Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Slate on Cato Conference

Michael Newman, Slate’s politics editor, writes up the counterterrorism conference we held here two weeks ago. It’s an OK article, and we appreciate the publicity. The trouble is that Newman tries to stuff a conference summary into a theme about Libertarians and Obama. Hence the title, “Cozying Up to the New Guy: Libertarians are oddly hopeful about the Obama administration.” That may be a good hook, it may even be generally true, but it creates a misleading impression here. So at the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, I have several complaints.

First, Cato’s defense and foreign policy scholars have repeatedly attacked the Obama team for its adherence to the flawed, bipartisan counterterrorism and defense strategy that it inherited. See here and here for starters. I’m not sure who is cozying up.

Second, the article imagines a strategic rationale behind the conference – Cato thinks it can most influence Obama on issues related to terrorism and is therefore directing its energies there. Not really. There is no singular “Cato view” on these matters or any other. Several scholars here had an interest in counterterrorism policy, and organized a project, which included a public conference, on it. The conference would have happened regardless of who was President. Sure, we’d like the policy-makers in the executive branch to adopt a more sensible perspective about terrorism than their predecessors. But we’d also like Congress, the public, and the media to adopt that view.

Third, Newman gets the theme of the conference right – terror is as big a problem as the terrorism that sparks it – but Slate readers may get the impression that this was just a bunch of libertarians saying so. In fact, the speakers came from across the ideological spectrum. To the extent that they agree, and not all do, it shows that these policies are common-sense, even if they remain unconventional.

Finally, the article says that: “Think tank experts aren’t stupid.” I would have started that sentence with “most.”

De-Emphasis 101

Greg Pierce of the Washington TimesInside Politics column recently investigated whether the Obama administration was dropping the overwrought phrase “war on terror.”

De-emphasizing the war metaphor would be a significant change. But if it is a deliberate change, the White House does not want to acknowledge it.

You see, trumpeting de-emphasis doesn’t generally work…

Saying Nothing Gives Obama the Upper Hand

A terrific Washington Post article on Al-Qaeda’s reaction to Barack Obama features Paul Pillar of Georgetown, who chaired one of the panels in our recent conference on counterterrorism strategy.

The article, titled “To Combat Obama, Al-Qaeda Hurls Insults” is a great window into the rhetorical battle that terrorists seek with their opponents.

Al-Qaeda’s leaders are desperately trying to paint the United States during an Obama Administration as equivalent to the United States during a Bush Administration. Among audiences close to them ideologically and physically, they must maintain the narrative that our country is a font of evil. If they don’t, they’ll lose people’s interest, they’ll lose recruits, and they’ll lose support.

At the conference (video and audio available here), Marc Sageman observed how confounded by Obama the conversations on jihadi Web sites have been. It just doesn’t square with their thesis about the United States to have the grandson of a Kenyan goatherd become president.

The right response to the epithets Al-Qaeda lobs is nothing. Al-Qaeda’s virulence toward Obama would be rewarded if it drew the U.S. president out, and comment from any high official would confirm the importance of that group to the audiences Al-Qaeda is trying to influence.

Feith: Bush Snookered Country into War

If, like me, you have a masochistic streak and aren’t yet tired of peeling back the layers of hubris, sophistry, stupidity and arrogance behind the war in Iraq, you might want to pick up the latest copy of Political Science Quarterly, with a review essay by Robert Jervis covering George Tenet’s and Douglas Feith’s books side-by-side. (Sorry, the essay isn’t online.)

In it, Jervis wades through a lot of the sorry history we already know, but makes some interesting observations and teases out some striking inferences, particularly from Feith’s book, of which he is more critical. Perhaps the most interesting argument Jervis makes in the piece is that, by any fair definition of the verb “to lie,” Feith makes clear that the administration lied in taking the country to war:

Feith’s central justification for the war is that even without active WMD programs or ties to al Qaeda, Saddam’s regime was by virtue of its tyrannical nature and previous behavior such a menace that it had to be removed. Inspections would fail not because Saddam might hide things, but because they were irrelevant to the real problem. This makes some sense, but renders the administration’s public position dishonest, since it insisted that its target was Saddam’s WMD programs, not his regime. In Feith’s telling, even if Saddam had cooperated with the inspectors, had shown that he was not actively pursuing WMD, and had dismantled some dubious equipment, he would have remained an intolerable threat because he could have resumed his dangerous activities at some time in the future. ”President Bush had already committed his Administration to changing the regime in Iraq” (p. 305), just as the critics claimed. The diplomacy and the insistence on inspections were a charade; only by going into exile or being replaced in a coup could Saddam have avoided an invasion, and not only were these possibilities slim, they risked leaving in place the Baathist regime, which is why Feith opposed such proposals when they emanated from the CIA (p. 200). Thus, although only in January 2003 did Bush tell his cabinet that “war is inevitable” (p. 342), in fact this was implicit much earlier. While Feith is correct to say that the administration did not lie about its mistaken beliefs that Saddam had active WMD programs and perhaps believed that [he] had ties to al Qaeda, if his account is correct, these were not the essential grounds for war.


Dean Acheson justified the extreme rhetoric in the early years of the Cold War by the need to make things “clearer than truth.” This is not unusual, although not immune from criticism.  But if Feith is correct, what Bush did was much more than exaggerate and present the world in excessively vivid colors. The misrepresentation was fundamental. Feith sees the administration’s failure to clearly present its reasoning as a missed opportunity to build support for the long-term war on terrorism. I doubt it, but it does mean that if Feith’s understanding of the administration’s policy is correct, it lied to the American people about why they needed to go to war.

Jervis has done a lot of work on this topic (see here, for example), and has a book coming out on intelligence and intelligence failures. He is also the author of a (the?) text on the psychology of international politics.

Week in Review

Cato Scholars Comment on Obama Inauguration Speech

When Barack Obama stepped to the microphone as President of the United States on Tuesday, he addressed a number of key policy issues, including government spending, terrorism and responsible leadership. After two years of examining candidate Obama’s rhetoric and policy proposals, Cato scholars weigh in on Obama’s first words as president:

John Samples, director of Cato’s Center for Representative Government, offers his take on what he considers the major theme of Obama’s speech: Responsibility. Samples writes:

Obama’s modest demeanor suggests an understanding of his own limitations. If that is true, he may turn out to be more a politician and less a priest, a president content to live within the laws and achieve marginal changes in public policy.

But I wonder. Living in Washington, DC, I have recently had reason to recall Samuel Johnson’s remark about Shakespeare: “In his plays, there are no heroes, only men.” Obama seems to be telling a different story, a tale about charismatic heroes and utopian aspirations. When the talking stops and the doing begins, one question will be answered: Do Americans really want to live out a play where there are no men, only heroes?

In his inaugural address, Obama promised to eliminate government programs that don’t work. Daniel T. Griswold, director of Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, says cutting farm subsidies is a great place to start:

If Senator and candidate Obama could not see the need to end our failed farm policies, it is hard to imagine many if any other programs that will come to an end under his administration.

Director of Information Policy Studies Jim Harper breaks down Obama’s rhetoric on foreign policy and terrorism:

I regret that he raised terrorism again because of the benefit it gives terrorists (knowing that they are in his head). But if it is going to be raised, I can’t think of a better way to do so — no reference to any specific group, just a declaration to anyone considering terrorism: You will lose.

Looking Back at the Bush Legacy

If Barack Obama has anything for which to thank George W. Bush, it’s the massive amount of executive power the Bush administration left for the new president. Citing a recent Washington Post article, Cato executive vice president David Boaz laments Bush’s gift to America’s 44th president.

To see exactly how much Bush has expanded the hand of government into the market, Cato senior fellow Michael D. Tanner lists 14 ways the former president made the market less free. For more on how the conservatives increased the size of government, don’t miss Tanner’s book, Leviathan on the Right: How Big Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.

To add insult to injury, the Washington Post reports that Bush’s post-presidential plans will include starting a “Freedom Institute focused on a broad portfolio of topics, including the expansion of democracy abroad and education reforms of the kind Bush implemented during his presidency, according to organizers.”

George W. Bush is starting a Freedom Institute? In the words of David Boaz, “Coming next: The Clinton Center for Honesty and the Paris Hilton Center for Modesty.”

Obama Continues to Push For Stimulus

President Obama continues to pitch his stimulus plan to the American public. Four days before his inauguration, Obama said, “The way I see it, the first job of my administration is to put people back to work and get our economy working again.” As determined as his administration may be, Cato analysts continue to explain why Keynesian plans like the one Obama is proposing will end up hurting the economy more than helping it.

In November, Cato adjunct scholar Lawrence H. White explained how Americans got themselves into the financial crisis, and he urges that government spending is not a solution to get out of it. “You can’t solve an excessive spending problem by spending more. We are making the crisis worse,” he writes in a new article co-authored with David C. Rose. “We have been down this road before. Most recessions start with the bursting of bubbles that grew large because of excessive money growth. But again and again, we presume a Keynesian cause and a Keynesian cure. Our recent stock market and housing market crashes can prove to be the start of a sound and rapid recovery — if we will have the courage to let it be so.”

While Obama proposes an $850 billion stimulus bill, the federal deficit hovers around an astonishing $2 trillion. Can we afford such a massive spending program of taxpayer money? Obama may answer, “Yes we can,” but David Boaz says, “No we can’t.”

Cato analysts aren’t just writing about why stimulus proposals don’t make sound economic policy; they’re also hitting up the airwaves. Watch Cato senior fellow Daniel J. Mitchell discuss TARP, politicians’ love for spending, and Obama’s economic plan on CNBC.

To receive this report regularly, subscribe to the Cato Weekly Dispatch.

Terrorism Hysteria Watch

One aim of the conference we held last week at Cato (watch it here) was to encourage the country to adopt a more grown-up approach to combating terrorism — less fear-mongering, more confidence, or as James Fallows put it, “reclaiming Gary Cooper, not Chicken Little, as our national icon.” Chicken-littleism has political causes that we can’t change. But pointing out threat inflation should at least make its authors think twice.

To that end, here are three recent examples of officials or the media hyping terrorist capability.

1. Senator Kit Bond, at Dennis Blair’s confirmation hearing as Director of National Intelligence, said the following:

Our entire way of life is just a few moments away from annihilation if terrorists succeed in obtaining a weapon of mass destruction.

Nonsense. Our way of life survived various wars, the virtual destruction of a large swath of New Orleans, and other disasters. It would survive even nuclear terrorism. Incidents of chemical or biological terrorism are unlikely to cause mass casualties, although they could, and will not collapse our institutions. The danger to American values comes more from our reaction to terrorism than the thing itself. What’s more, these sorts of incidents are not nearly as likely as you generally hear.

Many national security experts and politicians believe that our society is brittle, that even a well-timed cyber attack could cripple our economy and institutions. This idea is akin to strategic airpower theory, which argues that the destruction of a few pressure points can halt a nation’s industrial output and cause its surrender. History proves this theory wrong. Industrial societies are resilient. The transition to a more information-based economy makes this doubly true. Information is hard to destroy, for one, living as it does in dispersed networks and brains. Second, lowered communications and transport costs make us less dependent on any particular supplier or region, making recovery from supply disruptions easier. And our wealth provides further insurance against disaster.

2. The Washington Times and the British tabloid The Sun credulously report on a rumor that bubonic plague struck al Qaeda in the Land of the Maghreb, a jihadist outfit in Algeria, after a biological weapons experiment went wrong. What they fail to point out is that, if an outbreak did occur, it was probably a natural occurrence. For more on the factual problems with these articles, see the Armchair Generalist blog (which has been on its own terrorism hysteria watch for the last couple weeks).

3. This story from Government Executive claims that

Terrorists could seize medical equipment that use radioactive isotopes and build dirty bombs that could blanket an area the size of Manhattan, warned a new report from the Defense Science Board.

The article dwells on this possibility without giving any space to plausibility. Dispersing radioactive material (here cesium-137) in a plume that engulfs an area the size of Manhattan would be quite difficult. Nor is it clear that the long-term increase in background radiation would have adverse health consequences in more than a few square blocks. We should certainly worry about such things, particularly given people’s reaction to words like “radiation,” but articles ought to provide caveats about their scary claims. Sure, it’s tough to do so on deadline, but the author could have simply called someone like Henry Kelly.

Close Guantanamo Bay

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, Legal Policy Analyst David H. Rittgers explains why President Obama’s order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center will serve the fight against terrorism. Rittgers, who served three tours of service in Afghanistan as a special forces officer, says the move to close Gitmo couldn’t come at a better time.

In his own words:

Using closed courts to try suspected terrorists plays the propaganda game in exactly the way our enemies want, and cheapens American justice on the world stage. Terrorism and insurgency constitute violence with a message. To effectively counter terrorists, we must provide a message of our own that denies a propaganda victory to their cause. Meting sound and irreproachable justice is an important way to do that.

While serving as a Special Forces officer in Afghanistan, I took into account the Taliban’s propaganda purposes when planning operations. They didn’t need to kill us to win a small victory. They needed to shoot at us and run away to tell the tale, where fishing stories of exaggerated casualties could encourage ever larger groups of radicalized fighters to attack the Afghans and their American allies.