Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Kennedy on Jerusalem

Getting named New York’s junior senator apparently requires pandering to those who support Israel’s right wing.

From Nick Confessore’s written interview with Caroline Kennedy (and her staff) in the New York Times:

Q. Do you believe that an undivided Jerusalem must be the national capital of the State of Israel?
A. Yes, Caroline believes that an undivided Jerusalem must be the national capital of the State of Israel.

Rosen on DHS

More on that Rosen piece in the New Republic on the Department of Homeland Security (a name we should change, by the way) that Dave Rittgers just wrote about.  As Rosen notes, a society that is rational about danger, in the sense of equal attention to risks of equal magnitude, would not have created a Department of Homeland Security (much of what the Department does, of course, has nothing to do with terrorism).

What I like about the article is that Rosen also points out that ours is not such a society. For social, psychological and bureaucratic reasons we prefer protection against some risks to others of greater danger. We demand total protection against terrorism. The Bush Administration, therefore, could not resist the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

Leaders then face unreasonable public demands for wasteful protection from terrorism. What should they do? To me there are basically four alternatives.

1. Tell the truth and risk the political consequences. It seems likely that politicians cannot survive such honesty and will therefore rationally avoid it, but there are counterexamples.

2. Cave and spend tons of money.

3. Fake it. Ratify people’s inflated fears and then claim falsely that the programs you’ve put in place greatly reduce the danger, while holding down spending you know to be wasteful. This, Rosen argues, is basically what the Bush administration tried to do.

4. Insulate decision-makers from democracy with science. Make bureaucracies that combat dangers that people overly fear into technocratic domains. Use fancy sounding terms like risk management and analysis that appear scientific to limit public demands from protection: “We would like to give you a grant to protect your waterpark, but our risk-vulnerability algorithm says we must not.”

The solution is unclear to me. But we have a panel on these issues at the conference that Dave just mentioned. It has the catchy name “Domestic Security: Risk Management and Cost Benefit Analysis,” and includes me, Jim Lewis from CSIS, Cindy Williams from MIT, Jeremy Shapiro from Brookings, and Bruce Schneier. John Mueller, whom Rosen also cites, will also be speaking at the conference. Sign up if you’re into this stuff.

*James Fallows has written several good articles on the same topic.

Inside the Dept. of Homeland Security

Jeffrey Rosen has an article up at The New Republic criticizing the Department of Homeland Security as a bipartisan effort to be seen doing something about terrorism.  Unfortunately, that something fails any rational cost-benefit analysis:  “Both parties seem incapable of acknowledging an uncomfortable but increasingly obvious truth: that the Department of Homeland Security was a bureaucratic and philosophical mistake.”  Go read the whole thing

Rosen cites security expert Bruce Schneier on the misallocation of funds to security cameras.  These cameras proved ineffective in preventing the 7/7 bombings in London, and the capture of the bombers was due largely to good intelligence and police work, not camera systems.  New York City immediately jumped on the camera bandwagon in spite of their dubious utility in terrorism and crime prevention.  As Schneier puts it, “[t]he question isn’t whether the cameras are useful; the question is whether they’re essential–or would it be better to spend that money on the policeman on the beat?”  Check out Schneier’s blog here.

Schneier’s excellent book, Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World, is required reading for any serious discussion about national security.  Schneier will be a panelist at Cato’s conference on national security on January 12th and 13th.  Information about the conference is available here.  This conference is part of Cato’s three-year initiative on issues relating to civil liberties and counterterrorism.

Pirates and Sharks

Remember the summer of the shark? That was 2001, when the media, feeding on a few high profile incidents, gave Americans the impression that they faced an outbreak of shark attacks, when in fact shark attacks were down. Something similar may be happening today with piracy.

If you’re reading the news these days, you are likely under the impression that an explosion of piracy threatens global shipping. But according to statistics kept by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) piracy is not occurring at an unusual rate this year. (They define piracy as using force to board or attempt to board a ship to commit a crime.) Piracy is up slightly in the last two years but down since 2005. This year’s 265 attacks (a projection based on three quarters of data) are just 60% of the level recorded in 2003, when there were 445 attacks. On the other hand, as the chart below shows, the 2000s have seen considerably more piracy than the 1990s. And hijacking has increased substantially this year, up from 15 incidents in 2007 to 50 and counting this year.

Here’s a chart showing worldwide incidents of piracy since 1995. The data is from the IMB. The number for 2008 is projected from three quarters of data, so it may be a little off.

In recent years, piracy has more than tripled in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia – from 21 attacks in 2003 to 63 through three quarters this year. But that growth is not enough to offset the downturn elsewhere. Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Malacca Straits together saw 207 attacks in 2003 but only 65 last year. The total in those waters this year will be even lower. It’s possible that the nature and volume of shipments in the Gulf of Aden along with the prevalence of hijacking there make recent piracy particularly costly. But the IMB’s data, at least, provides little evidence for this claim.

Although the cause of the spike in piracy near Somalia is unclear, it coincides with the fall of the Islamic Courts Union, which was chased from power by an Ethiopian invasion that the United States backed. (If you think it’s obvious that lawlessness in Somalia caused the outbreak of piracy, then explain why decades of anarchy never before produced piracy of this volume.) Most analysts attribute the drop in attacks in Asia to better cooperative efforts to combat piracy and improved economic conditions.

The big reason piracy has increased in this decade is probably because maritime trade itself grew - from 4 billion tons of cargo in 1990 to 7.4 billion tons in 2006, according to the International Maritime Organization. There are more targets. But piracy’s overall effect on trade remains small. One estimate of piracy’s annual cost is $16 billion a year. Some say even that estimate is far too high. Maritime commerce back in 2005 had a total value of $7.8 trillion. Note that even the hijacking of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden has not much slowed tanker traffic there.

While we are here, it is also worth addressing the alleged piracy-terrorism nexus. In short, there is no evidence that it exists. (Terrorists hijacking a fishing vessel to get to Mumbai does not constitute a nexus.) What about the fact that Somalia, source of so much piracy, is supposed to be the next big al Qaeda base? The truth is, Somalia never had a significant al Qaeda presence, no more than a few guys.

Because the victims of piracy in the Gulf of Aden are foreign-owned ships and because the effect on U.S. consumers is tiny, this is a problem best left to nations that suffer more direct costs or shippers themselves. Americans should encourage multilateral solutions, but should not confuse the problem with one that has great consequences for their welfare.

Predicting Alarmism

Here’s the punchline from the report released last week by the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism: “It is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”* That prediction was the lead in hundreds of news reports that the report generated last week.

The trouble is, in over 100 pages, the report’s authors never justify their alarming claim. It’s not that they do a poor job explaining how they arrived at the “more likely than not” in five years figure. They simply make no attempt to explain how they got there, other than to say that they talked to lots of experts.

They missed some. For a sober assessment of terrorists’ utterly failed efforts to develop biological weapons, see Milton Leitenberg. On nuclear terrorism, see John Mueller or Michael Levi. Note that even Mueller’s critics tend to agree that the odds of nuclear terrorism are generally overstated. See also Brian Jenkins and Michael Krepon.

Readers of the report should know that Commissioner Graham Allison has been making these sorts of predictions for some time, as John Mueller has noted:

[Allison] proclaims his “considered judgment” in his book: “on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not” (2004, 15). He repeats that judgment in an article published two years later without reducing the terminal interval to compensate — apparently the end date is an ever-receding target (2006, 39). Actually, he had been in the prediction business on this issue at least as early as 1995 when his imagination induced him boldly to pronounce, “In the absence of a determined program of action, we have every reason to anticipate acts of nuclear terrorism against American targets before this decade is out.”

It would have been helpful if the authors offered some analysis of why past dire predictions have not come true before issuing new ones.

For more on this issue, come to Cato’s upcoming counterterrorism conference. On January 12 and 13, a variety of experts will be here discussing the danger of terrorism and the danger of overreacting to it. I’m running a panel on terrorists’ ability to use nuclear and biological weapons with Mueller, Leitenberg, Randy Larsen and a soon-to-be-named fourth expert.

*As I have written before, we should abolish the term, “weapons of mass destruction.” It confuses the lethality of the weapons it subsumes and policy discussion. On the silliness of the phrase, read Owen Cote.

More Like $355 Million Per Plane, but Who’s Counting?

Today’s New York Times reports:

Two of President-elect Barack Obama’s stated goals — cutting wasteful spending and saving or creating millions of jobs — are on a collision course in a looming decision over whether to keep building the F-22 fighter jet.

That is a dubious claim. The predicted job losses associated with allowing the F-22 program to come to an end are exaggerated, and insignificant when compared against the many other jobs in our $13 trillion economy. Yes, some people currently employed manufacturing F-22s might have to find new work, but these workers should not receive special treatment; military necessity, not politics, should drive our decisions on what military hardware to buy. By that standard, the F-22 program should be terminated because the plane is ill-suited to the types of missions that the U.S. military is likely to undertake.

But the more egregious error pertains to the Times’s use of Air Force and industry estimates for per unit F-22 costs going forward. “Supporters of the F-22 program…argue that Mr. Obama should extend its production, at least temporarily, to preserve thousands of jobs related to building the jets, which cost $143 million each.” (my emphasis)

The actual per unit costs of each F-22 can be compiled from other figures cited in the story. To date, the F-22 program has cost taxpayers $65 billion, and has delivered 183 aircraft. My calculator doesn’t do real well with so many zeroes, but that comes out to more than $355 million – making the F-22 the most expensive fighter aircraft in history.

The Air Force contends that it is unfair to translate all of the program’s research and development costs into the price tag of the newest planes rolling off the assembly lines. According to this creative accounting, the “flyaway” costs of prospective purchases, which essentially write off program R&D as sunk costs, will range between $176.8 million and $216.3 million per aircraft. This assumes, however, that this next stage of F-22 production will not encounter any of the cost growth that has plagued the program from the very beginning. At every stage of its development, actual F-22 costs have exceeded projections. Even the flyaway estimates have proved woefully inaccurate. (In 1986, the Air Force estimated F-22 flyaway costs at $35 million.) When weighing the prospects of additional F-22 purchases, it seems prudent to assume that the plane will cost much more than its supporters want you to believe.

If President-elect Obama is serious about cutting wasteful spending, the F-22 is a pretty good place to start. The contention about jobs saved or lost is a red herring. So-called military Keynesianism might have been popular in the 1960s, but subsequent research has shown that expecting to stimulate the economy through military spending is a bad bet.

A Case for Climbing Out of the Middle East

Cato-at-liberty readers frustrated with the United States’ travails in the Middle East may want to have a look at John Mearsheimer’s article in the current Newsweek, “Rebalancing the Middle East.”  Mearsheimer makes the case for offshore balancing, which is to say removing forward deployed U.S. forces from the region and scaling back our objectives to center on merely precluding one power from gaining hegemony over the whole region.  He closes on this note:

Offshore balancing wouldn’t eliminate all the problems we face in the Middle East. But it would be considerably less expensive in both human and financial terms. It’s not a foolproof strategy, but it’s probably as close as we can get.

Mearsheimer’s version is a lot less “offshore” than some of us would like, but his case is worth a look.  Trying to run the Middle East is just one fruitless government program we could cut and save trillions of dollars in the coming years.  Libertarians ought to consider it.