Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Dangers of Dilettantism

I’m sometimes amazed at the ability of generalist pundits in Washington to inveigh on a host of issues ranging from gay rights to foreign policy to constitutional law. I find it hard enough to keep track of the various facets of my own field, American foreign policy. But sometimes there are instances where the presence of the dilettantes is damaging to the discourse. For example, here is The New Republic’s James Kirchick sneering at Matthew Yglesias’ suggestion that when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared his desire to see Israel “wiped off the map,” he might not have envisioned the genocide of the Jewish people.

I don’t like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I think he is a dangerous simpleton who should not be in charge of anything more portentous than perhaps municipal garbage collection in Shiraz. But he does enough repulsive things that he need not be accused of additional ones.

French television followed up with Mr. Ahmadinejad, doing an interview with him in 2007, in which the reporter asked him about this controversial remark. (Clip is in French, exchange begins about 6:00 into the clip.) In it, the interviewer references the quote and asks Ahmadinejad about whether he can understand why people are afraid of Iran’s nuclear program in its context. Ahmadinejad responds:

Why are you worried? Where is the Soviet Union? It has disappeared, has it not?

Ahmadinejad goes on to demagogue the issue, talking about democracy across all of Palestine, which for obvious reasons would cause Israel to be “wiped off the map.” But the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union did not involve the genocide of the Russian people, or even any military action against the USSR. Instead of haranguing about analogies to Poland, Kirchick would be better served researching what analogy Ahmadinejad himself has used on the matter.

Now, maybe Ahmadinejad is lying. That’s a fair debate to have. But since the discussion is about what Mr. Ahmadinejad said, it seems relevant to pay attention when someone asks “hey, what did you mean by that remark?” and the speaker responds.

I think this is the danger of having generalists parachute into all manner of debates over national policies. As I said, it’s hard just to keep track of my little world. I can’t imagine thinking I had the breadth to contribute to the debate on many more issues than my own.

Foreign Policy without Foreign Policy Theory

In a post seemingly designed to enrage academic realists, Atlantic Monthly blogger Ross Douthat says the war in Iraq tells us nothing about theories of foreign policy:

The chief lessons of the war have to do with issues of prudence and practicality, and more specifically with the question of when the costs of war, in lives and treasure, are worth the risk involved and the gains that might be won. Put another way, I don’t think the lessons of Iraq necessarily discredit liberal internationalism, or realism, or neoconservatism, or any of the many theories of U.S. engagement with the world that were invoked to justify support for the war.

The trouble here is that efforts to weigh the costs of war inevitably involve theories of how the world works. As my Professor Steve Van Evera likes to point out, foreign policy makers can use good or bad theories to guide their actions, but if they attempt the slightest foresight, they cannot have none. In other words, there is no such thing as foreign policy without foreign policy theory.

Beyond that, the idea that the war tells us nothing about the relative merits of realism and the brand of idealism we call neoconservatism is just silly.

Neoconservatives weighed the costs and benefits of the war using their theory of how the world works – how democracy spreads, how states react to conquest, the efficacy of military force in social transformation, and so on. Realists weighed the costs and benefits differently because realism contains competing ideas about how the world works. Realists were right; neoconservatives were wrong.

Liberal internationalists, I’d submit, were confused about the war because their school of thought is largely another brand of idealism – one that substitutes the question of whether a war involves what they want, which is multilateral cooperation, for more probing questions about whether it is wise.

Yoo and Boumediene

John Yoo published this article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about the Supreme Court’s Boumediene ruling. He makes too many claims for me to respond to here in a blog post, but let me address a handful.

1. Yoo: “Under the writ of habeas corpus, Americans (and aliens on our territory) can challenge the legality of their detentions before a federal judge.”

This is an astonishing statement coming from a former Department of Justice official like John Yoo. I say that because Americans were locked up in military brigs as “enemy combatants.” And their attorneys did file habeas corpus petitions in federal court. The Bush administration responded to those petitions by urging the federal courts to immediately throw them out of court! At one point in the litigation, Bush’s lawyers told the Supreme Court, “The Commander in Chief … has authority to seize and detain enemy combatants wherever found, including within the borders of the United States.” Brief for United States, Rumsfeld v. Padilla (No. 03-1027), p. 38. Yoo and others now seem to be playing down those previous assertions about the executive’s military powers, but the record is there for anyone to check. Bush’s lawyers argued that such American prisoners were perfectly free to “challenge” their imprisonment by filing a habeas corpus petition–again, just so long as the courts pronounced such petitions dead on arrival. See Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 296 F.3d 278, 283 (2002) (“The government [argues that the courts] may not review at all its designation of an American citizen as an enemy combatant–that its determination on this score are the first and final word.”).

With that background in mind, let’s return to Yoo’s claim that Americans “can challenge the legality of their detentions before a federal judge.” To be non-misleading, one would have to add something like, “as long as the courts repudiate the Bush administration’s claims regarding executive power.” Or I suppose there is another possibility. One could prop up the claim with a clarification like “After all, any lawyer can try to challenge anything.” A lawyer can challenge a speeding ticket by the Colorado State Police by asking a judge in Maine to rule in his favor. The Maine judge isn’t going to take any action because his court has no jurisdiction, but the lawyer is nevertheless free to file his request or “challenge” in Maine, futile as it is.

In context, Yoo seems to be trying to assure readers that the writ of habeas corpus is in place for Americans. Well, only if you ignore the legal precedents the Bush administration has been trying to establish. Or only if you are assured by the fact that Americans have a guaranteed right to file futile legal motions in court.

2. Yoo: “The Boumediene Five also ignored the Constitution’s structure, which grants all war decisions to the president and Congress.”

All war decisions? Should the Supreme Court have sanctioned Harry Truman’s seizure of the steel mills (Youngstown Sheet and Tube v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952))? Should the Supreme Court have sanctioned the internment of Americans during World War II (Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944)? Should the Supreme Court have affirmed the conviction of Eugene Debs under the Espionage Act for giving an anti-war speech (Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211 (1919)? Should the Supreme Court have sanctioned military trials for Americans during the Civil War (Ex Parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866)? Perhaps Yoo answers all of these questions in the affirmative, but shouldn’t he make his case for such sweeping war powers more forthrightly?

3. Yoo: “Under Boumediene’s claim of judicial supremacy, it is only a hop, skip and a jump from judges second-guessing whether someone is an enemy to second-guessing whether a soldier should have aimed and fired at him.”

Here Yoo wants readers to imagine a judge in robes running between foxholes to review the battle plan. He desperately wants readers of the Wall Street Journal to ask: What in the world can our Supreme Court be thinking? Not to worry. Yoo is simply trying to caricature a position with which he disagrees. I would make two points here. First, I quite agree that judges have no place on the battlefield. However, we need to watch our terms and definitions here. I do reject the Bush administration’s claim that all of the world, including all of the USA is a “battlefield.”

Second, once the dust has settled after a patrol or firefight, is it not appropriate to review the actions of our soldiers? Unless one is prepared to argue that U.S. military personnel are simply incapable of using their weapons unlawfully, war crime allegations have to be adjudicated somewhere, right? In a previously published article, Yoo has called the Abu Ghraib abuses “sadistic.” Given that statement, it seems fair to ask whether the prosecutions and convictions arising from that case were improper because a court “second-guessed” the soldiers’ detention and interrogation methods? And should not U.S. military personnel who believe they have been unfairly prosecuted be able to pursue their legal appeals (in the event of a conviction) beyond the military system to the Supreme Court? If not, why not?

For more on the Boumediene case, go here. For more on the Bush administration’s legal record, go here. For more on John Yoo, go here.

Tanker Wars: The Saga Continues

In a boon to the state of Washington, lobbyists, and the political rags where they buy advertising, the GAO ruled in Boeing’s favor today in the tanker contract dispute.

The Air Force awarded the contract to Northrop-Grummann and its European partner EADS back in February. And despite much huffing and puffing about a legislative fix, Boeing’s Congressional backers had failed to do anything about the decision. So the GAO protest was probably Boeing’s last shot. Had the ruling gone the other way, the fight would have fizzled, and tanker development would have started down in Alabama. Now it’s back into the ring.

Technically, the Air Force could tell the GAO to buzz off. The ruling is just a recommendation to take another look at the bidders based on a review of the contracting process. The full decision is not published, but the GAO summarizes it in this brief assault on the English language. Essentially, the complaint is that the evaluation criteria were a moving target and that the Air Force got the life-cycle costs wrong. Most significantly, the GAO claims that the estimated military construction cost for the EADS tanker was too low, and that without this error, Boeing’s plane is cheaper. Apparently the expenditure in question is the expansion of hangers to accommodate bigger tankers.

The Air Force could dispute all these arguments and say it’s sticking with EADS. But the ruling is political gold for Boeing. To avoid an uproar on the Hill, the Air Force will have to do what the GAO recommends and reevaluate the bids. I bet it will then change sides and pick Boeing’s tanker. The Northrop crowd will resist, but the GAO has given the Air Force cover. Picking Boeing is the quickest way now to get tankers.

Here’s my long-winded discussion of tanker politics from March.

Obama Adviser Advocated War with North Korea

Matt Yglesias posts this list of members of Barack Obama’s “National Security Working Group.” Interesting to see that it includes William Perry, who wrote this in 2006, when North Korea was preparing to test a ballistic missile:

if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched. This could be accomplished, for example, by a cruise missile launched from a submarine carrying a high-explosive warhead. The blast would be similar to the one that killed terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. But the effect on the Taepodong would be devastating. The multi-story, thin-skinned missile filled with high-energy fuel is itself explosive – the U.S. airstrike would puncture the missile and probably cause it to explode. The carefully engineered test bed for North Korea’s nascent nuclear missile force would be destroyed, and its attempt to retrogress to Cold War threats thwarted. There would be no damage to North Korea outside the immediate vicinity of the missile gantry.

[…]

We should not conceal our determination to strike the Taepodong if North Korea refuses to drain the fuel out and take it back to the warehouse. When they learn of it, our South Korean allies will surely not support this ultimatum – indeed they will vigorously oppose it. The United States should accordingly make clear to the North that the South will play no role in the attack, which can be carried out entirely with U.S. forces and without use of South Korean territory. South Korea has worked hard to counter North Korea’s 50-year menacing of its own country, through both military defense and negotiations, and the United States has stood with the South throughout. South Koreans should understand that U.S. territory is now also being threatened, and we must respond. Japan is likely to welcome the action but will also not lend open support or assistance. China and Russia will be shocked that North Korea’s recklessness and the failure of the six-party talks have brought things to such a pass, but they will not defend North Korea.

…The United States should emphasize that the strike, if mounted, would not be an attack on the entire country, or even its military, but only on the missile that North Korea pledged not to launch – one designed to carry nuclear weapons. We should sharply warn North Korea against further escalation.

North Korea could respond to U.S. resolve by taking the drastic step of threatening all-out war on the Korean Peninsula. But it is unlikely to act on that threat. Why attack South Korea, which has been working to improve North-South relations (sometimes at odds with the United States) and which was openly opposing the U.S. action? An invasion of South Korea would bring about the certain end of Kim Jong Il’s regime within a few bloody weeks of war, as surely he knows. Though war is unlikely, it would be prudent for the United States to enhance deterrence by introducing U.S. air and naval forces into the region at the same time it made its threat to strike the Taepodong. If North Korea opted for such a suicidal course, these extra forces would make its defeat swifter and less costly in lives – American, South Korean and North Korean.

President Bush did not, of course, launch airstrikes against North Korea. Rather, the North went ahead with the missile test and it failed.

John McCain might want to be careful about criticizing Obama too much for this, though: After all, it was John McCain who took to the pages of his favorite magazine in 2003 to make this argument about North Korea:

The use of military force to defend vital American security interests must always be a last resort, as it is in this crisis. But if we fail to achieve the international cooperation necessary to end this threat, then the countries in the region should know with certainty that while they may risk their own populations, the United States will do whatever it must to guarantee the security of the American people. And spare us the usual lectures about American unilateralism. We would prefer the company of North Korea’s neighbors, but we will make do without it if we must.

Who says there’s nothing these campaigns can agree on!

Nuclear Smuggling Ring Had Advanced Plans - This Relates to Your Privacy

A year ago, in some jest, I announced a new law (as in “of physics”) on the TechLiberationFront blog. “Harper’s Law” states, “The security and privacy risks increase proportionally to the square of the number of users of the data.” This rule generalizes to all information in digital form, and the suspected release of nuclear plans to the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling ring illustrates this well.

It is very difficult to control digital information - on any subject and in any context. It’s like a volatile gas: once it escapes whatever container or capsule you may have enclosed it in, you’re not getting it back. (Well, you’ll still have it but you won’t be able to deprive others from having it.) Nuclear plans, bomb-making plans, and the like will be very hard to contain, and relying on control of this kind of information for national or homeland security will be an unreliable protection.

Likewise, a poor way to protect privacy is to rely on rules about how information is used after it has been collected. If you really want privacy, you must never reveal the information you want to keep private. I’ve written a couple of times where various public officials have sought to redefine privacy so that it is consistent with their having access to personal information. Can’t be done.

In close relation are the large, personal-information-intensive programs that the federal government has been trying to develop. For example, our national ID law, the REAL ID Act, would put sensitive personal information and scanned identity documents into nationally accessible databases. Yet identity security requires keeping much of this information from being public. You can’t have both.

E-Verify would use names paired with Social Security Numbers as identifiers in a national immigration background check system, yet it would rely on the inaccessibility of this information to the public for security against fraud. Can’t happen. (DHS is seeking access to Americans’ driver’s license and passport pictures, hoping to shore up this weakness, but watch for all the new problems that emerge when digital copies of the photographs on our identity documents escape into the wild.)

Harper’s Law extends to other issue areas as well, like copyright. It is very hard for copyrights in popular content to be enforced, and it will get harder. Artists and the entertainment industry are in a real bind trying to control access to information that they must also widely distribute. See Cato Unbound’s “Future of Copyright” discussion, going on now, for more interesting thinking in this area.

There you have it: advanced nuclear plans, databases of personal information, and copyright law are all peas in a pod to me.

What Do You Call the Ring in a Bull’s Nose? Perhaps “KST”?

While the country moves forward with increasing confidence in its ability to meet the security challenges posed by terrorism, the administration seems still utterly, utterly spellbound.

Take, for example, National Security Presidential Directive 59/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 24. Issued June 5th, it (take a breath … wait for it …) “establishes a framework to ensure that Federal executive departments and agencies … use mutually compatible methods and procedures in the collection, storage, use, analysis, and sharing of biometric and associated biographic and contextual information of individuals … .”

That means, roughly, “Let’s get our act together on biometrics and biometric surveillance, people!”

The directive uses a set of initials I hadn’t come across before: “KST.” This stands for “known and suspected terrorists.” As in, we’re going to “collect, store, use, analyze, and share biometrics to identify and screen KSTs and other persons who may pose a threat to national security.”

Now, to be clear, there are terrorists, and there may be some in the country - terrorist precursors, perhaps. But I don’t think there are enough of them, or enough danger from them, to merit awarding them their own initials. Even in acronym- and initial-happy Washington, D.C., these things are reserved for things of greater significance.

This reveals the thrall in which the administration is still held by terrorism. “We’re not up against a few small bands of sociopathic ideologues. No, we’re up against a movement with all the power of our ‘FBI’, ‘CIA’, ‘DoD’, and ‘DoJ’.”

I’ve posted here before about terrorism as a strategy, suggesting certain counter-strategic behaviors. Terrorists gain by drawing attention to themselves, wrapping themselves in the romance of rebellion, and being seen as legitimate rivals to their enemies. By dubbing the threat “KST,” the administration grants terrorists that legitimacy. It tells audiences ideologically and physically near terrorists that we’re still scared, which does terrorists a tremendous favor. (I, for one, am not scared; I’m embarrassed.)

On the merits, biometrics are occasionally necessary, but essentially impotent against the well-known technique of using “clean-skin” terrorists (see, e.g., 9/11, Oklahoma City). The NSPD/HSPD doesn’t appear to have a lot of substance other than to promote more ferment and federal spending on biometric surveillance technology.