Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Deeper into Afghanistan

President Obama yesterday announced his decision to send 17,000 extra troops (two brigades and support troops) to Afghanistan in the coming months, bringing the total American troop presence there to over 50,000. This has been in the works for some time. It comes as the administration conducts several reviews on Afghan policy.

You might say we are putting the cart before the horse, sending troops at a problem just as we reconsider our strategy for confronting it. On the other hand, our existing strategy, which is to prop up the Afghan state with US firepower, seems unlikely to change under Obama. Despite recent sensible comments about the limits of what we can accomplish in Afghanistan, Obama’s team likely remains committed to state-building there. Given that goal, it is hard to see why we should stop at two brigades. We could send five and still have a low force-to-population ratio, judging by historical ratios for counter-insurgency campaigns.

A stable Afghanistan is neither necessary to US security nor obviously possible at reasonable cost, as I have periodically written. It is not evident that Al Qaeda types would again find haven in Afghanistan should we go. But assuming that they would, there remains an alternative to trying to overcome Afghanistan’s anarchic history. We could attack only the remaining jihadists, their allies, and insurgents who will not settle for local power. That would require only a small U.S. ground presence, airstrikes and local allies.

Pundits tend to assume that counterinsurgency and state-building are identical — foreigners enforce the state’s claim to a monopoly on violence to gain it support and crowd out alternative authority structures. But there is another counterinsurgency strategy out there, which is to allow the insurgency local power, to appease it as part of a bargain. The key tactic that brought lowered violence in the Sunni part of Iraq – bribing insurgent militia leaders to cooperate with us — undermines the Iraqi state, sacrificing our stated goal for a simpler one.

While we’re on the subject, I see Matt Yglesias supports the troop increase because it will lessen the need for airstrikes, which too often kill civilians. That seems backwards. Even with 12,000 new combat troops, our forces will remain a relatively small force in a large mountainous region. That means operating in dispersed contingents with limited firepower and therefore depending on air support in firefights. The new troops will likely provoke more combat and more supporting airstrikes, at least in the short term.

Taking Cues from Terrorist Playbooks

Tony Blankley writes in today’s Washington Times that we need to emulate the federal Office of Censorship employed in World War II and screen all press outlets for pieces ostensibly favoring those that oppose us in our fight against terrorism.  Apparently, things have gone too far when newspapers allow a representative of Hamas to publish an op-ed and media outlets publish sensitive information about government programs.  As he puts it, “American newspapers should foster a free debate on government policies, not act as agents of enemy sabotage.”

I am unclear as to how requiring Uncle Sam’s say-so on any controversial discussion of national security policy is a “free debate.”  I am even less certain that all of this would be constitutional.

Worse yet, broad restriction of liberty is the response that terrorists want.  Terrorists don’t fear government overreaction; they bait it and incite it.  They need it.  With broad measures that restrict the freedom of movement of the population and tax our every move, they portray themselves as patriots and freedom fighters.  Talk of Wars on [a Noun] and “existential threats” only enhances the rhetoric of our enemies and incites public hysteria.

Don’t take my word for it.  Carlos Marighella, Brazilian insurgent and author of the Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, said as much decades ago:

The government has no alternative except to intensify its repression.  The police networks, house searches, the arrest of suspects and innocent persons, and the closing off of streets make life in the city unbearable.  The military dictatorship embarks on massive political persecution … [t]he armed forces, the navy and the air force are mobilized to undertake routine police functions… [t]he political situation in the country is transformed into a military situation in which the “gorillas” appear more and more to be the ones responsible for violence, while the lives of the people grow worse.

Instead of calling for censorship, Mr. Blankley ought to limit his response to criticizing the newspaper or countering the op-ed directly.  This is infinitely better targeted at his enemies and, let’s be honest, it isn’t hard to find contradictions between Hamas’s actions and whatever whitewash they put in an op-ed.

Mr. Blankley also points to the alleged probability of a nuclear bomb being set off in an American city within the next five years.  Benjamin Friedman has already debunked this unfounded claim in great detail.

As for protection of secret information, the abuse of the State Secrets privilege often has little to do with national security, and a lot to do with governmental liability.

A Terror Warrior: Wildly and Carelessly Wrong

A few days ago, Nile Gardiner of the Telegraph (U.K.) took Vice President Biden and the Obama Administration to task for abandoning the “War on Terror” metaphor. It’s empty-headed, fear-based pap.

President Obama’s decision to abandon the phrase “war on terror” sends the wrong signal to al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists groups. America and her allies are engaged in a long-term global war against a vicious enemy that seeks the free world’s destruction, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or in the cities of Europe and the United States. This is hardly the time to be engaging in a cynical PR exercise which will only serve to soften America’s image in the eyes of its worst enemies.

The relevant audience is not al Qaeda and terrorists groups. It’s the people near them ideologically and physically. These people are deciding whether or not to join them or support them.

Communicating that the United States is war-mongering and fearful of al Qaeda makes us look bad to these audiences, and it makes al Qaeda look like a worthy opponent of ours. We could do terrorism no better favor than continuing to claim a “war” on terror featuring al Qaeda.

Gardiner also seems to have no grasp - perhaps no awareness that he should have a grasp - of the actual goals and capabilities of al Qaeda or anyone using the name. Most terrorists don’t “seek[] the free world’s destruction.” The ones who say they do just … might … be trying to terrorize! What a concept. They have about the same chance of succeeding as I do of earning $1 billion by publishing this post. Terrorists might occassionally succeed with an attack, but exaggerated fears of terrorism will drive us to do much worse to ourselves year over year than the sporadic attack could ever accomplish.

Is dropping “war on terror” a “cynical PR exercise”? No. It’s a hard-headed, strategically sound PR exercise - again, to bring terrorists’ ideological and physical neighbors toward our side.

Sound counterterrorism strategy thinking was on full display at our recent conference on counterterrorism strategy. Video and audio recordings of every panel are available for download. Perhaps Mr. Gardiner can review the proceedings on his home computer while he launders his shorts.

German High Court Challenges EU and Lisbon Treaty

The forces of European consolidation are attempting to force through the Lisbon Treaty without allowing anyone other than the Irish to vote.  And, of course, the Irish have been pressed to vote a second time since they made the “wrong” decision last year, rejecting Lisbon.

But now the treaty faces a serious challenge before the German high court.  Reports the EU Observer:

Several of the eight judges in charge of examining whether the EU’s Lisbon Treaty is compatible with the German constitution have expressed scepticism about the constitutional effects of further EU integration.

According to reports in the German media, the debate during the crucial two-day hearing starting on Tuesday (10 Februrary) on the treaty centred on criminal law and the extent to which it should be the preserve of member states rather than the EU.

The judges questioned whether the EU should be allowed to increase its powers in criminal law.

Judge Herbert Landau said new EU powers in criminal justice affected “core issues” of German legislative authority.

“These are issues affecting the shared values of a people,” he said.

Judge Udo Di Fabio, who prepared the procedure and will deliver the judgement on the treaty, asked whether the transferral of powers to the EU really means more freedom for EU citizens.

“Is the idea of going ever more in this direction not a threat to freedom?” he asked, according to FT Deutschland.

Judge Rudolf Mellinghoff asked whether the treaty was already “in an extensive way” being applied when its comes to the area of criminal sanctions in environment issues – the European Commission may sanction companies for polluting the environment

In all, four of the eight judges questioned the Lisbon Treaty.

The Irish vote was bad enough, causing wailing and gnashing of teeth throughout the continent’s Eurocratic elite.  If the EU’s most important country rejects the Lisbon Treaty, the entire EU project will be in doubt.  After all, it’s one thing to browbeat the Irish, threatening to toss them out of the EU or push them into some form of second-rate status.  But the EU couldn’t do that with Germany and survive.

It’s hard to imagine the German court overturning the government’s ratification of the treaty.  But no one expected the Irish to say no as well.  Europe might soon find itself dealing with a political as well as economic crisis.

Has President Obama Bitten Off More than He Can Chew?

Beneath all the thrashing over the giant deficit spending bill, President Obama has another thorn in his side: Iraq.  Reuters now reports that the military has crafted an analysis of three plans for withdrawing from Iraq: one taking 16 months, one taking 19 months, and another taking 23 months.  It’s not clear from the article where the 19- and 23-month proposals came from.  It’s a bit strange, though, that the president’s own plan has been put in a position now as being the extremely fast plan for withdrawal, juxtaposed against the two others.  Who asked for other plans?

Reuters reports further that Gen. Petraeus (CENTCOM) and Lt. Gen. Odierno (MNF-I) favor the longest of the three plans.

All of this shouldn’t be surprising, though: Tom Ricks’ new book on Iraq (which I’ve not seen) features this little tidbit in the promotional materials:

For Petraeus, prevailing in Iraq means extending the war. Thomas E. Ricks concludes that the war is likely to last another five to ten years—and that that outcome is a best case scenario. His stunning conclusion, stated in the last line of the book, is that ‘the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered by us and by the world have not yet happened.’”

So in the midst of the partisan scrap over the giant spending package, the Reuters story makes it look like like Obama may have to take on Petraeus and Odierno if he thinks he’s going to get us out of Iraq any time soon.*  Who’s optimistic?

* Marc Lynch of GWU and Foreign Policy made essentially this argument previously, and was slapped down by an Odierno spokesman.  Let’s see if these Obama vs. Petraeus/Odierno stories (and responses from military spokespeople) keep getting written.

Defense Spending Correction

In the podcast posted today on Cato’s main site, I say that it appears likely that Obama will accept a massive increase in defense spending foisted on him by the Pentagon for its FY 2010 budget. It did appear that way a week ago when I recorded the podcast. Bill Lynn, the Raytheon lobbyist Obama nominated to be Bob Gates’ number two at the Pentagon, had said as much, and I figured he knew what the administration was planning.

Turns out, he didn’t. Over the weekend, various news outlets reported that the Office of Management and Budget told the Pentagon to forget the $70 billion bump they hoped for, which would have brought non-war defense spending from about $513 billion to $584 billion, and accept a far smaller increase - about $14 billion, which is about what Pentagon plans called for before this gambit.

As I wrote here a couple months ago, the Pentagon, and the services within it, presumably hoped that they could present Obama with a fait accompli. If he ordered the Pentagon to roughly hold spending level, neoconservatives on the Hill and the Washington Post’s oped page could spin it as a cut and scream “surrender!” Bob Kagan, Max Boot, and others fell right into line.

Boot defends himself here by saying A. he doesn’t know enough about defense spending to know when FoxNews is misleading him, so it’s not his fault, and B. $584 is what the Joint Chiefs say they need to defend the nation, so it really is a cut. He asks, “Are Obama and his budget director prepared to say they understand the military’s needs better than the senior military leadership?” One would certainly hope so, given the concept of civilian control of the military. Boot is apparently unaware that the military organizations usually ask for what they think they can get and call it what they need.

Missing from all this discussion is a fact I only see hidden behind a subscription wall at Inside the Pentagon – the Obama team is going to increase the planned amount of spending over five years. Rather than the leveling off in defense spending that Bush administration had planned, the Obama administration plans to keep it growing mildly.

Hopefully that report is premature or the decision will be reconsidered – and historically these plans rarely hold up. The Pentagon’s budget should be drastically reduced. See the defense budget chapter of the Cato Policy Handbook for details. The bottom line is that it starts with restraint. Do less to spend less. That would avoid needless wars, which is the category of most of those we might fight these days, and the cost incurred by preparing for so many.

*I also say in the podcast that: “We spend more on research and development on new weapons systems than any other country other than China.”

I meant to say “We spend more on researching and developing new weapons than any other country spends on its entire military, other than China.”

Big difference.