Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Pentagon 1, Obama 0

Planning for the 2010 federal budget began in 2008. The Office of Management and Budget instructed agencies to prepare documents for the incoming administration showing “current services baselines” and program estimates for the coming fiscal year. That means “just explain what you’re spending now and project it forward for next year.” The idea was to allow the Obama appointees to shape the budgets quickly when they came into office.

The Pentagon, however, went through its normal budgeting process. It produced a budget that defied existing plans and expectations that FY 2009 would be the last year of the massive defense buildup that began in the last years of the Clinton administration. It adds $60 billion to the defense baseline above FY 2009 levels and $450 billion in planned spending over five years.

Many observers saw this as an attempt at a bureaucratic fait accompli, a move to lock the Obama administration into higher defense spending. According to this week-old story from CongressDaily, it worked. Megan Scully writes:

President-elect Obama’s choice for the no. 2 civilian slot at the Pentagon Thursday said he does not plan to make sweeping changes to the Defense Department’s fiscal 2010 budget request, which has been drafted.

When Obama decided to keep Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, I asked whether we were keeping this defense budget and suggested that doing so would show that Obama will let the military services (who largely control the drafting of their budgets) push him around. For some time, the position of Democrats has been to give the Pentagon what it wants, either for fear of opening a line of attack for Republicans or because of agreement on the virtue of massive defense budgets.

This story suggests that little has changed. The FY 2010 increase will make any future decrease harder to achieve for political and programmatic reasons. This is one more sign that Obama’s occasional talk of realism and restraint in foreign and defense policy should not be taken seriously.

Clearly, the idea of scrubbing the budget “line by line” does not apply to agencies run in Virginia.


President Obama delivered an interesting inaugural speech yesterday. His theme was responsibility, a theme that provides a useful frame for his administration.

The individual versus the collective: Americans generally affirm individual or personal responsibility for one’s life. To be an adult – to put aside childish things - means taking responsibility for one’s actions and outcomes. Yet language permits another possibility. “We” can take responsibility for this outcome or that injustice. Putting aside childish things means taking collective responsibility through government action. In this view, emphasizing the individual suggests a childish selfishness that should be overcome. Obama seems to be about both kinds of responsibility right now. But extending state control over society vitiates personal responsibility. The new president will have to choose between the two.

The rule of law versus charisma: In a free society, individuals associate together through consent within a set of impersonal rules enforced by an impartial judiciary. Societies may also be ruled by charismatic leaders who are thought to have special powers granted by divine favor or by other means. Charismatic authority undermines both individual and collective responsibility. No one need do anything: the special man will say the magic words and everything will change for the better. Moreover, charismatic men with special powers should not be restrained by mere laws. They are above such restraints and must be so to do their work.

Consequences versus absolute ends: In an ethic of responsibility, leaders and followers look to consequences in acting politically. President Obama alluded to an ethic of responsibility yesterday. We want a government that works; programs that do not work will be ended. The thought is admirable, the reality unpromising. Ronald Reagan eliminated two federal programs, one of which was a training program that worsened the lot of its clients. Reagan was thought to have a mandate to cut back government. Obama was elected for many reasons, none of which were constraining the federal government. More than a few of his followers expect he will, as he put it yesterday, “remake the world.” Those who set out to remake the world rarely notice the immediate consequences of their crusade. After all, the benefits of bringing heaven to earth will more than overcome the costs of the crusade.

Obama’s modest demeanor suggests an understanding of his own limitations.  If that is true, he may turn out to be more a politician and less a priest, a president content to live within the laws and achieve marginal changes in public policy.

But I wonder. Living in Washington, DC, I have recently had reason to recall Samuel Johnson’s remark about Shakespeare: “In his plays, there are no heroes, only men.” Obama seems to be telling a different story, a tale about charismatic heroes and utopian aspirations. When the talking stops and the doing begins, one question will be answered: Do Americans really want to live out a play where there are no men, only heroes?

Terrorism References in Obama’s Inaugural Address: Two Outta Three Ain’t Bad

With the Cato counterterrorism strategy conference recently concluded, I listened to President Obama’s speech with a keen ear for his treatment of terrorism. My early conclusion was that he communicated well two out of three times, which ain’t bad.

Communications about terrorism are important. Done badly, they can inspire fear and overreaction on the part of the U.S. populace and government - doing terrorists’ work for them. They can also aid in recruitment and support for terrorists by exalting terrorism and terrorist leaders to audiences that are physically and ideologically nearby to terrorists.

Done well, communications about terrorism can suppress fear and overreaction and render terrorism less attractive to potential supporters, would-be’s, and wannabe’s. Ultimately, smart communications and disciplined responses can dissipate the value of terrorism as a tool to use against us.

I was disappointed by a line very early in the speech: “Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.”

I don’t think there is any sensible way to interpret this other than as references to the “War on Terror” and Al-Qaeda. It’s a handy recruitment aid for Al-Qaeda to have the new U.S. President signal that it Al-Qaeda is in his head. People who don’t like the United States were drawn to Al-Qaeda by that line.

It is good to avoid the actual phrase “War on Terror,” of course, but the problem is not with the phrase alone. It is with the notion that war is the correct metaphor, and with the implication that military action or militarism is the best response to terrorism. In fact, military responses are almost always going to be overreaction.

Next quote: “… we have chosen hope over fear …”

It’s easy to disregard this small line, and it’s only an oblique reference to terrorism, but it’s an important one because it’s part of repeated pledge President Obama made in the campaign to put aside fear. He should follow up on the promise by avoiding terrorism fear-mongering himself and by policing his administration against it. Thumbs-up.

Final quote, and a big winner: “[F]or those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

I regret that he raised terrorism again because of the benefit it gives terrorists (knowing that they are in his head). But if it is going to be raised, I can’t think of a better way to do so - no reference to any specific group, just a declaration to anyone considering terrorism: You will lose.

His statement of U.S. indomitability is powerful. While discouraging terrorists, he gave the domestic audience needed confidence. Come what may, terrorism cannot defeat us.

During the Q&A on the first panel of Cato’s conference (Real, MP3), Ambassador Robert Hutchings stated his wish that the Bush Administration had issued messages of “indomitability, not revenge” in the aftermath of 9/11. The Obama Administration has to “gradually and carefully walk us back” from the approach the Bush Administration took, said Hutchings, and this statement from President Obama seems like a very good start.

So a qualified “good job” on communications about terrorism in President Obama’s inaugural address. We’ll hope for better in the future, and we’ll look forward to the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy, including its terrorism communications strategy.

Humble Hegemony?

Obama’s inaugural address had a sprinkling of foreign policy realism:

[Earlier generations] knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

Sounds like John Quincy Adams or Reinhold Niebuhr. You’d almost think the President supports a strategy of restraint.

Unfortunately, that sentence came just after this:

And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

A nation tempered by humility and restraint would not presume to lead every person in the world.

Schneier Interviewed by Reason

Reason has a great interview with security guru Bruce Schneier.

Two particular quotes on the Transporation Security Administration stand out:

“If I were in charge of the TSA’s budget, I’d give most of it back.”

“Oh, and stop the ID checking—the notion that there is this master list of terrorists that we can check people off against is just plain silly.”

Schneier was a participant in our recent conference on counterterrorism strategy. In early 2005, I argued in the pages of Reason for doing away with the TSA entirely. Radley Balko recently suggested that Schneier, yours truly, or John Mueller should head the TSA.

What the FISA Court of Review Said and Didn’t Say

After a quick read of the FISA Court of Review’s latest opinion on NSA wiretaps (In Re: Directives) …

Essentially, the Court affirmed that the Protect America Act was constitutional as applied to a particular telecom company.  More specifically, the Court held:  (1) A warrant might impose unreasonable delay.  There’s a “special needs” exception to the warrant requirement for foreign intelligence targeted at a person reasonably believed to be outside the US.  (2) The “reasonableness” requirement of the 4th Amendment was not violated. National security trumps the privacy right of targets even without a court-reviewed determination of the purpose, target, and particularity of the search. Executive branch review of those items, along with minimization procedures, provided sufficient safeguards.

Notably, the Court did not address the original NSA warrantless surveillance program, which covered communications between US persons in the US and persons outside the US, regardless of the target’s location.  Moreover, the Court’s holding was constitutional, not statutory.  No one challenged whether the NSA was complying with the terms of the Protect America Act.  The issue was whether that Act was itself constitutional, as applied.  Recall that my principal concern regarding the original NSA program was whether the executive branch had unilaterally adopted procedures that Congress had either not approved or expressly rejected. It was the Youngstown paradigm that the executive branch had offended, even if the original NSA program might have passed constitutional muster had it been enacted by Congress.  Nothing in the Court’s latest opinion is contrary to that assessment of the original program.

It’s also worth noting that the Protect America Act was replaced by the FISA Amendments of 2008, which requires, among other things, an individualized probable cause determination by the FISA court to surveil US persons outside the US.  In other words, the Court’s latest opinion addresses an act that, first, has been superseded and, second, was deemed by Congress to be unwise as a policy matter even if it survived constitutional scrutiny.

Ways and Means to Subvert Foreign Policy

President-elect Obama has emphasized his intention to focus on restoring America’s squandered credibility with the rest of the world. He might want to reinforce that message for Congress or begin the process of distancing himself from its leadership because, like it or not, trade policy is a tool of foreign policy, and Congress isn’t looking very diplomatic about trade.

Yesterday, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel and Subcommittee on Trade chairman Sander Levin introduced the Trade Enforcement Act of 2009. Among the legislation’s provisions:

  • It would make it easier for domestic industry to obtain trade restrictions in antidumping and China-specific safeguard cases.
  • It impugns and defies World Trade Organization dispute settlement decisions.
  • It compels the Commerce Department to reverse its implementation of a WTO decision last year on the issue of “zeroing.” 
  • It establishes an Office of the Congressional Trade Enforcer to investigate foreign barriers to U.S. exports and to systematically develop complaints to file with the WTO, among other provisions.

Clearly, the United States is well within its rights to bring cases against its trade partners to the WTO. And generally, if U.S. exporters are facing market barriers that our trade partners committed to dismantle, then I support efforts to seek redress. But it is a bit condescending — indeed it whiffs Rumsfeldian — to so publically berate a WTO decision and question its authority (the official language in the legislation actually includes a several-hundred word diatribe against the WTO Appellate Body’s decision) in the same bill that presumes that our trade partners will heed the WTO’s verdicts. That is the kind of exceptionalism and arrogance for which the president-elect is hoping to make reparations.

It remains to be seen what becomes of this legislation or even if there will be a noticeable uptick in U.S. protectionism. But Congress’s increasingly unilateralist instincts on trade and its willingness to humiliate important trade and security partners in Colombia and South Korea by not considering long-pending trade agreements will definitely complicate Obama’s international fence-mending efforts.