Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Max Boot’s Moral Compass

Max Boot writes this today, discussing the competing currents of American foreign policy, militarized Wilsonianism and those who oppose it:

The opposing viewpoint—which denounces American “imperialism” and abjures the defense of liberty abroad—has an equally long history. It lists among its proponents not only modern-day neocon-bashers such as Michael Moore and Pat Buchanan, but also such illustrious predecessors as the “progressive” historians Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams and realpolitik thinkers like Hans Morgenthau and Walter Lippmann.

Does Boot want us to believe that–to take a particularly salient example–playing one Shi’a militia off the other amounts to “the defense of liberty abroad”? Maybe I don’t want to know the answer, since Boot has called the deranged Gen. Curtis LeMay “one of the ‘greatest peacemakers in modern history,’ a proper candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize” and gushed over how maybe the Philippines (200,000 civilians killed! torture!) could be a model for how to win in Iraq. So I for one will pass on taking my moral cues from Boot, thanks.

Memo to the New York Times: John McCain Is a Neocon

One of the funnier press tics of this campaign is when reporters rend themselves in two, agonizing over completely contrived complexity that they imagine exists inside John McCain. Today’s NYT has the latest example, a 1,600 word thumbsucker about how McCain is buffeted between two discrete factions of his foreign policy advisers. It’s complete, unadulterated nonsense.

The narrative Elisabeth Bumiller and Larry Rohter are advancing is that Senator McCain has two different factions within his foreign policy advisory: dyed-in-the-wool war-loving neocons like Max Boot and Robert Kagan on the one hand, and on the other hand, “pragmatists” who are later described in the article as “realists,” best characterized by people like Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Richard Armitage. According to Bumiller and Rohter, there are big differences between the two camps.

There are degrees of difference among these advisers, to be sure, but to imply that they represent fundamentally different camps is completely inaccurate. First off, there’s a big difference between academic realists, who overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq before it started, and most people who gallivant around the Beltway proclaiming themselves realists. (Beware, in particular, anyone who uses realist with a modifier, as in “idealistic realist.” Only accept the genuine article.) A huge majority of the Beltway foreign policy establishment–including every member except one of the “pragmatist” faction in the Times story–promoted the war and still have failed to grasp the reasons for its failure.

Bumiller and Rohter then roll out the one prominent figure within the DC foreign policy establishment who did oppose the war, Brent Scowcroft, Bush père’s national security adviser. They describe his opposition to the war and list him as a member of the realist camp within McCain’s advisory. But here’s the thing: If Bumiller and Rohter had dug around a bit, they could have discovered that McCain consigliere Randy Scheunemann, famous for his stalwart promotion of Iraqi charlatan Ahmed Chalabi (a topic that goes totally unexplored in the piece) told the New York Sun in 2006 that “I don’t think, given where John has been for the last four or five years on the Iraq war and foreign policy issues, anyone would mistake Scowcroft for a close adviser.”

Reading the Times piece, you’d believe that there are the war-crazed neocons on the one hand, and the prudent anti-war realists on the other hand. In reality, you have the war-crazed neocons on the one hand, and pro-war realists like Henry Kissinger (who is pro-war first and a realist second) on the other. They present Scowcroft, the one opponent of the war, in order to create the impression that there’s a difference of views on the question, but then fail to mention that he’s been dismissed as a peripheral figure by McCain’s closest foreign policy adviser.

I don’t know whether the Times is trying to make up for the Vicki Iseman story with this, but it makes John McCain look a lot less wedded to perpetual war than anybody who’s been paying attention could easily tell you.

Maybe the Surge Isn’t Working

Via Glenn Greenwald, a Rasmussen poll released yesterday indicates that support for withdrawing from Iraq has reached an all time high. 26% of Americans support leaving “immediately,” 39% want U.S. troops home within one year, not contingent on conditions, and 31% want to stay until “the mission is complete.” So 65% of Americans want US troops out of Iraq within–at the outer bound–one year. 31% support the McCain strategy of staying indefinitely.

Two main purposes of the Surge were, in the words of Thomas Donnelly, to “redefine the Washington narrative,” and as White House adviser Peter Feaver put things, to “develop and implement a workable strategy that could be handed over to Bush’s successor.” This can’t look too good for these folks. It speaks volumes, on the other hand, about the wisdom of the American people.

“Biggest … Lie … Ever”

A friend and supporter of my work on REAL ID sent me a link to this WebMemo from the Heritage Foundation, entitled “All Aboard: Fifty States Now Compliant with Real ID.” I’m using the subject line of his email as the title of this post.

There certainly seems to be confusion in some quarters about REAL ID’s current status. Let’s take a brief look at how states stand in terms of compliance.

Because not a single state will comply with REAL ID on the statutory deadline, May 11th, the Department of Homeland Security has been giving out deadline extensions willy-nilly the last few months. It gave extensions just for the asking to states that have statutorily barred themselves from complying, for example.

Some states refused to even ask for extensions. When this happened, DHS quickly switched to issuing states extensions if the states were independently changing their driver’s licensing processes in ways that would meet any of the requirements of REAL ID. States like Montana and New Hampshire wrote to DHS expressing no intention to comply with the law, but stating what they had done on their own. These DHS interpreted as requests for extensions, and granted them.

When the governor of Maine last week finally sent DHS a letter stating his intention to submit legislation relating to REAL ID compliance, the DHS took that as a request for an extension and granted it. The Maine legislature will have to consider any such bills, of course. Maine’s is the legislature that was the first in the country to reject REAL ID.

Getting deadline extensions by hook and by crook out to all 50 states is a pretty long way from getting all 50 states to comply. The actual state of things is reflected well on this map, maintained at the ACLU-run Web site RealNightmare.org. It shows seven states still self-barred from complying, and many others protesting the law. An eighth - Idaho - recently saw legislation barring compliance with REAL ID move through the Senate and to the governor’s desk.

Some Myth-Busting Is Quite Revealing

After DHS Secretary Chertoff’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee this week (at which he was apparently rebuked for “bullying” states on REAL ID compliance) he sat down with a group of bloggers to discuss things.

Congratulations are due the Secretary for making himself available in an open forum like this, especially because it allows us some insight into his thinking. It makes more clear why he and his colleague Stewart Baker feel a need to engage in so much REAL ID “myth-busting.” Though I have assumed their comprehension of the problems with REAL ID, perhaps I have been mistaken, as Secretary Chertoff does not exhibit a good sense of information technology or the information economy.

Here’s the myth that Secretary Chertoff purports to bust:

I had someone say to me today, “Well, when you have these REAL ID licenses with a machine-readable zone … it’s gonna be used to track people. People can skim it. And they can steal it. And then they can use it to follow you around.” Now this is a fantasy. This is just not true.

The Secretary overstates the argument and so shades into attacking a straw man, but the context is conversational. So let’s look at what the real argument is, and then at the Secretary’s responses. I touched on the question of tracking in my testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee:

There are machine-readable components like magnetic strips and bar codes on many licenses today. Their types, locations, designs, and the information they carry differs from state to state. For this reason, they are not used very often. If all identification cards and licenses were the same, there would be economies of scale in producing card readers, software, and databases to capture and use this information. Americans would inevitably be asked more and more often to produce a REAL ID card, and share the data from it, when they engaged in various governmental and commercial transactions.

In turn, others will capitalize on the information collected in state databases and harvested using REAL ID cards. Speaking to the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee last week, Anne Collins, the Registrar of Motor Vehicles for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts said, “If you build it they will come.” Massed personal information will be an irresistible attraction to the Department of Homeland Security and many other governmental entities, who will dip into data about us for an endless variety of purposes.

This is not an argument that the currently proposed REAL ID license would be read surreptitiously, as might happen with an RFID-chipped card. (The Secretary says that REAL ID currently does not require RFID, but neglects to mention that the “Enhanced Driver’s License,” which satisfies REAL ID, has one.) The argument is that a great deal more data about us will be collected.

This will include “meta-data” - information about the collection of information, such as time, place, purpose, collecting entity, and so on. Combined identity data and meta-data form footprints about our comings and goings. These footprints, collected in interoperable databases, combine to form tracks.

Perhaps it’s a complicated argument, but it’s a coherent one: REAL ID would lead to tracking of law-abiding Americans.

Nothing the Secretary says conveys that he’s aware of meta-data or actual data collection processes. He says that the machine-readable zone (or MRZ) is “nothing more than the information on the face of the license. I already have a reader for the license - it’s called my eye - and I can read what’s on your license. So therefore there’s nothing I’m going to get out of the MRZ that I can’t get from the face of the license.”

Alas, even this isn’t quite true. The regulation prescribes certain minimum data elements for the MRZ, but doesn’t restrict the use of others, and it doesn’t require states to restrict the content of the MRZ to only what is on the face of the license. The MRZ could lead to tracking of people and their activities based on their race, for example, a data element many states currently include in their MRZs. Despite receiving comments concerned with this during the rulemaking process - oh, and in congressional testimony - DHS declined to prohibit including race in the MRZ of REAL IDs.

Card readers are not just little electric eyeballs. They record information in digital form. This means that identical copies of these records are easy to store, easy to compile, easy to transfer, and easy to reuse. Collecting information in digital form is materially different from collecting information in analog form. Most people who work with technology know that implicitly. To be credible on identification technology issues, one must know this and acknowledge its significance.

Finally, the Secretary says that the DHS is not going to create a lot of databases using REAL ID. That may be his intention, but he’s in office for about ten more months. And whether DHS creates them or not, databases of information harvested using REAL ID would likely be available to DHS.

It is very hard to design information technology systems that do not collect and retain information. The current secretary’s personal opinion about databases just isn’t good evidence of whether or not there will be databases of information about the comings and goings of law-abiding Americans. Chances are very good if REAL ID is implemented that there will be.

Superlative REAL ID Editorial

The Orange County Register has an editorial on the REAL ID Act this morning that captures the issues magnificently. Among other gems:

The big trouble is that there’s no evidence that this Draconian act, even if fully implemented, would be more than a minor inconvenience for a determined terrorist. But having all that information – including copies of birth certificates and Social Security cards – available in one database would make an irresistible target for identity thieves. And it would be a major inconvenience for millions of innocent Americans and a major expense for state governments – meaning taxpayers.

The Register’s conclusion? Congress should “bite the bullet and repeal this useless, intrusive, money-wasting law.”

The War in NATO

My recent op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor argues that the US objective in Afghanistan – preventing the creation of terrorist havens – does not require that Afghanistan become a peaceful, centralized state. I say that’s good news because it’s beyond us to build one. Absent this goal, the push for a surge of US or NATO forces in Afghanistan makes less sense.

I want to add couple points here that I couldn’t fit into the op-ed.

American leaders have lately been telling Europeans to make a bigger commitment to Afghanistan, even though the war is becoming unpopular in much of Europe. For instance, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech at a conference in Munich in February where he explained the terrorist threat to the Europeans to get them to send more troops to Afghanistan. He did not say how counter-insurgency in Afghanistan serves counter-terrorism in Pakistan, which is where the terrorists in the region who should concern Europeans mostly live. At least in the short term, 55,000 thousand western soldiers across the border seem more likely to inflame Pakistani extremism than to suppress it.

This hectoring demonstrates the trouble with NATO. Back when NATO had a clear purpose, to defend Western Europe from the Soviets, it made sense to ask the Europeans to do more. The Europeans had an incentive to avoid military spending; to free ride. That was OK with Americans at the start of the Cold War, when we were eager to spark European economic growth as a bulwark against Communism. Once Western Europe got rich, we told them to ante up, in part via publications like the Allied Contribution of the Common Defense.

Most American policy-makers believe that we remain in that Cold War relationship; that our allies are free-riding to a shared goal. But, as Stanley Kober has observed, threat perceptions have diverged, and many Europeans, rather than appreciating our wars, dispute their efficacy. Europeans seem more inclined than Americans to wonder whether the war in Afghanistan is making them safer. By asserting a common cause without providing one, NATO clouds this reality. It deludes us into thinking that our efforts are a favor that the Europeans ought to return.

It has become popular to worry that Afghanistan will destroy NATO. That would be no great loss. Today, the principle effect of NATO and its eastward expansion is to antagonize Russia. The benefit that justifies this antipathy is unclear. How do the military responsibilities that the US has so casually accepted in recent years – to defend Estonia, for example, against Russia – serve US interests? This guarantee, if it’s believed, seems likely to encourage the war it defends against by provoking moral hazard; as the defense we provide our new allies frees them to offend Russia.

The thesis that the prospect of NATO membership spreads liberal values or institutions is plausible, but I’m not convinced. Nor is it clear that NATO matters much in signing up allies for wars. It’s possible we got a few more contributions in Afghanistan by virtue of the alliance, but I doubt it mattered much. The countries that went probably did so because they believed in the mission, not because they are in NATO.

Despite its strategic obsolescence, NATO has proven politically useful on both sides of the Atlantic. However hollow, NATO will survive. What we might lose in Afghanistan are misconceptions about its usefulness.