Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

It’s Not My Fault They’re Kissing

My friend Blake Hounshell (he’s actually a friend, not “my friend” in the Washington sense) has a post up at FP Passport observing President Bush’s and Saudi dictator King Abdullah’s latest canoodling. In that post, Blake argues that

if you’re a gasoline-consuming American, you’re deeply complicit in this marriage, too. So laugh all you want at Bush, but he kisses Saudi cheek for thee—just as U.S. presidents have done for decades.

To which I would respond “baloney!” There’s nothing about the fact that we–or Europe, or China, or Japan–consume oil that mandates that we play kissy-poo with Abdullah or anybody else. There are a few theories why we would want to kiss up to the Saudis, and none of them hold water. The first is that the Saudis, who control 25% of the world’s proven oil reserves, make production decisions based on political relationships rather than economic considerations, and therefore when we kiss up to them, we increase the likelihood that they’ll make production decisions that are in our interests (and in contravention of their own). Like now, for example, the president is pleading that OPEC members increase production so as to tamp down the price of gasoline in the U.S.

As my colleague Jerry Taylor is wont to point out, however, “no amount of ‘get tough’ rhetoric or ‘pretty please’ diplomacy has ever affected OPEC production decisions, despite what American politicians would have you believe.” So that theory needs reworking.

There’s also the belief that we need to keep a close relationship with the Saudis to shore up our position in the region and resume the pursuit of our *ahem* traditional goal in the region of “promoting stability.” But this theory, too, leaves a lot to be desired. Our traditional posture in the Middle East has essentially amounted to a transfer payment from U.S. taxpayers to the Saudi Royal Family and the oil companies it runs. (Kuwait and the GCC countries, too.) Essentially we cover a substantial amount of the cost that it takes to defend these countries from prospective predators. But one has to ask “What would the Arabs do in the absence of an American security commitment?” 75% of the Saudi government’s revenue comes from oil. 45% of the country’s GDP comes from oil. Are we to assume that, absent a U.S. security commitment, the Saudi royal family is just going to cower in a defensive crouch and leave that money on the table for any rogue actor in the region to swoop in and take? Seems unlikely. The royal family seems much more interested in preserving itself and expanding its wealth than that.

To the contrary, it seems more likely that they would spend more, and get more serious about defending themselves from outside threats. Now, one could make the argument at this point that the Arabs in recent years have not proved themselves to be particularly formidable opponents on the battlefield, which is persuasive to a point. But even if, say, Iran made the remarkably rash move of launching a war against Saudi Arabia, Saudi’s defense budget dwarfs Iran’s and Saudi’s military technology is decades ahead of Iran’s. Even if they were to begin losing a conventional conflict against (hypothetically, again) Iran, standoff forces like long-range U.S. bombers could zoom in to restore the status quo ante without batting an eyelash.

So I’m left wondering why, exactly, it’s American gasoline consumers who are forcing U.S. presidents to suck up to Abdullah and the Saudi Royal Family. Any theories are hereby welcomed. In the meantime, please do give a read to Eugene Gholz’s and Daryl Press’s Policy Analysis titled “Energy Alarmism: The Myths that Make Americans Worry about Oil” for much more detail, and data that informed my arguments above.

Irrational Voters

Analyzing exit polls from last week’s New Hampshire primary, E.J. Dionne observes in today’s Washington Post that “an astonishing 42 percent of McCain’s voters disapproved of the Iraq war”

Maybe Bryan Caplan is onto something?

On a related note, Sen. McCain boasts of his fiscal conservatism, and one of his most reliable applause lines on the campaign trail comes from his strident criticism of wasteful government spending. His favorite example is the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, one of thousands of earmarks tucked into the 2006 transportation bill. As McCain tells it, the bridge would have cost $233 million to build and would have served about 50 people. (David Boaz spelled out the gory details here. There were actually going to be two bridges costing a total of $454 million. In September 2007, Alaska officials dropped plans to build the bridge, but kept the money.)

To take nothing away from that particularly egregious misuse of taxpayer funds, it is worth noting that the war in Iraq is costing at least $10 billion a month, with some estimates placing the total costs closer to $12 or $13 billion. In other words, in one month’s time, we are spending the equivalent of 42 $233 million bridges. I doubt that we need that many bridges, and I’d much prefer that they be paid for by user-fees, but presumably some of these would go to somewhere?

The voters who oppose the Iraq war but who support the leading advocate for the war seem to be saying that fiscal conservatism stops at the water’s edge. Then again, it could just be cognitive dissonance.

Data Security for Me But Not for Thee

At his press conference announcing the REAL ID Act last week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said:

We are not going to have a national database. REAL ID does not require that states start to collect additional information from applicants that they have not already created. We are not going to wind up making this information available willy-nilly. In fact, the steps we are taking under REAL ID will enhance and protect privacy rather than degrade and impair privacy.

…[A]mong the things we’re doing under REAL ID is requiring that state motor vehicle agencies have in place background checks and security plans for their databases at – in terms of the motor vehicle information. Traditionally, again and again we have seen corruption at motor vehicle agencies leading to people improperly disseminating personal information. These security plans and these background checks will actually minimize the risk that employees will improperly take that information and disseminate it.

Meanwhile, Section 508 of the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007, signed into law by President Bush last week, allows federal judges and Supreme Court Justices to withhold their addresses from the REAL ID database system, giving the addresses of their courts instead.

The federal judiciary evidently doesn’t trust Secretary Chertoff’s assurances.

Did Bill Kristol Just Refute His Own Logical Fallacy?

Ah, the old Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, the favorite logical fallacy of the dozen or so remaining Iraq War defenders in Washington. Presenting, for the prosecution, Bill Kristol:

The Democrats were wrong in their assessments of the surge. Attacks per week on American troops are now down about 60 percent from June. Civilian deaths are down approximately 75 percent from a year ago. December 2007 saw the second-lowest number of U.S. troops killed in action since March 2003. And according to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, last month’s overall number of deaths, which includes Iraqi security forces and civilian casualties as well as U.S. and coalition losses, may well have been the lowest since the war began.

So far, so good. But then, our noble NYT columnist gets into trouble refuting Barack Obama’s equally asinine explanation that “much of that violence has been reduced because there was an agreement with tribes in Anbar Province, Sunni tribes, who started to see, after the Democrats were elected in 2006, you know what? — the Americans may be leaving soon.” Presenting, for the defense…Bill Kristol!

But Sunni tribes in Anbar announced in September 2006 that they would join to fight Al Qaeda. That was two months before the Democrats won control of Congress. The Sunni tribes turned not primarily because of fear of the Shiites, but because of their horror at Al Qaeda’s atrocities in Anbar. And the improvements in Anbar could never have been sustained without aggressive American military efforts — efforts that were more effective in 2007 than they had been in 2006, due in part to the addition of the surge forces.

Thus, we have learned that when the truth damages the Weekly Standard’s spin-line, it is to be swiftly discarded. When it damages Democratic Party spin, it is to be exalted. This sort of thing is pretty common in Washington, but to refute your own spin in the very same column in which you offer it is truly mastery of the form. Bravo!

On a related Monday-morning-snark note, much fuss has been made of the NYT’s decision to hire Kristol. From someone who bows to nobody in his strong distaste for the man, I’m forced to wonder whether anybody has considered that the NYT’s duty is not to inform the populace, or foster civic understanding, or even present truth to its readers. It’s to sell ads. And do we think that Kristol is going to provide the Times more or fewer links–and accordingly, more or less ad revenue–than it possessed previously?

REAL ID Regulations Issued

Today, the Department of Homeland Security issued final regulations implementing the REAL ID Act, our moribund national ID law that several states have already refused to implement.

The regulations, in two parts, can be found here and here.

I will have more to say after studying them, but the House Committee on Homeland Security’s chairman has already registered his preliminary objections. Cost issues, the difficulty of implementing this national ID, and privacy issues concern Chairman Thompson, who notes that DHS has spent close to $300 million on programs that have been discontinued because of failure to adhere to privacy laws and regulations.

REAL ID is, of course, a wasteful affront to privacy whether or not DHS follows all the rules. The department is not in a position to correct the errors in this fundamentally misguided policy.

“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.