can – AND NOTHING MORE!

There are lots of things to do that can thwart terrorism and defend against terrorist attacks, such as infiltrating and disrupting terror groups. (They have to operate clandestinely so they are wonderfully paranoid. This can be exploited, and has been in the past.) Targeted, lawful surveillance of terrorists and terror suspects is good. Controlling access to weapons of mass destruction and WMD precursors - vital. Taking reasonable precautions to secure against likely vectors of attack on infrastructure. Preparing for attacks and their aftermaths. Communications that accurately convey risks and appropriate responses. These are all viable counter-terrorism activities - and it’s not nearly an exhaustive list.

The counter-strategy’s most interesting part, of course, is the “nothing more” part. This is the commonsensical but elusive idea that you should not take anti-terrorism measures that aren’t going to work. Believe it or not, this implies a slight preference for inaction (or perhaps under-action) in anti-terror efforts. If it isn’t provably a good idea, don’t do it!

This is not pacifist foolishness; this is hard-edged counter-strategy taking advantage of the fact that terrorism alone is inherently self-destructive. Only when joined with overreaction does terrorism become “productive.” Overreaction must be avoided.

So our counter-strategies, which map to the gains terrorists seek, are:

  • Hold on to Blood and Treasure - If at all possible, don’t go to war. As I said, I was sympathetic to the Iraq War at the outset. My intellectual superiors here at Cato did a better job of it at the time, and now continue to counsel less war over more. This is consistent with good terrorism counterstrategy.
  • Don’t Give the Gift of Overreaction - As I touched on above, terrorists want their opponents to strike at them and miss. They don’t even mind too much if they get hit - as long as there is some good collateral damage. Overreaction - in war, prisoner detention and mistreatment - even in the conduct of investigation - these things are all good for terrorists because it helps them get recruits and support.
  • Stand By the Values of Your Society - Similarly, deviating from the rule of law, seeking extraordinary powers, using mass surveillance - these things all give terrorists legitimacy by admitting their power. These things also undermine the legitimacy of an incumbent government by placing the state at odds with its people. (By the way, false security measures will do yet more to undermine a state’s legitimacy when they actually fail. Placing the government’s legitimacy on the table in a bet on “security theater” is anti-terrorism malpractice.) When the terror-victim-government simply behaves well, this can be a devastating blow to terrorism because it causes the bad behavior of terrorists to dominate public perceptions. It destroys terrorists’ legitimacy and it undercuts their support, sympathy, recruitment, and fundraising.

One thing about all this is important: “War” is the wrong reaction by any measure. Going to war literally saps a nation of blood and treasure. It also will result in damage that draws sympathy and support to the terrorists. The rhetoric of “war” also gives terrorist groups legitimacy in the eyes of their current and potential allies, supporters, or members. I get very frustrated when I hear U.S. public officials give Osama bin Laden this gift.

Rather than war, terrorism should be treated as a crime problem, for at least two reasons: First, that treatment is far less likely to lead to overreaction, and, second, treating terrorism as a crime is an energy-draining “dis” to terrorists themselves. My colleague Roger Pilon is mistaken to put our efforts against terrorism within the constitution’s “Commander in Chief” power, whatever its appropriate scope is. As far as extradition, terrorists should be extradited based on the criminal acts or criminal planning they have committed. (Perhaps certain conspiracies might be added to the substantive law in some countries.) Treating them fairly - as criminals - will quickly melt the “mystique” that terrorists try to mold around themselves.

There are many pieces missing from this discussion. There are certainly many details about which reasonable people can differ. One thing I think is certain: Failing to address terrorism counter-strategically has done our nation immense damage, and threatens still more. We need to change that.