Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Napolitano Hearing: Poor Counterterrorism On Display

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee last week provided more than one example of poor counterterrorism and security thinking. But it wasn’t the secretary missing the mark; it was her interlocutors.

First up: Rep. Peter King (R-NY). A New York Times editorial Saturday points out what is at best a gaffe and at worst counterterrorism malpractice from King, the ranking Republican on the committee.

Questioning Secretary Napolitano, King said:

I … notice in your prepared testimony the word “terrorism” is not even used. And I know your absolute commitment to fighting terrorism. I know the president’s commitment to that, and the chairman’s as well.

But I think it’s important for us in positions of leadership to constantly remind people how real that threat is and how it’s an ongoing threat, and if we don’t do it, it’s going to be harder for us to get legislative support for the measures that we think have to be taken.

King is dead wrong, and shamefully so for a person who is supposed to be a leader on domestic security issues.

The government should constantly work to prevent terror threats from materializing, but leadership should not be constantly reminding people about the threats. Leadership should share information dispassionately, and any warnings should be to help Americans secure themselves and the country, not to help drive legislation through Congress.

Terrorism works by inducing overreaction on the part of the victim state. Hyping threats helps terrorism do this work. King’s approach would continue to make the United States a volunteer victim of the terrorism strategy.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) said correctly to Napolitano, “I think your role is to prepare, not scare, the American people.”

Second example: the fantastical misunderstanding of our national ID law exhibited by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). Asking Secretary Napolitano about REAL ID, he said:

[T]he Real ID Act has been one of the most critical parts of the ability to do intel tracking. If you don’t know who the person is, if you can’t sort that basic thing out, it’s impossible to get good identification of who — who they’re hooking up with, who — who needs to be monitored for what risk level.

Nobody’s extemporaneous speech ever perfectly reflects their thinking, but Souder appears to believe that REAL ID is designed to provide real-time intelligence. It is designed to do quite a bit less, and would fail at that.

REAL ID would put all Americans into a national ID system and make data about them available for sharing across a network of databases. Over time, it would lead to increased government collection of data about all our movements as we would be asked more and more often to swipe or scan our nationally uniform ID cards.

For all this surveillance of law-abiding citizens, REAL ID would not reveal who terrorists are, nor would it effectively suppress illegal immigration. It holds no hope for defeating the practice of using “clean-skin” terrorists (which was the modus operandi of the 9/11 attacks, with two exceptions). And it would drive illegal immigrants further underground, converting them from hard-working people who have committed minor civil law violations into members of a criminal underclass.

The only way REAL ID could be used for “intel tracking” is if it were required for access to telecommunications, financial services, transportation, and so on. Rep. Souder may imagine a future where REAL ID can do that, but it’s a dystopian future where Orwell’s 1984 has turned from fictional warning to accurate prediction.

These Members of Congress are not acquitting themselves well on counterterrorism and on security generally. Considering that they are members of the committee with a significant chunk of jurisdiction over these issues, they don’t inspire confidence in political leadership generally.

Where Has “War on Terror” Gone? (Long Time Paaassing …)

Who cares? It’s just gone.

On Fox News Sunday this weekend, Chris Wallace pressed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, on why the new administration no longer uses the phrase “war on terror.”

Wallace: … a lot of people have noticed that both the president and top advisors very seldom talk about the “war on terror.” Why is that? From your conversations with him, does he see our fight against Islamic radicals differently than President Bush did?

Mullen: It’s very clear in my engagement with him that he is very focused on the terrorist extremist threat. And my guidance is to continue to pursue that in every possible way.

Wallace: Do you have any explanation as to why he doesn’t talk about the “war on terror”?

Mullen: No I don’t. I mean, I don’t. I just told you, what he’s told me to do is focus very specifically on this threat, lead by Al Qaeda. But certainly it’s a top priority to focus on terrorism and terrorists and the extremists that are out there who would do us harm.

Wallace: Last question: As the nation’s top military man, do you believe that you are still leading a “war” against terrorism.

Mullen: There are an awful lot of elements of terrorists and terrorism which threaten us, and we continue to very clearly pursue them. And we will until they’re no longer a threat.

Government officials can use elements of military power against terrorism selectively, appropriately, and in a balanced way if they avoid the “war on terror” metaphor.

Declining to use the needlessly frightening phrase, Admiral Mullen conveys the authority, competence, and confidence that will lead our country back from self-defeating overreaction, which is the terrorism strategy doing its work.

It’s fascinating to see this essential rhetorical shift. It’s benefits might be revelation to some. When will they ever learn?

A rich trove of strategic counterterrorism thinking was on display at our conference on the subject in January.

Chait vs. Realism

Jon Chait makes a common mistake in an op-ed for Saturday’s Washington Post.* Joining various neoconservatives to attack Charles Freeman, just-appointed chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Chait writes that Freeman is a realist and therefore doesn’t care about morality in U.S. foreign policy. I don’t know enough about Freeman to know if the article is fair to his views (he seems like a great pick), but it shows a misunderstanding of realism.

Modifying a noun with “moral” does not make it so. Realists argue that idealism – ignoring realities that encourage tradeoffs among competing goods – is foolish, and there is nothing moral about doing foolish things in the name of morality. Realists believe that our foreign policy should be governed by an ethic of responsibility, where you do things that actually lead to good consequences, starting at home. They see the promiscuous use of power as destructive of it and therefore of all the goods it serves, including the ideological sort.

Those with even passing familiarity with leading realists like E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr know that their goal was to create a moral foreign policy in an anarchic world. They saw idealists who thought they could escape realist concepts like the balance of power as a source of catastrophic wars. Given the nature of international relations, they saw idealism – seen in undo faith in international institutions and later military adventurism meant to spread liberalism – as wasteful, dangerous, and therefore immoral.

Realists are partially to blame for this misconception. They have been too reluctant in recent decades to state their moral case. They too often allow people to get the impression that phony beltway realists like Henry Kissinger are the real deal – as if thrashing around Southeast Asia and South America in service of confused ideas about the balance of power was consistent with realist thought.

A realist U.S. defense policy would be moral for at least three reasons. It would stop squandering wealth on futile missions and allow it be used for worthier ends. It would not offend our values by embracing militarism and empire (in fact if not in intent) and restore the United States to its position as a model of liberalism, not its vindicator. It would keep us out of unnecessary wars, which are bad for liberty at home and only rarely conducive to moral ends abroad.

*It is typical of the Post to publish a column like this. Their op-ed page is home to about 10 advocates of militarized liberalism in foreign policy. The distinction between the neoconservatives and the liberal internationalists is largely academic.

Why Acquisition Reform Fails

Senators Carl Levin and John McCain this week introduced legislation to improve how the Pentagon buys things – defense acquisition reform. The President is on the same page. So chances are the Pentagon’s acquisition workforce will have a new set of rules to learn some time this year.

Here’s the bill.  Highlights: a series of new reporting requirements about systems analysis of new programs, a new official to come up with cost estimates of weapons systems, another official to oversee developmental testing, a requirement for competitive prototyping of new weapons, which can be waived, and an effort to make waiving Nunn-McCurty breaches a little more onerous (the idea was that you cancel weapons systems that experience excessive cost growth, but it never happens), plus some other minor bureaucratic changes. McCain claims that the legislation will cut back on cost plus contracts in favor of the fixed price variety, but the legislation does not address that.

At best this bill will create some marginal improvements in defense acquisition. More likely it will simply add hassle.

Acquisition reform is practically seasonal at the Pentagon, as this PowerPoint slide show comically demonstrates. And things have only gotten worse – more programs over budget and behind schedule over time. (Read this recent testimony from a Congressional Research Service expert for details.) According to another expert, former Pentagon weapons testing chief Tom Christie, the trouble is not the existing acquisition rules but the failure to use them to control costs. He says so in a chapter for the book America’s Defense Meltdown, which we will be discussing here at a forum on March 13.

The reasons for the failure of acquisition reform are complicated, but one surely is that these are technocratic solutions to political problems. The trouble is what we want, which is several technological miracles in each new platform, not how we buy it, as my professor and sometimes co-author Harvey Sapolsky explains in a recent Defense News op-ed:

The truth is you can’t fix the acquisition system. All the insiders know this…We can’t fix it because we want crazy things. We want a system that can fire missiles from a submarine hiding beneath the surface of the sea and hit a target thousands of miles away. Or we want a tank that can survive a shaped charge round, pack its own lethal punch and is airlifted by a C-130.

Systems have to perform reliably in the snow, in the mud, in the sand. They have to communicate with every friend and not reveal themselves to any foe. And we want them soon, not later.

Worse, we already have a lot of first-class ships, aircraft, missiles and tanks; proposed new weapon systems have to be a lot better than them or any obvious modification we can make. To be worthy of our approval, the advocates of the new system have to dazzle us with expectations of what will soon be in our arsenal, something no enemy can match. It will likely cost billions, but it will be great.

With that gleam in their eye, the services seek bids for the weapons that will define their futures. Only a few contractors can qualify to make offers. After all, only a few firms know the acquisition regulations well enough and have sufficient engineering talent to manage complex projects.

Moreover, government-encouraged mergers have further thinned the ranks of eligible firms. Given that new starts in most weapon lines are once-in-a-decade-or-more events, project awards are survival tests. Not surprisingly, false optimism abounds.

For more, read his recently co-authored book.

What about using more fixed price contracts and less cost-plus contracts, as McCain suggests? Isn’t it obvious that unless you pay someone a set price rather than whatever he says it costs, he will rip you off? Actually, no, not in defense contracting. Chris Preble and I addressed this in an oped last October:

In a cost-plus contract, the contractor gets paid whatever it costs to make a good, plus a profit. McCain claims that these agreements encourage contractors to spend as much possible and send the government the bill. This argument is confused. Defense contractors have essentially one customer: the Pentagon. Repeatedly gouging your only customer, one with a small army of auditors, is likely to lead to bankruptcy.

New technology is hard to price. If we used fixed price contracts— as McCain proposes—for new complex projects, like the next-generation bomber the air force will soon build, the contractors would simply ask for more money up front to limit their risks. If we force a low price on them, they will likely blow through what is allocated and ask for a new contract. Because military services badly want the weapons they contract for—and starting over would take years—Pentagon officials would then be forced to rewrite the deal.

What acquisition reform would work? It might help to increase the number of civilian acquisition overseers and pay them more, given that their workload has expanded, and to allow them more flexibility in their work, not less, as this legislation would. But these are still minor fixes. You can’t fix acquisition until you change the incentive structure that produces its outcomes. Until the services and their Congressional backers start to accept platforms that push the technological envelop less, the problems will persist.

When Is an Iraq Withdrawal not a Withdrawal?

When it means leaving 50,000 troops in Iraq to train and fight.

Reports the Washington Post:

President Obama has invited members of Congress to the White House for a meeting later this afternoon to discuss his plans for drawing down troops in Iraq – a plan that has already drawn stiff criticism from his Democratic allies.

After Speaker Nancy Pelosi complained that the level of troops – 50,000 – who would remain in Iraq is too high, other senior Democrats voiced similar concerns on Thursday. Among Democratic leaders, only Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois is defending the new Obama plan, which will take three months longer than he promised and still leave a significant force structure on the ground.

“I’m happy to listen to the secretary of defense and the president, but when they talk about 50,000, that’s a little higher number than I had anticipated,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said.

“It has to be done responsibly, we all agree, but 50,000 is more than I would have thought, and we await the justification,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“I do think we have to look carefully at the numbers that are there and do it as quickly as we can,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) issued a statement saying he was “concerned” about the level of troops that would remain in Iraq.

It’s not just a “little higher number” than most Americans want.  It is a lot higher.  President Barack Obama should bring home all of America’s troops from Iraq.  If he doesn’t, Democratic officials and peace activists need to make their views known to him just as vigorously as they did to President George W. Bush when he was launching and escalating the war.  Congressional Democrats certainly shouldn’t be bought off by a little sweet talk in the Oval Office.

New on YouTube: Juan Carlos Hidalgo on Obama’s Latin American Policy

Appearing on HITN’s “Destination Casablanca,” Cato analyst Juan Carlos Hidalgo discusses Latin American policy, Cuba and the future of the drug war under the Obama administration.

“It’s not Washington’s business to try to impose or suggest an agenda for Latin American countries,” Hidalgo says.

For more videos, subscribe to Cato’s YouTube channel.

Whither the F-22?

I have been thinking for months about canceling my print subscription to the Washington Post, but I just can’t seem to pull the trigger. Now I have a new reason for holding onto the messy things just a little while longer: those full-page advertisements for the F-22.

They have appeared almost every day for the past few weeks – full-colored ads that boast “95,000 employed, 300 million protected.” They feature pictures of smiling workers who (presumably) would be thrown out of work if we were to stop building the planes. They claim that the F-22 keeps us all safe and secure, now and well into the future. The ads tell us that the F-22 is essential both to our physical security, and our economic security. It just wouldn’t be the same if all that happy talk were confined to flashing banners on my computer screen.

But while the Post is surely happy to keep taking both my subscription money and the revenue from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the 13 companies that paid for the ads, I’m still not convinced that the F-22 is worth the money (more than $350 million per plane).

Neither is Fred Kaplan (maybe he is reading the online version of the Post?)

It likely won’t be the last word in the debate, but Kaplan’s latest at Slate makes a pretty good case for what I’ve been saying for some time: If the plane cannot be justified on its strategic merits, then it is unfair for 299,105,000 Americans to pay merely to keep 95,000 employed. Our defense decisions should be driven by strategic necessity, not slick advertising campaigns and dubious claims about the economic harm that will come if some people have to switch jobs.