Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Chastened Much?

Philip Weiss attends an event sponsored by the Middle East Forum in New York with former Cheney aide David Wurmser and reports back. Here’s a snip from the Q and A:

What are the 3 things he would tell John McCain if he were his adviser?

“Let me just bluntly answer that. One, abandon the two-state solution statement that we have right now vis a vis the Palestinians. Two—Well, let me start with number one. Number one is an open, publicly expressed regime-change strategy in Iran. Two, an open expressed regime-change strategy in Syria. 3, abandoning the two-state solution policy we’ve had frankly since the 9/11 attacks…”

One honestly has to wonder, what would it take these folks to learn from the disaster that their bizarre theories begot in Iraq? Meanwhile, today’s Washington Post lets us know (via Eric Martin) that we should keep an eye out for a new NIE on Iraq — except, despite its no doubt being chock-full of great news about how terrific things are over there, the administration apparently doesn’t want to release a version publicly.

As terrifying as each of the presidential candidates is in various ways, it’s going to be a relief when this long national nightmare is over. We deserve, at the very least, a new nightmare.

Happy Birthday, Homeland Security!

I doubt that anyone outside Joe Lieberman’s office is happy with the performance of the Department of Homeland Security, which observed its five-year anniversary this week. To mark the occasion, CQ Homeland Security (part of Congressional Quarterly) asked me and a bunch of more important people to comment on whether creating the department was wise.

The competition for most negative response turned out to be fierce (even Michael Chertoff sounds ambivalent) but I think my entry is a contender. Here’s the first part of what I wrote:

Congress made a large but typical mistake with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security five years ago. James Q. Wilson wrote in 1995 that government reorganizations are usually driven by a perception of crisis that produces a political need to do something quick and extensive. He notes that these circumstances make thoughtful planning for the change unlikely. Reorganizations, he says, are usually victims of a facile urge to clarify lines of authority and end duplication without understanding the incentives of the organizations involved. Congress and the Bush administration followed this model in creating DHS.

The collection of comments is here.

Pentagon to China: Do What We Say, Not What We Do

This week brought the publication of the annual Pentagon report, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China.” As James Fallows will tell you, this is an important document for China threat inflators, who use the report to make all sorts of lurid claims in their efforts to drag us into a Cold War with China. The report itself, while it tends to put a scary spin on things, is relatively sober.

What most irritates me about it (along with its contribution to the overheated cyberwar rhetoric so popular this year) is the implication that China is not allowed to behave like us. Here’s the final paragraph of the executive summary:

The international community has limited knowledge of the motivations, decision-making, and key capabilities supporting China’s military modernization. China’s leaders have yet to explain in detail the purposes and objectives of the PLA’s modernizing military capabilities. For example, China continues to promulgate incomplete defense expenditure figures, and engage in actions that appear inconsistent with its declaratory policies. The lack of transparency in China’s military and security affairs poses risks to stability by increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation. This situation will naturally and understandably lead to hedging against the unknown.

The briefer who presented the report to the media Monday, David Sedney, echoed this bottom line:

The real story is the continuing development, the continuing modernization, the continuing acquisition of capabilities and the corresponding and unfortunate lack of understanding, lack of transparency about the intentions of those and how they are going to be employed. What is China going to do with all that?”

Expanding and modernizing the military for unclear reasons, huh? Are the authors of this stuff completely blind to hypocrisy? The United States spends over $75 billion a year on research and development alone to modernize the military, never mind procurement. The non-war defense budget has grown 37% since Bush took office. And we are far from transparent. Do we not hide about a tenth of our regular defense spending behind a veil of secrecy? I’m confident we’re not giving the international community thorough briefings on our full surveillance capabilities. What about intentions? We’re vaguer than the Chinese. We explicitly justify our defense capabilities based on uncertainty. The Pentagon’s slogan could be, “Hey, it’s expensive, but you never know.” Will we defend Taiwan if China attacks it? Will we bomb Iran? Join in Sudan’s civil war? I study the U.S. defense establishment for a living, and I don’t know our intentions. No one does.

Maybe we should cut back on the lectures and let the Chinese run their own affairs.

The Fierce Urgency of Shame

Last week’s decision by the Air Force to spend up to $100 billion over the next 30 years on an airborne fuel tanker built by a partnership of Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) – rather than by Boeing – offers a teachable moment about an ugly, age-old truth regarding American politics. To wit, well organized political constituencies – and the politicians that cater to them – are perfectly willing to rip off the country for a buck and a vote.

The United States Air Force reports that the Airbus airborne fuel tanker outperforms the Boeing airborne fuel tanker on all five relevant selection criteria. So the issue is quite simple: Should the Air Force buy the best plane possible for the United States military, or should the Air Force buy the best plane possible for some politically well-connected investors and workers and force the military to operate sub-optimal weapons systems as a consequence?

The fact that well organized interest groups – namely, Boeing Corporation and the workers that would be employed by the tanker contract – are unconcerned with the injury they would do to both U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. military in the course of making a few extra bucks should not surprise. It’s a story that could be retold dozens of times over. The fact that Boeing and the workers associated with Boeing wrap themselves up in patriotic garb in the course of hobbling America’s military abroad is what truly grates.

I don’t know whether the military really needs a new airborne fuel tanker, whether a new airborne fuel tanker is a good buy for the taxpayer, or whether the Airbus model really outperforms the Boeing model (and given the track record of military procurement bureaucracies, it’s not unimaginable that the Air Force might have gotten this wrong). I do know, however, that if the military is going to buy one, its decision about what model to buy ought to be based on pure, unadulterated merit – leavened by a concern for getting the best performance bang for the contract buck given the limited resources of the American taxpayer.

Any other consideration forced on the military is a raw declaration that our military’s fighting power should suffer for somebody’s pay check. Those making that argument while boasting about their love for country ought to be deeply ashamed.

Note to the idealists: Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have expressed opposition to the Air Force decision. Now, either they know something about the technical details of the Airbus and Boeing airborne tankers that has escaped the Air Force’s attention, or the promise of a “new politics” is as empty as one might expect.

Chapman Kneecaps McCain

Libertarian columnist Steve Chapman has written what is to date the definitive takedown of John McCain’s various delusions about Iraq. As is Chapman’s wont, it’s a great column overall, packed with substance. Here’s the gist:

McCain portrays himself as uniquely clear-eyed about the war. In fact, those eyes have often been full of stars. When Army Gen. Eric Shinseki forecast that more troops would be needed for the occupation, McCain didn’t fret. Shortly before the invasion, he said, “I have no qualms about our strategic plans.” As the online magazine Salon reports, he predicted the war would be “another chapter in the glorious history of the United States of America.”

He brags now that he criticized Donald Rumsfeld’s handling of the occupation. But McCain didn’t declare “no confidence” in him until a year and a half after the invasion. And let’s not forget the day he took a stroll through a Baghdad market, guarded by attack helicopters and 100 soldiers in full combat mode, to prove how safe Iraq was. The following day, 21 Iraqis were abducted from the market and murdered.

[…]

The point of the surge was to catalyze rapid progress that would facilitate our departure. But now the Pentagon says that come July, we’ll still have more troops than the 132,000 we had before. When Lt. Gen. Carter Ham was asked if the number will fall below 132,000 by the time Bush leaves office, he replied, “It would be premature to say that.”

McCain says the current “strategy is succeeding in Iraq.” His apparent definition of success is that American forces will stay on in huge numbers as long as necessary to keep violence within acceptable limits. We were told we had to increase our numbers so we could leave. Turns out we had to increase our numbers so we could stay.

Five years after the Iraq invasion, we’ve suffered more than 30,000 dead and wounded troops, incurred trillions in costs and found that Iraqis are unwilling to overcome their most basic divisions. And no end is in sight. If you’re grateful for that, thank John McCain.

As has always been the case, men like John McCain define leaving as losing and staying as success. If we stay in Iraq for 100 years, that’s “success.” If we leave, ever, we’ve lost.

I’d only add to Chapman’s column that, before the war, media darling St. John of Arizona was one of the most naive proponents of the “greeted as liberators” school of thought, assuring Larry King on September 24, 2002 that “I believe that the success will be fairly easy.” Five days later, McCain was back on CNN, assuring the American people that “I believe that the United States military capabilities are such that we can win a victory in a relatively short time. And I, again, I don’t think it’s, quote, ‘easy,’ but I believe that we can win an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time.” And so forth.

McCain’s claim to straight-talking rectitude on Iraq today is based solely on the fact that the Washington narrative has been changed as a result of The Surge. It’s almost as if it was designed to have just such an effect.

The Arms Race Myth?

Richard Perle has an interesting op-ed on missile defense in Monday’s Washington Post. The point is that arms races aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be; arms controllers’ belief in an iron-clad law of politics saying that rival states engage in arms races is wishful thinking driven by opposition to arms. He’s more right than wrong.

Perle does overstate his point. He claims that there was not arms racing during the Cold War. Wrong. The US-Soviet nuclear weapons dynamic during the Cold War, to use Sam Huntington’s famous distinction, can be accurately described as a quantitative arms race until the 1970s, when the competition became more qualitative. All along, because US nuclear weapons policy consistently aimed at making a preemptive first strike against Soviet nukes possible (mutually assured destruction was a lot of talk never reflected in weapons policy), you could reasonably call our behavior arms racing. Early on, the Air Force largely based its preferred number of bombers and ICBMs on the number of Soviet nuclear weapons launchers – whether bombers or missiles – and routinely exaggerated those numbers for bureaucratic purposes. Later, when arms limitations talks like SALT occurred, we limited total numbers of platforms but strove for higher accuracy to maximize our ability to pull off a disarming strike.

But Perle’s overall point is still accurate. The Cold War was unique. Today pundits often argue that if we build a missile defense system that works against their missiles, the Russians and Chinese will just build more missiles to overwhelm it. Maybe. But this begs the question of why the Russians have been letting their nuclear arsenal (particularly early warning radar) decay since the Cold War, to the point where people like Keir Lieber and my former Professor Daryl Press can write that we have gained a first strike capability against Russia. One reason the Russians let this happen, presumably, is that they were broke, which would imply that they’ll fix things now that they’re not. Another explanation, however, is that the Cold War ended, and they stopped caring about the nuclear balance.

If that condition holds, Russia might view our missile defense system as a nuisance not worth great expense. They probably still dislike an image of weakness, largely because of Russian domestic politics. Putin may therefore bluster that he would never let the US get too large a nuclear lead, but that is more about symbolism that true responses. Where the rubber meets the road, they may avoid investing enough to match us. No arms race. Maybe they’ll settle for simple qualitative steps like developing decoys that can overwhelm the system. That could be called an arms race, but not much of one.

Likewise, since it built nuclear weapons, China has lived under the shadow of a possible disarming first strike from us (and for years, probably the USSR). They have showed little inclination to deal with this situation by making their missiles mobile, building far more, or deploying nuclear missiles on submarines. Today they are moving anemically toward developing those submarines, it appears, and making their ICBMs mobile. But they are not investing heavily in those capabilities. If they’re in a race to assure a deterrent capability against us, it’s a very slow one. Perhaps this is a legacy of our friendly late Cold War relations. Maybe it’s a hedging strategy born of poverty, which is disappearing. Maybe they figure 20 ICBMs is enough to keep us from getting too confident. Whatever the case, it is hardly inevitable that their reaction to our missile defense efforts will be to build-up to overwhelm our system. That depends on lots of conditions, especially the state of bilateral relations. The more we label them as the object of our arms, the more likely this buildup is.

Unlike Perle, by the way, I’m not for national missile defense – not twelve billion a year of it, anyway. It’s wasteful. One reason is that the conditions of hostility likely to make it useful vis-à-vis rich states are precisely the conditions that would cause those states to arms race enough to overwhelm it (assuming, heroically, that it worked). But neither am I alarmed by missiles defense’s independent implications for international relations. That depends on a lot more than defense systems.

Donnelly on the Surge

AEI’s Thomas Donnelly writes for the Weekly Standard blog:

More moderate Democrats are increasingly adjusting to the reality that the Iraq surge has been a military success, and that it is starting to create conditions for workable political compromise in Baghdad as well as Iraq’s provinces–see, for example, the air of desperation that has seized the hard-core anti-war crowd. Yet today’s Washington Post carries an op-ed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta clearly intended to intimidate Democratic candidates into sticking to their withdrawal pledges no matter what happens in Iraq. The article’s headline, “A War We Must End,” is a hint of the pay-no-attention-to-the-facts nature of the argument.

Donnelly’s readers might be interested in this shocking nugget buried in a smart op-ed by Andrew Bacevich a few weeks back:

In only one respect has the surge achieved undeniable success: It has ensured that U.S. troops won’t be coming home anytime soon. This was one of the main points of the exercise in the first place. As AEI military analyst Thomas Donnelly has acknowledged with admirable candor, “part of the purpose of the surge was to redefine the Washington narrative,” thereby deflecting calls for a complete withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. Hawks who had pooh-poohed the risks of invasion now portrayed the risks of withdrawal as too awful to contemplate. But a prerequisite to perpetuating the war – and leaving it to the next president – was to get Iraq off the front pages and out of the nightly news. At least in this context, the surge qualifies as a masterstroke. From his new perch as a New York Times columnist, William Kristol has worried that feckless politicians just might “snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.” Not to worry: The “victory” gained in recent months all but guarantees that the United States will remain caught in the jaws of Iraq for the foreseeable future.

Something to keep in mind when Donnelly and his fellow-travelers comment on the surge’s impact on the Washington narrative.

My boss Chris Preble was beating this drum weeks ago in the American Prospect.