Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

A Case for Climbing Out of the Middle East

Cato-at-liberty readers frustrated with the United States’ travails in the Middle East may want to have a look at John Mearsheimer’s article in the current Newsweek, “Rebalancing the Middle East.”  Mearsheimer makes the case for offshore balancing, which is to say removing forward deployed U.S. forces from the region and scaling back our objectives to center on merely precluding one power from gaining hegemony over the whole region.  He closes on this note:

Offshore balancing wouldn’t eliminate all the problems we face in the Middle East. But it would be considerably less expensive in both human and financial terms. It’s not a foolproof strategy, but it’s probably as close as we can get.

Mearsheimer’s version is a lot less “offshore” than some of us would like, but his case is worth a look.  Trying to run the Middle East is just one fruitless government program we could cut and save trillions of dollars in the coming years.  Libertarians ought to consider it.

Are We Keeping Gates’ Defense Budget?

Barack Obama’s apparent decision to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is popular in the Beltway. One thing pundits admire is Gates’ talk about sacrificing expensive weapons systems designed for peer competitors to pay for the counterinsurgency campaigns that we are fighting. What Gates’ fans don’t point out is he has done little more than talk. Under his watch, the Pentagon recently drafted a fiscal year 2010 defense budget that requests a $60 billion increase over FY 2009 spending, not including war costs. That is a departure from prior Pentagon plans that envisioned defense spending leveling off next year. The 2010 budget proposal comes with a new five-year plan that would boost spending by $450 billion. The increase would avoid the kind of painful choices that Gates has discussed.

This request sets up a dilemma for the Obama administration. There are indications that the Democratic leadership on the Hill wants to contain defense spending to help pay for the proliferating bailouts. But the Pentagon’s plan is, by most accounts, an attempt to box Obama in – even a decision to hold spending at last year’s level could be called a cut, and open the President up to attack from the right. The services and Bush administration, including Gates, would like to fix defense spending at over four percent of GDP, even if the wars wind down and GDP resumes its normal growth. This budget serves that purpose, which is devoid of strategic rationale.

Ideally, Obama would force massive cuts on the Pentagon. Its budget is already far too big. At a minimum, if only to demonstrate that he won’t be bullied by the bureaucracy, Obama should tell the Pentagon to rewrite its proposed budget without the increase. If Obama is keeping Gates’ spending ideas along with Gates, it is one more indication that Obama’s defense policy is likely to be a kindlier, gentler version of Bush’s, a more competent imperialism.

The Broad-Mindedness of Richard Holbrooke

Lots of scuttlebutt today involving the name “Richard Holbrooke.”  An emblem of the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment, Holbrooke is revered by some for his ruthlessness and ability to crack heads.  A dedicated global interventionist, Holbrooke is high on the list of “people antiwar Democrats don’t want involved in an Obama administration.”  In addition to ruthlessness, let’s take a walk down memory lane and attempt to determine how well Holbrooke would fit in an Obama administration that is supposed by many to be broad minded and determined to evaluate all arguments on a policy before leaping in.  Here’s Holbrooke in 1994 chairing a meeting with mid-level officials to discuss NATO expansion:

Without having spoken to [Anthony] Lake or to the president, Holbrooke told the interagency group that there was a presidential policy to enlarge NATO that needed implementation.  Holbrooke also made clear that [Warren] Christopher had asked him to set up and run the mechanism to expand NATO.

The new assistant secretary of state had a reputation for abrasiveness, and at this meeting, he demonstrated why.  General [Wesley] Clark has recalled:

[Joseph] Kruzel spoke first, since he was the policy guy, and said, “Why is this the policy?  It’s supposed to be an interagency process.”  Holbrooke crushed him like a bug.  He said, “It is policy.”  Ash Carter walked out of the room.  Then, as the meeting was about to conclude, I said, “I don’t know that a decision has been made.”  Holbrooke said, “Anyone questioning this is disloyal to the country and to the president.”  My ears turned bright red…and I demanded that he take it back.  The room stopped.  I got ready to leave.  Holbrooke took it back.

That’s from James Goldgeier, Not Whether But When, pp. 73-74.  So here you have it.  Pursuing disastrous policies while impugning the motives of career military officials and labeling them anti-American if they have the temerity to object?  Check.  As compared to the tactics of the Bush administration, that’s not exactly “change,” but I sure can believe it.

Not Just a Program with Problems, a Program with Constitutional Problems

Recent reporting on the weakness of behavioral profiling in airports has overlooked a key dimension of the problem with it.

According to this story in USA Today, interviewing or patting down 160,000 people with (unreported) indicia of suspicion at airports has resulted in 1,266 arrests. It has failed to find wrongdoing 99.3% of the time. Occasionally, investigations based on behavioral profiling have turned up such things as drug possession and the use of fake identification.

Behavioral profiling has never turned up someone planning harm to aviation security. It has never turned up a person with weapons, guns, bombs, or any other implement that would cause a flight to be delayed, much less brought down.

A 0.7% success rate in finding crime is not relevant. Behavioral profiling has a 0% success rate in finding threats to aviation. Behavioral profiling does not have a proximate relationship to securing against harm coming to commercial aviation.

The Fourth Amendment requires searches and seizures to be reasonable. Courts give law enforcement considerable leeway and often use the stamp “experienced officer” to grant the police broad authority to follow hunches. What we have here, though, is a basis for suspicion that has a 100% failure rate. It never finds what it is looking for.

It may be argued that the consequence of an aviation security breach is so great that behavioral profiling, despite its failings, is “reasonable.” But this argument proves too much.

If national security authorities developed a theory that vans with dented doors are likely to carry nuclear materials, this reasoning would allow the search of any van with dented doors. The consequence of a nuclear blast, of course, is thousands of times higher than an attack on aviation. But a wrong theory is still a wrong theory. The fact that searching vans for nuclear weapons turns up stolen goods 0.7% of the time would not save it. Arguing for the leeway to use a false basis for suspicion because of the size of the potential danger is simply a cleverly cloaked argument for a general warrant, which the Fourth Amendment prohibits.

In the future, there are likely to be more cases where statistical probabilities replace such things as the hunches of “experienced officers” in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. It is important to remember that suspicion properly arises from observing behaviors that are both consistent with unlawful behavior (the part people remember) and inconsistent with lawful behavior (the part people often forget).

Exhibiting stress in airports — a likely part of behavioral profiling — is consistent with terrorism planning, yes, but it is also consistent with: arriving late, disagreeing with a travel companion, missing a flight, feeling sick, missing loved ones, being disorganized, fearing the security bureaucracy, and so on, and so on, and so on. There is not a rational relationship between exhibiting stress in airports and threats to aviation security. (A discussion of these concepts in the data mining context appears on page 9 of my paper with Jeff Jonas, “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining.”)

Behavioral profiling is an unreasonable basis for search and seizure. Any arrest based on it is in violation of travelers’ constitutional rights.

Balko: Three for TSA

Radley Balko has nominated me to head the Transportation Security Agency. It’s a kind compliment. His column this week has some good ideas in it, too.

Fellow nominee Bruce Schneier doesn’t want the job. Of Bruce’s refusal, Radley says:

[I]t sorta’ reminds me of what a retired police chief once told me about how he staffed his SWAT team. He said he’d ask for volunteers, then disqualify every officer who raised his hand. He added, “The guys who want the job are the last ones who should have it.”

That leaves John Mueller, whose excellent 2004 Regulation magazine article “A False Sense of Insecurity?” has stood the test of time. His insight into the strategic logic of terrorism will eventually turn around our country’s maladjusted approach to securing against terrorism.

Measuring “Success” in the War on Drugs in Mexico

The Economist had a story a few weeks ago on the recent developments of Mexico’s war on drugs. According to the magazine:

“At least 4,000 people have been murdered in violence involving traffickers so far this year. Officials say that is a sign that government pressure [on drug gangs] is having an effect.”

Their measurement of success is quite macabre; more people are dying in Mexico, including innocent bystanders who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This would be a tragedy in any other scenario, except for the twisted logic behind the war on drugs.

In related news, the head of Interpol in Mexico was arrested today for alleged collaboration with organized crime. I can’t wait to see how the drug warriors present this development as a “success.”

Cato Today

White Paper: “How Did we Get into This Financial Mess?,” by Lawrence H. White

The actual causes of our financial troubles were unusual monetary policy moves and novel federal regulatory interventions. These poorly chosen policies distorted interest rates and asset prices, diverted loanable funds into the wrong investments, and twisted normally robust financial institutions into unsustainable positions.

Op-Ed: “Eliminate U.S. Presence,” by Christopher A. Preble in USA Today

Iraq always was, and still is, a war of choice. The U.S. should choose to terminate the mission and refocus its attention — and, where appropriate, its still-strong military — on the enemies who struck on 9/11.

Op-Ed: “Don’t Dump on Free Trade,” by Ilya Shapiro in Legal Times

On Tuesday, Nov. 4, while most of the country understandably had its attention elsewhere, the Court heard argument in United States v. Eurodif. The case is an appeal from a ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit holding that contracts with foreign companies to enrich uranium are outside the scope of U.S. anti-dumping law (and their corresponding tariffs) because they’re “service” as opposed to “sales” contracts.

The decision reversed the Commerce Department’s determination to the contrary and prompted a petition for certiorari from United States Enrichment Corp., a government spinoff that dominates the domestic enrichment market and would be hurt by competition from abroad. Although the U.S. solicitor general also requested cert (in which circumstance review is not uncommon), Eurodif is the first time the Court has accepted an international trade case in six years (and only the eighth time in the last two decades).

Podcast: “Obama Should Scrap E-Verify,” featuring Jim Harper