Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Next President and the Use of Force

Robert G. Kaiser shows in today’s Washington Post what many of us have known for some time: notwithstanding their differences over the wisdom of going to war in Iraq, Barack Obama and John McCain may largely agree on the wisdom of going to war in general.

Neither man wants you to believe that, of course. It behooves them to highlight their differences, both to rally their core supporters, and to make an affirmative case for why they should be chosen by the voters to lead the country for the next four years. These differences are most pronounced in domestic matters: in fiscal policy and on taxes, on health care, and on the benefits of international trade.

But, Kaiser writes, the two candidates share many similar views on national security:

[B]oth have revealed a willingness to commit U.S. forces overseas for both strategic and humanitarian purposes. Both agree on a course of action in Afghanistan that could lead to a long-term commitment of American soldiers without a clear statement of how long they might remain or what conditions would lead to their withdrawal.

Both candidates favor expanding the armed forces, Obama by 92,000 and McCain by as many as 150,000. Both speak of situations when the United States might have to commit its troops for “moral” reasons, whether or not a vital American interest was at risk. Both accept what Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor at Boston University, calls the “unspoken consensus which commits the United States to permanent military primacy” – shared, Bacevich said, by leading figures in both parties.

Obama has worn his opposition to the Iraq War as a badge of honor. And rightly so. His principled stand, taken at a time when precious few politicians were willing to do the same, has allowed him to turn his opponents’ (first Clinton and now McCain) supposed advantage – their experience – into a liability, or at least a nullity. If experienced politicians could make such a colossal blunder as to support a war that now two thirds of all Americans believe to have been a mistake, then what is the value of experience?

But the great unknown remains the lessons that Obama has taken away from the Iraq experience. Was the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein from power a good idea, poorly executed? Or was it a bad idea at the outset, further complicated by bungling in the Executive Branch? Obama has signaled that he believes the latter, but some of his advisers seem to have more confidence in their ability to pull off similar missions in the future – say, for example, against the government in Sudan, as Obama advisers Susan Rice and Tony Lake suggested in late 2006.

Given the continuing influence within the Democratic Party of the so-called liberal hawks, there is even the disturbing possibility that a President Obama would be more prone to military intervention than his predecessor.

That said, John McCain’s continued strong support for the Iraq War is merely one of many examples of his enthusiasm for using our military to solve distant problems. He has adopted a similarly bellicose stance toward North Korea and Iran, and has hinted darkly at a confrontational posture toward Russia that could ultimately result in a ruinous military conflict. In that respect, I wholeheartedly agree with Justin Logan’s deliberate ambivalence in his most recent paper, “Two Kinds of Change: Comparing the Candidates on Foreign Policy”: “The best case that can be made for Senator Obama’s foreign policy is the fact that the alternative to his approach is Senator McCain’s.”

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the lingering effects of the Iraq War will greatly limit the next president’s enthusiasm for foreign military intervention. But nothing that either candidate has said during this campaign gives me sufficient assurances that that is the case. Foreign policy has generally been pushed aside during this long campaign, an understandable shift given the current economic climate. But it is not too late for both men to clarify their views on the use of force, and to explain how they might differ from their opponent.

Twitter Terror — Laughable? Or Is There a Lesson?

I was amused to read that a draft Army intelligence report identified micro-blogging service Twitter as a potential tool for terrorists. On the other hand, it’s regrettable that this terrorism mania persists to foster this kind of report and media attention. There’s no distinct terror threat from Twitter.

If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with blogs. On Twitter you can publish ever-so-brief thoughts, giving your readers (or “followers”) ambient awareness of what’s on your mind or what you’re doing. Here’s an example: the Cato Institute’s Twitter feed, which I encourage you to follow. WashingtonWatch.com has one too. And CNN. And former Cato intern Felix Ling.

Now, to use of Twitter by terrorists: Sure, it’s possible, just like it’s possible with any communications medium. Twitter is right up there with telephones, pen and paper, email, SMS, and smoke signals as a potential tool for terrorism. Each of these media have different properties which make them more or less susceptible to use for wrongdoing — and more or less protective of legitimate privacy for the law-abiding.

Like most common digital communications, Twitter is a pretty weak medium for planning bad things. Copies of every post are distributed far and wide — and all “Tweets” are housed pretty much permanently by a single organization.

If you want to get caught doing something wrong, use Twitter to plan it.

Securing against terrorism is hard because terrorists don’t wear uniforms or occupy territory. Their tools are our tools: sneakers, sandwiches, credit cards, cars, steak knives, box cutters, cameras, cell phones, driver’s licenses, Web sites, Napster, Friendster, Facebook, spinach. The list goes on and on and on.

(Yes, spinach — it grows terrorists’ muscles.)

The problem is determining what things in our society have a proximate relationship to terrorism that is greater than their relationship to all the good things we do with them. Box cutters were integral to the 9/11 attacks, but they are used by millions of people every day for wonderful purposes, so we haven’t pursued restrictions on, or monitoring of, box cutters (beyond airplanes, of course). Highly enriched uranium can be used to do a lot of damage. There is exceedingly little chance of it being used by terrorists, but it’s prudent to pursue controls on this material and monitor for peoply trying to acquire it.

Twitter and other digital media are used billions of times a day for all the good things law-abiding people do. There is also a small chance that they’ll be used for wrongdoing, and we have rules about what to do when that chance arises. Alas, Supreme Court cases under the Fourth Amendment are a little too permissive these days.

The chance of Twitter being used by terrorists (real ones, serious ones) is very small and not newsworthy. We’re all relatively inexperienced with the security dilemmas created by terrorism, and it’s appropriate to give a brief thought to how all the implements and infrastructure in society might be used to do damage. In summary, the production of a report on Twitter terror is just shy of silly. The media attention paid to the question: fully silly.

Fears of Nuclear Terrorism

Nightmare scenarios of terrorists gaining possession of nuclear weapons might make for good movie plots, but Americans grossly exaggerate the likelihood that an act of nuclear terrorism will occur within the next five or ten years. So says the RAND Corporation’s Brian Michael Jenkins in a new book, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (See also some of John Mueller’s writings on this subject here and here.) 

James Kitfield’s interview with Jenkins, posted at The National Journal, is an interesting read. Jenkins focuses on the fear factor surrounding nuclear terrorism, fears that terrorists are happy to exploit, even as their capacity for using such weapons is very, very small. I particularly appreciated Jenkins’ ideas about breaking the “chain reaction of fear” and his advice to American political leaders is worth repeating verbatim:

Rather than telling Americans constantly to be very afraid, we should stress that even an event of nuclear terrorism will not bring this Republic to its knees. Some will argue that fear is useful in galvanizing people and concentrating their minds on this threat, but fear is not free. It creates its own orthodoxy and demands obedience to it. A frightened population is intolerant. It trumpets a kind of “lapel pin” patriotism rather than the real thing. A frightened population is also prone both to paralysis – we’re doomed! – and to dangerous overreaction.

I believe that fear gets in the way of addressing the issue of nuclear terrorism in a sustained and sensible way. Instead of spreading fear, our leaders should speak to the American traditions of courage, self-reliance, and resiliency. Heaven forbid that an act of nuclear terrorism ever actually occurs, but if it does, we’ll get through it.

It is understandable why politicians are reluctant to embrace such recommendations. On the other hand, if they understood that terrorists seek to engender panic, public officials would pay as much or more attention to calming the public’s fears as they do to stoking them.

Today at Cato

Article: “Don’t Expand NATO,” by Benjamin H. Friedman and Justin Logan in World Politics Review

Article: “Nuclear Energy: Risky Business,” by Jerry Taylor in Reason Magazine

Podcast: “Jacob Zuma and the Future of South Africa,” featuring Tony Leon

Op-Ed: “Questions and Answers About Obama’s Health Plan,” by Michael D. Tanner in the McClatchy News Service

Radio Highlight: Adam B. Schaeffer On Education

New York Times: Less Difference between Candidates on Foreign Policy than Meets the Eye

Today’s Times features an article by David Sanger discussing the two campaigns’ claim that the candidates have “sharply different views about the proper use of American power.”  Sanger tallies the ledger and finds “contradictions that do not fit the neat hawk-and-dove images promoted by each campaign.”

Much of what Sanger covers, and his general conclusion, appeared in my Policy Analysis published earlier this month, “Two Kinds of Change: Comparing the Candidates on Foreign Policy.”  But Sanger points to an interesting contradiction within the McCain camp on Iran.  Sanger writes:

Questions to both campaigns in the past few weeks have yielded another example of role reversal. While Mr. McCain seems willing to consider that Iran might someday be trusted to produce its own nuclear fuel, Mr. Obama does not. The director of foreign policy for the McCain campaign, Randy Scheunemann, said that if Iran was in compliance with United Nations resolutions, “it would be appropriate to consider” letting it produce uranium under inspection, which Iran has said is its right.

This is interesting.  As I wrote in my paper,

In response to a two-question questionnaire sent to the candidates by the Institute for Science and International Security, McCain indicated that “there can be no such thing as an adequately controlled nuclear fuel cycle in Iran.”He went on to propose that Iran rely on foreign sources of fuel, and claimed that “There is no circumstance under which the international community could be confident that uranium enrichment or plutonium production activities undertaken by the current government of Iran are purely for peaceful purposes.”

Here (.pdf) is the ISIS report in question.  I’m not fond of the “flip flop” gotcha game, but this appears to be an interesting shift on the part of the McCain camp.  Something an enterprising journalist might want to follow up on.

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer on REAL ID

I just came across the transcript of an interview with Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer (D) about the REAL ID Act. His characteristic forthrightness makes it refreshing to read.

Here’s a key point about the REAL ID Act’s attempt to coerce states into complying:

So I spoke with Chertoff and it became apparent to me that Homeland Security needed all the states worse than we needed them to do this thing.

In the early going, many state politicians were cowed by the threat that the federal government would interfere with their constituents’ travel plans if they did not go along with national standardization of their states’ ID documents.

As this interview makes clear, Secretary Chertoff and the DHS recognized that the federal government would be blamed if the Transportation Security Administration interfered with the air travel plans of millions of Americans.

DHS blinked. And it’s not the first time that happened.

U.S. Missteps = Perceived Gains for Terrorists

I wrote here a few weeks ago about a plausible argument that the 9/11 attacks were succeeding in that they drew our nation into destabilizing overreaction. Though I assume only the best of intentions on the part of our political leaders, their massive expenditures on war and homeland security have left the country in a weaker fiscal position and less able to deal with the recent upheaval in investment banking, credit, and the stock market.

Apparently, terrorists and would-be terrorists see this too. According to the Washington Post:

[Web commentary] posted by Taliban or al-Qaeda-allied groups in recent days [has] trumpeted the global financial crisis and predicted further decline for the United States and other Western powers. In language that was by turns mocking and ominous, the newest posting credited al-Qaeda with having lured Washington into a trap that had “exhausted its resources and bankrupted its economy.”

I’m still quite sure that the United States is not destabilized and in economic collapse, but we’re quite a bit worse off economically than we could have been had we responded strategically to terrorism rather than just reacting.

20-20 hindsight? Yes! My purpose is to turn these lessons into foresight.