Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Sentence of the Day

Mandarin of the Washington Establishment, Joe Klein of Time magazine appears to have had just about enough of Fred Kagan’s writing on Iraq:

On the day that John Yoo’s remarkable torture memo is released, this foolishness is a reminder that none of these people–none of the vicious, mendacious, naive, simplistic, unapologetic, neo-colonialist ideologues who promulgated this disaster–should have even the vaguest claim on the time or tolerance of fair-minded people.

Back story on the abominable green-lighting of torture is here. Kagan article on which Klein was commenting here.

All You Ever Needed to Know About the Surge

A while back, I characterized the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq as “buy time and pray for a miracle.” Now White House politics-of-Iraq guru Peter Feaver has a piece in Commentary lifting the veil from the White House machinations of surge planning. In the piece, Feaver reveals that the planners’ objective was basically to toss the Iraqi hot potato into the lap of the next administration, dust off their hands, and declare victory:

The challenge…was to develop and implement a workable strategy that could be handed over to Bush’s successor. Although important progress could be made on that strategy during Bush’s watch, ultimately it would be carried through by the next President….

This new and different strategy, now called the “surge” but at one point called by insiders the “bridge,” emerged out of a growing recognition over 2006 that our critics were right about one thing: our Iraq policy was not working…

As a political matter, this has a pretty airtight logic to it. Rather than admitting that theirs was the first U.S. administration to start and lose a war of aggression on their watch (bad for the legacy!), this way it comes out heads-we-win-tails-you-lose. If, by the grace of God, some subsequent U.S. president can manage to extricate us from the Iraqi quagmire without a total meltdown, the Bushies will clap each other on the back, declaring themselves visionaries. If, on the other hand, Iraq flames out entirely on the watch of a subsequent administration, the Bushies can play the Dolchstoss card and explain how The Surge Was Working and would have continued working were it not for the fecklessness of the Obama/Clinton/McCain administration.

No End in Sight

Sunday’s New York Times contains a review of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, the book version of his documentary film of the same name. The book is basically a 500 page compilation of the interviews Ferguson did for the film.

Like most of those who reviewed the film, the reviewer, Barry Gewen, has only good things to say about Ferguson’s project. For the most part, he’s right to praise. Ferguson made a fortune in software (after getting a PhD in Political Science from MIT!) and used a chunk of his wealth to travel to Iraq at great risk and make a first-rate documentary, even though he’d never before made a film. You have to give the guy credit.

On the other hand, both the film and book at least implicitly subscribe to the incompetence dodge: the idea that the problem in Iraq was the Bush Administration’s execution of the occupation, not the thing itself; means not ends. Ferguson, a liberal hawk who supported the war and, from what I can tell, still does, says in his preface that the purpose of the film was to answer the “big question of how and why all this had occurred.” “All this” means the disaster in Iraq. He answers by dissecting the management of the early occupation, particularly the decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and fire most Ba’athists from Iraq’s government. He demonstrates that these decisions were ill-considered, ill-advised and aided the insurgency. By stopping there, Ferguson implies that he has answered his question by looking at the tactics of occupation; that this incompetence is what went wrong in Iraq.

The Bush Administration was incompetent and then some in Iraq, but the occupation failed because it involved Americans trying to reorder the government of a far-off country with plenty of grievances and arms but no liberal ideology. It’s too much to say that success was impossible, but failure was likely, no matter who was President.

Gewen flags a quote Ambassador Barbara Bodine gives in the book: “There were 500 ways to do it wrong, and two or three ways to do it right,” Bodine tells Ferguson. “What we didn’t understand is that we were gonna go through all 500.”

What Gewen doesn’t say is that if she’s right and the odds of success are 1/250, the lesson is don’t chance it.

For an explanation of why civil war was likely in Iraq after an American invasion, no matter how well the President planned and whether they dissolved the Iraqi Army, read the essay, “Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq,” that I wrote for Cato with Harvey Sapolsky and Chris Preble.

On why getting this right matters, see Andrew Bacevich:

How Americans choose to incorporate Iraq into the nation’s historical narrative will either affirm our post-Cold War trajectory toward empire or create opportunities to set a saner course.

Banal maybe, but worth repeating.

Back to Somalia?

Buried in a story in Thursday’s Washington Post about the mess in Somalia is the following nugget:

In recent weeks, the State Department dispatched a team of contractors to Somaliland to explore the idea of establishing a military presence at an old airstrip there, according to members of the team interviewed in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Somaliland’s government, eager for recognition, welcomed the possibility.

“If the U.S. wishes to have a military presence in Somaliland territory, we will welcome them and accept them,” said Somaliland President Dahir Rayale Kahin. “There are discussions, and we agreed to work together toward mutual ends. But things have not materialized so far.”

This demands more reporting. What kind of military presence? Most likely we’re talking about a staging ground for special operations forces or UAV flights. But that would presumably be secret, begging the question of what contractors are doing talking about it.

The State Department just designated al-Shabaab, a wing of the Islamic Courts Group, as a terrorist organization. The Courts Group is the loose-knit Islamist alliance that briefly gained power in much of Somalia before being routed by the Ethiopians and reforming as an insurgency.

Beyond claiming that “al-Shabaab is a violent and brutal extremist group with a number of individuals affiliated with al Qaeda,” State’s designation does not explain itself. Reuters cites officials who claim that al-Shabaab’s leader trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and that it shelters al Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 and 2002 bomb attacks in Kenya. The UN is less certain about an al Qaeda presence in Somalia.

That is thin gruel. Prior links and several al Qaeda guys in the mix, while worrying, do not mean that organization is going to attack Americans, and is therefore one we should target.

Mixing a “war on terrorism” with the promiscuous designation of Islamic insurgent organizations as terrorists is a recipe for spending the next century tied up in other people’s civil wars. There’s a self-fulfilling aspect to this policy. Declaring war on insurgents may cause them to attack Americans or ally with those who do. There’s evidence that this dynamic is already occurring in Somalia. And if you agree with Robert Pape that military occupations cause suicide terrorism, American boots on the ground could create terrorists, rather than denying them sanctuary.

If we can locate terrorists bent on attacking Americans in Somalia, we should target them if the local government cannot. Aside from that, we should keep our powder dry and wait and see what emerges. Sending even a small force (and it’s possible we already have covert operatives on the ground to target airstrikes) into Somalia – even Somaliland, a relatively calm area in the south – is a terrible idea under present circumstances.

Wouldn’t it be terrific if we had a system of divided war powers so that Congress could monitor what the Pentagon is doing in Somalia, inform the public, and prevent a slide into a small war?

Failed, Self-Contradictory REAL ID Myth-Busting

Today finds another post on the DHS Leadership blog attempting to defend the REAL ID Act. Despite never having made the affirmative case for REAL ID, Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker is attempting to defeat the arguments against it.

The “myth” he purports to dispell this time is that REAL ID creates a national ID:

REAL ID is simple. The regulation requires that states meet minimum security standards when they issue driver’s licenses and identification cards necessary for “official purposes,” like getting on a plane or entering federal buildings. That’s it. The federal government’s role is to make sure that states meet minimum standards of security, so that banks and airports in one state can count on the quality of licenses issued in another.

Once again, I believe savvy Stewart Baker is playing at the role of ingenue. He’s pretending to lack the common knowledge that government programs grow in size and power.

It’s true that REAL ID allows states to issue driver’s licenses and identification cards that don’t meet the federal standards. They won’t be acceptable for “official purposes,” which are defined as follows in the statute:

The term “official purpose” includes but is not limited to accessing Federal facilities, boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft, entering nuclear power plants, and any other purposes that the Secretary shall determine.

(emphasis added)

Once REAL ID is in place, the secretary of homeland security has the power to require it for any purpose beyond the ones listed in the statute. What might those be? The immigration bill debated in Congress last summer would have required possession of a REAL ID–compliant card in order to work in the United States. If Congress doesn’t do it, perhaps the DHS secretary would do it on his own once REAL ID is at his disposal.

Baker himself recently proposed that REAL ID could be required for buying cold medicine. Wherever the federal government requires the use of identification, it could require possession of a REAL ID. In the very post where he seeks to debunk the fact that REAL ID is a national ID, he mentions the use of REAL ID by banks. The USA-PATRIOT Act extended “know your customer” regulations deep into the financial services sector. The DHS and Treasury could require possession of a REAL ID to access banking.

Strangely, Baker’s post says, “the federal government does not have the authority to regulate how or whether a bank, grocery store, retailer, or school requires REAL ID.” This directly contradicts a premise of his proposal to require REAL ID for cold medicine. It’s unfortunate that the federal government has this power — it shouldn’t — but Baker knows darn well that it does.

It’s technically true that you wouldn’t have to have a REAL ID–compliant national ID card under current law, but refusing one may not be too practical. You’d have to live in a state that gives you that option and then be willing to do without air travel, legal employment, financial services, medicine, and whatever else the Department of Homeland Security decides.

What looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, tends to be a duck. REAL ID is a national ID.

“New Hampshire Joins Montana in Real ID Victory”

So reports Wired’s “Threat Level” blog as the Department of Homeland Security capitulates in the face of New Hampshire’s rejection of REAL ID. The same thing happened with Montana.

The key? The renegade states send a nice letter that is not a request for an extension of a looming deadline but touts the security of their driver’s licenses, which the Department of Homeland Security accepts as an official extension request. That lets DHS save face, even as it backs down from repeated threats to punish the citizens of rogue states.

New Hampshire wins.

Passport Snooping Is Just the Beginning

Following up on the story earlier this week that the passport files of all three major presidential candidates had been snooped on, Brian Bennett writes in the April 7 issue of Time about plans to distribute passport information very widely indeed, such as to the Department of Homeland Security, IRS, employers, and foreign governments.

Meanwhile, the State Department has a video interview up on its website about passport privacy. Addressing the issue in a long format on a widely accessible medium is a good thing, so congratulations are due State for addressing the issue.

However, the lead question asked of Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy is a big waste of time: “Does every State Department employee have access to personal data that’s given us for passports or other reasons?” That pitch is so slow it doesn’t even reach the plate. But there is some interesting information about the State Department’s data security practices later in the video.

Unaddressed is Brian Bennett’s reporting on the proposal for wholesale sharing of passport information.