Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Since the Middle East Is Under Control, Let’s Rattle Russia’s Cage

Fred Kaplan has a sharp piece on Slate on the recent push to deploy a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland, and the inevitable Russian fits over same.

The only thing I’d add to the Kaplan piece is to observe the ongoing and remarkable refusal on the part of the administration to accept the concept of tradeoffs in its foreign policy. We would like it very much if the Russians would become more amenable to adopting a US-friendly approach on Iran in the Security Council. Fine. But to expect them to do so while we steamroll their interests in Central and Eastern Europe is more than a bit naive.

The Chinese Defense Budget: Myths and Reality

About a month ago, I noticed that Heritage Senior Research Fellow John J. Tkacik, Jr. had argued that China’s defense spending equaled $450 billion, closing in on the U.S. defense spending figure. I thought this was bizarre, but didn’t devote a lot of time to figuring out how Mr. Tkacik had come up with such a figure.

But now I see that Heritage president Ed Feulner has taken to the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times to advance Mr. Tkacik’s claim, so it may merit some debunking at this point.

The claim that China’s defense budget amounts to “about what America spends” is absurd. Dr. Feulner is using a macroeconomic tool that gives a completely erroneous assessment of Chinese military spending.

Purchasing power parity is useful as a heuristic for comparing the overall economies of nations, because it accounts for the fact that one dollar—in U.S. currency—buys a different amount of a fixed basket of goods in one country than in another. Think of attempting to buy, say, one dollar’s worth of rice in the United States and one dollar’s worth in China. One could get more rice for a dollar in China, and PPP is a useful way of observing that fact.

However, as the highly respected International Institute for Strategic Studies warns, PPP’s “use for the purpose of [defense] calculations should be treated with caution.” Dr. Feulner does not heed this warning. He starts by taking the highest available estimate of Chinese defense spending—which is too high to begin with—and then blankets the total figure with the PPP conversion rate, yielding a figure of $450 billion. This ignores the fact that much of Chinese spending is dedicated to foreign military hardware—such as Russian airplanes—and other assets to which PPP should not be applied. Accordingly, IISS has begun, this year, applying PPP only to the personnel and other relevant costs of the Chinese military, since the comparison of “one dollar’s worth of soldier” applies relatively better.

Another problem with the argument that China’s military budget is as large as America’s is the question “Where’s All the Stuff?” If China is spending as much on its military as is the United States, where are the aircraft carriers? (America has 12, China 0.) Where are the many fleets of long-range bombers? What about our thousands of nuclear weapons compared to China’s couple hundred? If Dr. Feulner’s estimate held, the Chinese are being reassuringly wasteful with their money.

The attempt on the part of Mr. Tkacik and Dr. Feulner to inject a figure of $450 billion into the debate over Chinese defense spending does a profound disservice to a rational discussion of U.S. China policy. It is a stunning claim that threatens to create a seriously misleading picture of the People’s Liberation Army.

A “War” of Words

In this week’s Sunday Washington Post, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff responds to former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski’s March 25 piece Terrorized by ‘War on Terror.’

Brzezinski described how the “War on Terror” meme is undermining the United States’ national interests, “a classic self-inflicted wound”:

The “war on terror” has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration’s elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America’s psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us.

Though Brzezinski assigns more cynicism to the current administration in its approach to Iran than might be warranted, his insights are powerful:

The culture of fear is like a genie that has been let out of its bottle. It acquires a life of its own – and can become demoralizing. America today is not the self-confident and determined nation that responded to Pearl Harbor; nor is it the America that heard from its leader, at another moment of crisis, the powerful words “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; nor is it the calm America that waged the Cold War with quiet persistence despite the knowledge that a real war could be initiated abruptly within minutes and prompt the death of 100 million Americans within just a few hours. We are now divided, uncertain and potentially very susceptible to panic in the event of another terrorist act in the United States itself.

Susceptible to panic, indeed. With the groundwork for that panic laid by our own leaders.

Chertoff’s response is essentially a confession to Brzezinski’s insights. “Make No Mistake: This Is War” starts with the obligatory - and, frankly, tired - 9/11 reference:

As the rubble of the Twin Towers smoldered in 2001, no one could have imagined a day when America’s leaders would be criticized for being tough in protecting Americans from further acts of war.Now, less than six years later, that day has arrived.

His next step is a surprisingly tawdry attempt to link Brzezinski with the minuscule fringe of 9/11 conspiracy theorists.

Since Sept. 11, a conspiracy-minded fringe has claimed that American officials plotted the destruction. But when scholars such as Zbigniew Brzezinski accuse our leaders of falsely depicting or hyping a “war on terror” to promote a “culture of fear,” it’s clear that historical revisionism has gone mainstream.

Chertoff’s next shot is stunningly revealing.

The impulse to minimize the threat we face is eerily reminiscent of the way America’s leaders played down the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary fanaticism in the late 1970s. That naive approach ultimately foundered on the kidnapping of our diplomats in Tehran.

In translation: “Your caution with Iran, Brzezinski, brought down President Carter’s administration. We’re not making that mistake.”

Iran was a threat to the Carter administration, and Iran is a threat to the Bush administration. But is it a threat to our country? Secretary Chertoff appears focused on defending the current political regime, not on assuring the American people of their security.

There is much more to commend these two pieces. On the “war” question, Chertoff says: “Well, the short answer comes from our enemies. Osama bin Laden’s fatwa of Feb. 23, 1998, was a declaration of war … .”

Chertoff has apparently ceded control of the Department of Defense to bin Laden, who said in October 2004, “All that we have to do is to send two Mujahideen to the furthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses … .” It’s hard not to conclude that our relatively less powerful terrorist opponents are playing our political leaders like a fiddle.

Speaking of the Department of Defense, if there is an actual “War on Terror,” one would expect the Secretary of Defense to make that case.

Link Analysis and 9/11

In our paper Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining, Jeff Jonas and I pointed out the uselessness of data mining for finding terrorists. The paper was featured in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this year, and a data mining disclosure bill discussed in that hearing was recently marked up in that Committee.

On his blog, Jeff has posted some further thinking about 9/11 and searching for terrorists. He attacks a widespread presumption about that task forthrightly:

The whole point of my 9/11 analysis was that the government did not need mounds of data, did not need new technology, and in fact did not need any new laws to unravel this event!

He links to a presentation about finding the 9/11 terrorists and how it could have been done by simply following one lead to another.

Jeff feels strongly that Monday morning quarterbacking is unfair, and I agree with him. Nobody in our national security infrastructure knew the full scope of what would happen on 9/11, and so they aren’t blameworthy. Yet we should not shrink from the point that diligent seeking after the 9/11 terrorists, using traditional methods and the legal authorities existing at the time, would have found them.

Morbid Comparisons

On Monday, a student at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 of his colleagues and then himself – the most deadly peacetime shooting incident in U.S. history. Many Americans are still grieving about this incident and are puzzled about what would lead a young man to such deadly behavior.

On Wednesday, terrorists killed 312 civilians in Iraq, including 140 civilians in a truck bombing across from the busy Sadriya market in a mostly Shi’ite neighborhood in Baghdad, only hours after Prime Minister al-Maliki committed the Iraqi government to assume responsibility for security by the end of this year. The deaths due to the terrorism in Iraq on Wednesday substantially exceeded the high level of recent terrorism. Terrorists killed 500 Iraqi civilians last week, including 47 civilians killed when a suicide bomber blew up a car at a busy bus station in Karbala.  A truck bomb destroyed a major bridge across the Tigris River, and a suicide bomber penetrated the fortress-like Green Zone, blowing himself up inside the parliament cafeteria and killing one member of parliament. Moreover, last week was not unusual in Iraq. Over the past year, terrorist attacks killed 73 Iraqi civilians per day, including those by the 17 bombings that killed 50 or more civilians. (These estimates are from press releases by Antiwar.com and are based on reports in the Iraqi press).

Most Americans have no comprehension of the level of terrorism in Iraq. Since the American population is 12 times the Iraqi population, the above numbers should be multiplied by 12 to understand the relative magnitude of terrorist activities in the United States and Iraq. At the recent rate of terrorist activities in Iraq, around 876 Americans per day would be killed by terrorist attacks! At that rate, Americans would be experiencing a level of grief and despair beyond our current comprehension.

I draw several lessons from this morbid comparison: There is every reason to improve our understanding of the motives that led to the massacre at Virginia Tech and the responses that might have reduced the number of fatalities, because the victims were Americans and these conditions are more likely to be under our control. At the same time, we should recognize that the presence of a substantial number of American troops in Iraq may have contributed to but, at least, has not reduced the extraordinary rate of terrorism, that more troops or different tactics are not likely to be more successful, and that the several civil wars underway in Iraq are not under our control. We have an important stake in reducing the number of future incidents like that at Virginia Tech and Oklahoma City. It is much less clear that we have an important stake in the outcome of the several civil wars in Iraq.

If You’re in North Carolina …

I’ll be speaking tomorrow at the Security and Liberty Forum hosted by the Privacy and Technology Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the Department of Computer Science, UNC-Chapel Hill.

That’s Saturday, April 14, 2007 from 1-5 p.m., Chapman Hall on the UNC Campus.

It’s Official—Democratic Leaders Want a Third War

Yesterday, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) made clear what many of us have been suspecting for some time: the Democrats want to “redeploy” out of Iraq and into Sudan. Unfortunately, the full transcripts aren’t on Nexis yet, but here’s Biden:

“I would use American force now. I think it’s not only time not to take force off the table. I think it’s time to put force on the table and use it.”

“Let’s stop the bleeding. I think it’s a moral imperative.”

Whatever one’s views on the merits of starting a third war with an Islamic country in the span of six years, what was most alarming was Biden’s desire to look past the fact that what is going on in Darfur is essentially a civil war. There are two sides fighting, and multiple rebel groups that make up the resistance. Still, he practically begged US envoy Andrew Natsios (who, in fairness, doesn’t have the soundest track record) to overlook the fact that atrocities are being committed on both sides, and to reduce the conflict into Good Guys vs. Bad Guys so that we could get involved. Here’s a part of that exchange (link is to an audio clip):

BIDEN: Are the atrocities that are being carried out sanctioned by, cooperated with, or blind eye being turned by Khartoum, umm, not significantly greater than the atrocities that are occurring at the hands of the rebels?

NATSIOS: There is no equivalency whatsoever, Senator.

BIDEN: Well, I wish you’d stop talking about it–

NATSIOS: Well, I’m talking about it, Senator, because the rebels think they can get away with it. And it’s getting worse, and what’s happening is no one’s saying anything about it because it’s politically sensitive. We can’t let any civilian get–

BIDEN: No, it’s not politically sensitive, I mean, why won’t you just say, is genocide still the operative word?

NATSIOS: Yes.

BIDEN: So genocide is occurring in Darfur?

NATSIOS: Yes.

This is illustrative of the nature of so many foreign policy debates in Washington. If someone can get the other side to agree to a slogan of their side (“Saddam is a threat to global security,” say), then the debate ends. If “genocide” is occurring in Darfur, fire up the B-2s. And never mind all the “nuance” about the nature of what’s actually going on and who’s killing whom over there. If Biden had been reading his New York Times more closely, he would know that things aren’t so simple.

Biden’s unrelenting attempt to interpret a highly complex civil war where America has no discernible security interest through the lens of Bush-style Manichaeanism doesn’t inspire much confidence in the Democrats’ vision of U.S. national security policy. (And to the extent we do have a security interest, it’s probably in acquiescing to Khartoum, since they’ve sporadically cooperated with the war against al Qaeda and would probably be less likely to continue doing so if we start a war with them.)

The whole thing harkens back to when Howard Dean was simultaneously standing against the Iraq war and favoring U.S. military action in, umm, Liberia.