Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

“Success” = “Not Leaving”

The surge worked. So declare Sens. McCain and Lieberman in today’s Wall Street Journal. They join the chorus of voices, including the Washington Post editorial board, who point to the decline in violence in Iraq that has occurred since the so-called surge went into effect as a sign that the opponents of the surge have been proved wrong.

No one disputes that the security situation in Iraq has improved. Although 2007 was the deadliest year of the war, American casualties declined sharply in the latter half of the year. We can all be thankful for that, and U.S. troops, who have once again proved remarkably adaptable, deserve much of the credit.

But as Air Force Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr. noted in yesterday’s New York Times, “two other uncomfortable developments also helped suppress violence. First, the Iraqi population has largely segregated itself into sectarian fiefs. Second, supposedly ‘reformed’ insurgents now dominate Anbar Province.” Dunlap wonders aloud whether these newly-empowered “Sunni partisans” have “bought into the idea of a truly pluralistic and democratic Iraq.” If they have not, and if they remain opposed to reconciliation with the Shiite majority, arming the individuals and groups might prove a short-term strategy that cuts against our medium- to long-term objectives.

In this context, we should also keep in mind that military operations should be conducted in pursuit of a specific objective, and the purpose of the surge was to make a space for political reconciliation among the Iraqi people that would, in the president’s words, “hasten the day our troops begin coming home.”

Note that the advocates of the surge, including most importantly Sens. McCain and Lieberman, don’t want the troops to come home. Certainly not any time soon, and perhaps not ever. Sen. McCain last week said U.S. troops might remain in Iraq for 100 years. President Bush and Secretary of Defense Gates have drawn parallels to Korea, where U.S. troops have been deployed since 1950. (Kudos to Slate’s Fred Kaplan for his take-down of this outrageously inapt analogy.)

In other words, the surge strategy, marketed to the American people as a vehicle for hastening the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, is now being used as a justification for keeping U.S. troops there. Success, once synonymous with withdrawal (remember “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down?”) now means something very different.

Before his victory in the New Hampshire primary, Sen. McCain crowed that the surge had been successful, allowing him to resurrect his moribund campaign. “Thank God [Iraq]’s off the front pages,” the leading proponent for the war told reporters on board the Straight Talk Express.

But I’m betting that the vast majority of Americans are still thinking about Iraq, even if it is “off the front pages,” and their calculation of costs and benefits is very different from Sen. McCain’s. In poll after poll, a solid majority of Americans believe that we have already spent far too much blood and treasure in Iraq, and they aren’t going to passively accept another 100 years in Iraq, at a cost of $100 billion or more every year. And what of the human costs? The strains on our military from two or three or four combat tours are already plainly visible. How will we maintain, over a period of many decades, an army of citizen-soldiers who spend more time in a foreign country than they do in their own?

Sens. McCain and Lieberman may believe that staying in Iraq indefinitely is synonymous with success. For most Americans, the opposite is true: we will have succeeded when we have brought the troops home safely, and we are no closer to that goal than we were one year ago.

Cooler Heads Prevail, for Now

The hottest video on the Internet today has nothing to do with Paris Hilton or Hillary Clinton’s tears – it is footage from the deck of a U.S. Navy ship of an incident in the Strait of Hormuz.

I transited the Strait exactly once (twice if you count both inbound and outbound), and my memory of the whole affair is pretty murky as it occurred over 16 years ago. Besides, I didn’t exactly get a good visual. I was an engineer aboard the USS TICONDEROGA (CG 47), and spent most of my time staring at gauges in the engineering control room down in the bowels of the ship. I do recall, however, that the whole process took a long time, and that we were on a high state of alert.

My initial reaction on hearing that Iranian small boats had approached three navy ships in a threatening manner was to gather more details. I knew that such incidents have occurred in the past, and I was curious if this was being blown out of proportion. I’ve asked around to some friends and former colleagues who have more recent experience transiting the Strait, and the general take-away was surprise that the ship captains didn’t fire. It is simply imprudent to allow any ship or small boat to come that close, and especially so if you assume hostile intent.

But it is also imprudent to take actions that might escalate into full-blown war, and that is what might have occurred if the U.S. navy had fired on the Iranian small boats.

After all, it is not unreasonable to speculate that some Iranians would like to bait the United States into taking the first shot, an idea first floated by Cato Research Fellow Stanley Kober over two years ago. And there is a pattern in Iranian actions over the past five or six years that reveal the deep divisions within Iran society, even at the highest levels of government. Hints of conciliation (as we heard last week from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), or periods of relative calm, are often broken by hostile or threatening acts, and recriminations from the opponents of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.

In this context, the many members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who are committed America-haters, and the few who would willingly sacrifice their own life to do harm to the Great Satan, might have been aiming for something more. Driving a small boat headlong into automatic weapons fire is no less suicidal than detonating an explosive vest, but the atmospherics would have looked dramatically different. Even if the U.S. naval personnel were acting in self-defense, and operating strictly in accordance with procedures, it would have been conveyed as an act of American aggression. After all, that is what Iranians have been told happened during the tragic USS VINCENNES incident from 1988 – in which a U.S. Navy cruiser mistook an Iranian passenger jet for a military aircraft, and 290 passengers and crew died. (And, consistent with that pattern, Iranian media is today reporting that the video of the latest incident in the Strait is “fabricated.”)

I have long argued, and still believe, that a war with Iran would not serve U.S. interests. Indeed, I believe it would be catastrophic. I also know that relatively minor incidents during periods of high tension have led to wider wars, and those conditions are in place today in the region. There is plenty of blame to go around.

For now, as the details continue to trickle in, I’m grateful that the Navy COs kept their cool, and held their fire.

McCain Wants US Troops in Iraq for “100 Years”

I couldn’t believe it when I saw it either, but the dang thing is up on Youtube. Flanked by Joe Lieberman, John McCain on the stump responds to a question about George Bush talking about staying in Iraq for 50 years by quipping “Make it 100!” He then hedges, if you can call it that, by saying “as long as Americans aren’t being killed.”

And we wonder where these conspiracy theories in the Islamic world about the US trying to dominate the region come from…

An Unconvincing Evasion

Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard offers what I think is a pretty unconvincing defense of his post that I criticized yesterday.

The whole thing started because Goldfarb thought it would be appropriate to snicker at the fact that Greenwald had estimated China’s annual defense spending at $65 billion. His post was titled “When Lefties Pretend to Know Anything About the Military,” and he sneered at those “who act like they understand military spending but find themselves flummoxed over terms like ‘purchasing power parity.’”

But in truth it is Michael Goldfarb who demonstrates beyond doubt that he is flummoxed over PPP. We can see this in the fact that he refuses to back down from his claim that $450 billion is a “pretty good guess” for Chinese defense spending. It’s not a pretty good guess. It’s absolutely absurd, and if he can find one serious PLA analyst anywhere who will endorse it, I’ll buy him lunch.

For reference, the Pentagon, which has historically offered the high-end estimate of all estimates of Chinese defense spending, argued in 2007 (.pdf) that Chinese defense spending was between $85 and $125 billion, much closer to Greenwald’s estimate than to the one that Goldfarb continues to endorse of $450 billion.

I don’t want to dry up this otherwise juicy conversation with a long discussion of defense economics, but since they’re so central to understanding why the $450 billion figure is absurd, I’ll just refer readers again here. (Goldfarb for some reason omitted the link from his excerpt of my post.) You can’t do what Tkacik does, and just blanket the CIA’s figure for the PLA budget with the PPP converter and then take that number out and run with it. Moreover, the World Bank estimate of the PPP converter for China was recently revised downward by 40 percent, further undermining the figure. Goldfarb seems either uninterested or unaware of this.

There are even more problems with the Ramesh Ponnuru/Goldfarb argument that we should view the entirety of the rest of the world as “criminals” or “arsonists” against whom we should judge our defense budget:

We’d expect the police department to have a budget many times that of all the criminals combined, wouldn’t we? Fire departments spend a lot more fighting arson than arsonists spend.

This is just nuts. Here is a listing of the top 10 defense spenders out there, from Greenwald’s list (I’m not sure whether the rankings are still exactly right, but you get the idea):

1. United States
2. China
3. Russia
4. France
5. United Kingdom
6. Japan
7. Germany
8. Italy
9. South Korea
10. India

These are the “criminals” against whom we are supposed to be arming ourselves? Okay, so Russia and China are on the list, and we aren’t absolutely certain of their intentions. But England?!? Japan? Italy? India? Is it really America Alone, taking on the rest of the world? Please. Is this sort of thing supposed to pass for serious analysis?

NCTC Acknowledges Foreign Policy Role in Radicalizing Muslims

Via Spencer Ackerman, the National Counterterrorism Center bends itself into all kinds of knots in its 2008 calendar. (?!?) The calendar apparently takes up some of the myths about radicalization. Among them:

MYTH: US foreign policy is the primary cause of radicalization.

REALITY: The grievances that fuel radicalization are diverse and vary across locations and groups. Radicalization frequently is driven by personal concerns at the local level in addition to frustration with international events.

So in the course of rebutting the “myth” that foreign policy is the primary cause of radicalization, the NCTC a) allows that foreign policy causes radicalism and b) declines to offer what it believes is the primary cause of radicalization. I think that’s what we’d call a “non-denial denial.” Somebody better tell Rudy Giuliani.

More on Chinese Military Spending

Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard blog takes aim at this Glenn Greenwald post lamenting the fact that the U.S. spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. In his post, Goldfarb protests that Greenwald is using a figure for Chinese defense spending that is too low and criticizes those “who act like they understand military spending but find themselves flummoxed over terms like ‘purchasing power parity.’”

Thankfully for all of us, Goldfarb called Globalsecurity.org’s John Pike, who was able to inform him that attempting to ascertain the exact level of Chinese military spending is a “fiendishly complex problem…[that] approaches not even being a meaningful question.”

I say thankfully, because Goldfarb must have come to his senses since he last took a crack at Chinese military spending. That time he consulted with the Heritage Foundation’s John Tkacik, who has been touting his argument that China’s military spending is roughly equivalent to U.S. defense spending. For reasons I’ve laid out in detail before here, this is not a serious argument. It’s not clear why Goldfarb has chosen to jettison Tkacik’s figure in favor of Mr. Pike’s caution, but it’s a welcome development. Still, it would be good to know whether Mr. Goldfarb now thinks he was mistaken to tout the absurd figure last March.

Then Goldfarb takes it on himself to declare that those who advocate a lower defense budget “just don’t understand the issues. And they shouldn’t pretend to.” One might say the same thing about basically everybody who wrote for the Weekly Standard about Iraq before the war, but that would be uncharitable. But the larger point is that Goldfarb’s statement isn’t even true, unless he thinks he can write, say, Richard Betts out of the debate.

Even if one accepts Goldfarb’s criticism of Greenwald’s figure for China’s defense expenditures, it doesn’t affect the finding that the U.S. spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. Unless Goldfarb then wants to repair to Tkacik’s argument about the Chinese defense budget, which I don’t imagine he wants to. Either way, it’s odd to see someone waving his hands and advising that we be cautious with figures of Chinese defense spending when he chose to tout the most outlandish figure out there just several months back…