Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Torture? No.

Charles Krauthammer’s recent column tells us that the wisdom of torture is undeniable. According to Krauthammer, there are two situations where torture is justified: the ticking time bomb scenario and when we capture high-ranking terrorists and conclude that giving them the third degree may save lives. Furthermore, it would be “imprudent” for anyone who would not use torture to be named the commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), the military organization in charge of American forces in the Middle East.

The generals who have been in charge of CENTCOM and other national security officials disagree.

Here is a video of General Petraeus, current commander of Central Command, saying that American forces cannot resort to torturing prisoners:

The open letter Petraeus mentions in the video is available here. He admonishes our troops to treat prisoners humanely. “Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemies.”

Former CENTCOM commanders Anthony Zinni and Joseph Hoar don’t endorse torture either, evidenced by their open letter (along with dozens of other former general officers) to Congress asking that the CIA abide by the Army interrogation manual.

Hoar and former Commandant of the Marine Corps Charles Krulak wrote separately to denounce torture:

As has happened with every other nation that has tried to engage in a little bit of torture – only for the toughest cases, only when nothing else works – the abuse spread like wildfire, and every captured prisoner became the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb.

So, once we sign off on the ticking time bomb scenario, the rationalization spreads to whenever we think it may save lives.  Sound familiar?

These former commanders are not alone.  Colonel Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, also had some words on the subject. “We can never retake the moral high ground when we claim the right to do unto others that which we would vehemently condemn if done to us.”

Malcolm Nance, former head of the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape course (where sailors are trained in resisting interrogation techniques, including waterboarding), seems to know a thing or two about the topic. “I have personally led, witnessed and supervised waterboarding of hundreds of people.” He roundly denounces the use of waterboarding as wrong, ineffective, and counterproductive.  Just for the record, water actually enters the lungs of a waterboarding victim.  This is not simulated drowning, but controlled drowning. Read the whole thing.

Krauthammer’s column gives the impression that all national security experts support making torture our national policy. Wrong.

Quelling Overreaction Is Part of the Job

On Sunday’s Meet the Press, David Gregory pressed a trio of federal officials about how comments on swine flu like Vice President Biden’s have caused overreactions across the country, such as the diversion of a plane because a passenger had flu-like symptoms, the cancellation of a rap concert, and a variety of other dislocations in American life.

Acting director of the Centers for Disease Control Dr. Richard Besser said:

Well, y’know, everybody is going to deal with their concerns in different ways, and that’s the nature of people. What we can do is try and tell them what the risks are - what do we know - share information as we have it, and continue to hit the messages of those things that can be really effective.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius lamely used the fact that people are flooding emergency rooms as an opportunity to promote health care reform … So that panicked insured people would flood doctors’ offices?

If government officials are going to manage a situation like this - and doubts have been raised that they should - their obligation is not just to report, but to actually manage. Allowing a cacophony of government voices to drive erratic behavior by people across the land is harmful to the country for all the resources it wastes.

The Obama Administration should have a disciplined plan for handling situations like this. The administration’s disorganized response here is a signal of the truly awful reaction we could expect should something serious happen, like a terrorist attack. Terrorism, of course, works by inducing self-injurious overreaction on the part of the victim state, so overreaction must be avoided.

This incident reveals that the country is exceedingly vulnerable to terrorism because communications plans are evidently not in place.

(The administration’s plan for any terrorist attack should prioritize moving Vice President Biden to an undisclosed location. Not for his security or for continuity of government - so he won’t appear in the media!)

Republicans Tell America: Trust Us with Your National Security Again

The Republican Party hasn’t been doing well as of late.  A botched governing majority, a lost reputation, two lost legislative elections, two lost congressional majorities, a lost presidential election, a lost Pennsylvania senator, and no relief in sight.  So what does the GOP congressional leadership do?  Play the national security card.

Reports the New York Times:

Stymied in so many of their efforts to put President Obama and Democrats on the defensive, Republicans are returning to national security, an issue that has served the purpose well for them in the past.

Trying to raise doubts about Mr. Obama’s ability to protect the nation, they have raised the specter of terror suspects transferred from the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to prisons in American communities, issued warnings that the release of memorandums detailing secret interrogation methods has put Americans at risk, and presented a video montage ending with the Pentagon in flames on Sept. 11, 2001, and the question, “Do you feel safer?”

“I think what I’m trying to do here,” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, said in defending the video he and fellow Republicans have been circulating, “is push the administration to tell us, What is the overarching strategy to take on the terrorists and defeat them and to help keep America safe?”

I have a lot of bad things to say about both parties on foreign as well as domestic policy.  But it’s hard for me to imagine the previous eight years of Republican governance as a golden era for national security.  First there was 9/11.  Perhaps it is too much to expect the Bush administration to have prevented the terrorist atrocity, but the administration did nothing over the Clinton administration to improve American defenses to prevent such attacks.

Then there was diverting troops and attention from Afghanistan before that war was finished, to invade Iraq.  The Iraq debacle occupies a category all its own.  Policy towards North Korea was spectacularly misguided and incompetent:  refusing to talk to the North for years as it generated nuclear materials, before rushing to embrace Pyongyang while offering few immediate benefits to entice the North to change its behavior.  The results of this strategy were, unsurprisingly, negligible.

Refusing to talk to Iran had similar consequences.  Washington refused to engage Syria, even though Israel was willing to talk to Damascus.  The Bush administration further tightened the embargo against Cuba, again achieving nothing.  The administration also continued the Clinton administration’s policy of estranging Russia by expanding NATO ever closer to Moscow, incorporating countries that are security black holes, offering geopolitical conflicts with no corresponding military benefits.

In the midst of all this, the GOP in both the executive and legislative branches led a sustained assault on civil liberties and limited, constitutional government even when doing so did nothing to forestall another terrorist attack.

Given all this, is should surprise no one that the Republicans are no longer in control of government.

The Democrats may prove to be worse on all counts. I’ve long learned not to assume that things could not get worse.  Still, it is hard to take seriously Republican demands that the American people trust them with the nation’s security.  After all, look at what the Republicans did when they actually held power.

Adam Smith Goes to Somalia: “Competition Keeps Prices Low”

Many people would agree that modern-day Somalia represents a Hobbesian state of nature. But could anarchy strengthen Somalia’s private sector? This article is certainly very old, but I came across it yesterday and thought the argument would be of interest to political theorists and classical liberals:

…local businesspeople find it easier to do business in a country where there is no government. “There is no need to obtain licences and, in contrast with many other parts of Africa, there is no state-run monopoly that prevents new competitors setting up. Keeping price low is helped by the absence of any need to pay taxes.”

Of course, the absence of a stable and legitimate political and judicial system, compounded by unyielding internecine violence, means individual and private property rights can never be fully protected and we aren’t likely to see foreign businesses flocking to this chaotic country in the foreseeable future. Generally speaking, the proper role of government is to protect individual rights. But the proper role of our government – abroad – should be limited to instances when our national sovereignty or territorial integrity is at risk.  As exemplified in Somalia, America’s attempts to stabilize failed states or pacify foreign populations usually fail, exacerbate already disastrous situations, and are, in principle, gratuitous abuses of American power [See: the calamitous U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia].

State Secrets Case Proceeds

A three-judge panel from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled yesterday that the State Secrets Privilege, a doctrine barring the introduction of sensitive information as evidence, did not bar a suit by former CIA detainees.  (H/T SCOTUSBlog)

The plaintiffs allege that the defendant, a contract airline associated with the extraordinary rendition program, knowingly flew them to countries where they would be tortured.  The panel held that individual pieces of evidence may be subject to the Privilege, but a suit could not be entirely barred by a government assertion that sensitive information could be revealed.

This presents a split in federal circuit rulings on the State Secrets Privilege.  The Fourth Circuit held that the Privilege could bar a civil suit entirely.  This expansion of the State Secrets Privilege, started under Bush and continued under Obama, is a departure from the fact-specific evaluation described by the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Reynolds.  “Judicial control over the evidence in a case cannot be abdicated to the caprice of executive officers.”

As my colleague Tim Lynch has written before, the State Secrets Privilege often has little to do with keeping secrets and a lot to do with avoiding liability.  All that remains to be seen is whether the Obama administration will appeal the ruling, either to an en banc rehearing by the full Ninth Circuit or at the Supreme Court.

The War in Afghanistan Is about to Turn Nastier

afghanistanWhile Iraq’s security situation has been improving–though the possibility of revived sectarian violence remains all too real–the conflict in Afghanistan has been worsening.  The challenge for allied (which means mostly American) forces is obvious, which is why the Obama Administration is sending more troops.

But the administration risks wrecking the entire enterprise by turning American forces into drug warriors.

Reports the New York Times:

American commanders are planning to cut off the Taliban’s main source of money, the country’s multimillion-dollar opium crop, by pouring thousands of troops into the three provinces that bankroll much of the group’s operations.

The plan to send 20,000 Marines and soldiers into Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul Provinces this summer promises weeks and perhaps months of heavy fighting, since American officers expect the Taliban to vigorously defend what makes up the economic engine for the insurgency. The additional troops, the centerpiece of President Obama’s effort to reverse the course of the seven-year war, will roughly double the number already in southern Afghanistan. The troops already fighting there are universally seen as overwhelmed. In many cases, the Americans will be pushing into areas where few or no troops have been before.

Through extortion and taxation, the Taliban are believed to reap as much as $300 million a year from Afghanistan’s opium trade, which now makes up 90 percent of the world’s total. That is enough, the Americans say, to sustain all of the Taliban’s military operations in southern Afghanistan for an entire year.

“Opium is their financial engine,” said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “That is why we think he will fight for these areas.”

The Americans say that their main goal this summer will be to provide security for the Afghan population, and thereby isolate the insurgents.

But because the opium is tilled in heavily populated areas, and because the Taliban are spread among the people, the Americans say they will have to break the group’s hold on poppy cultivation to be successful.

No one here thinks that is going to be easy.

Indeed.

The basic problem is that opium–and cannabis, of which Afghanistan is also the world’s largest producer–funds not only the Taliban, but also warlords who back the Karzai government and, most important, the Afghan people.  The common estimate is that drugs provide one-third of Afghanistan’s economic output and benefit a comparable proportion of the population.  Making war on opium inevitably means making war on the Afghan people.

As both Ted Galen Carpenter and I have been arguing, most recently in speeches to various World Affairs Councils, diverting military attention to the drug war risks the entire enterprise in Afghanistan.  Already some drug-running warlords have been refusing to give intelligence to allied commanders and are killing government anti-drug officials.  Broader popular sentiments also turn against the allies when they deprive farmers of their most remunerative livelihood.

Washington has no obvious long-term answer to the opium trade–only legalization/decriminalization would take the money out of illicit drug production, but American politicians refuse to admit the obvious.  In any case, the Obama administration should focus on the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.  Ultimately, we should emphasize a solution which safeguards America’s fundamental security objectives in Afghanistan, namely, which precludes any terrorist training camps and sanctuary for those who attack Americans.  Once we achieve these goals and bring American military personnel home, we can debate doing more about Afghanistan’s opium fields.

Galling Security Ignorance

In a post on Saturday at NRO’s the Corner blog, former Bush speech writer Marc Theissen exhibits ignorance of basic security concepts too galling to let pass without comment.

Attempting to refute the idea that hijacking planes and flying them into buildings was “off the table” as a terrorist tactic after 9/11, Theissen says:

Really? Planes were off the table after 9/11? That would come as a surprise to every passenger in the past three years who had their liquids confiscated in an airport security line. Those security measures were instituted because in 2006 we foiled an al-Qaeda plot to hijack airplanes leaving London’s Heathrow airport and blow them up over the Atlantic (a plot our intelligence community says was just weeks from execution).

(First, put aside some issues - “what the government says about its security measures must be true” and both the immediacy and viability of the liquid bomb plot in London.)

The difference between “hijacking” and “bombing” shouldn’t need explaining. The former is taking over the controls of a thing, enabling an attacker to direct it into other things. The latter is exploding something in it or on it so as to render it inoperable.

Americans ritually donate their toothpaste to sanitation departments in the cities they visit not because a liquid bomb could enable the commandeering of a plane, but because the alleged liquid bomb could take a plane out of the sky.

The bombing of a plane is a serious concern, but not as serious or potentially damaging as the commandeering of an aircraft. And commandeering is essentially off the table. The hardening of cockpit doors, new procedures at the fronts of planes, and newfound resolve of passengers and crews against commandeering have reduced the likelihood of future commandeerings to near zero. That was what the plane going down in Pennsylvania was all about.

If it weren’t made in debate about such serious issues, Theissen’s error would be quite comical. In his jumbled version of events, the liquid bomb plotters were going to go to the trouble of capturing the controls of an airplane, then fly it around for a while, and finally blow it up over the Atlantic. It’s reminiscent of the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine attacks the theory that an elderly couple running a nearby cobbler shop had shut it down just to abscond with Jerry’s shoes:

ELAINE (amused): So. Mom and Pop’s plan was to move into the neighborhood…establish trust…for 48 years. And then, run off with Jerry’s sneakers.

KRAMER: Apparently.

ELAINE: Alright, that’s enough of this.