Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The American Way of War

On TPM Cafe, a part of the Talking Points Memo media empire, I’m in a week-long discussion of a new book, The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men and a Republic in Peril, which oddly takes the title of the Russell Weigley classic without acknowledgement.

The other participants are the author, Eugene Jarecki, who directed Why We Fight, Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher, Andrew Bacevich, the Boston University professor, Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, and Naomi Wolf. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, is supposed to show up, but hasn’t yet.

I can’t recommend that you read the book, but I do recommend the discussion, especially if you’re interested in military-industrial complexes.

A Welcome Change

The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus reports:

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has taken steps to make it easier for U.S. intelligence agencies to recruit first-generation Americans with foreign relatives.

The story, first broken by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, is likely to be overlooked given the focus on the campaign and on the financial markets, and might seem an obscure policy change given the high-profile national security challenges that our intelligence professionals and military personnel confront every day.

In fact, it is a crucial step toward leveraging our unique strengths as a nation. America’s openness is often seen as a vulnerability, but it should be seen instead as a sign of our vitality. The desire of millions of non-Americans to come to the United States and try to make a better life for their families remains strong, despite our recent troubles. To deny first-generation Americans the opportunities enjoyed by other Americans on the dubious grounds that they pose a unique security risk makes no more sense than any other form of blanket profiling. After all, we didn’t kick Lutherans of mixed Danish-Polish and German descent out of the FBI after Robert Hansen’s treason was discovered.

First-generation Americans, or Americans with other extensive foreign contacts (spouses, close friends, study abroad), are likely to have native or near-native proficiency in languages other than English that are in desperately short supply in our intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The hurdles for these citizens were never insurmountable; many ultimately do obtain needed security clearances. In his award-winning book The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright profiled one of them: Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American FBI agent, the only Arabic speaker in the New York office at the time of the USS Cole bombing, and one of only eight Arabic speakers in the entire agency.

But notwithstanding men like Soufan, the laborious and time-consuming process associated with obtaining a security clearance, and the prevailing presumption against such persons, doubtless discourages many well-intentioned people from even trying to obtain a job in law enforcement or intelligence. Here’s hoping that this change helps to open the doors to qualified men and women who are every bit as patriotic as Americans whose families have been here for generations.

Random Searches = Poor Counterterrorism

terrorism [ter-uh-riz-uhm]
- noun
1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
2. the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
3. a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

So, one would think that countering terrorism would involve resisting coercion by resisting fear and submission.

That’s not the case in Washington, D.C., where Metro officials plan to start random searches of travelers’ bags. Not because of any specific threat, but because “Americans everywhere are at some risk from terrorism.”

Let’s get something out of the way first: Random searches do not provide security against terrorist acts. If it comes to it, a bomber can inspire fear just as well by exploding a checkpoint as he can by bombing any other part of the Metro system. Other kinds of attacks can be snuck past random checks or even comprehensive checks. Random searches are security theater, designed to make it seem like something protective is being done when it’s not.

What random searches do is reward past acts of terrorism by demonstrating that they have successfully cowed our society, made it fearful, and subject to coercion. This will tend to encourage future acts of terrorism. Seven years later, the 9/11 attacks are still paying dividends.

Searching at random in the Metro system plays into the terrorism strategy. Metro officials mean well, there can be no doubt, but they’re patsies to terrorism.

Terrorism and Elections

With elections a week off, should we be especially worried about an Al Qaeda attack? Writing last week in Slate, Brookings’ Daniel Benjamin says yes, following in the footsteps of other terrorism experts. They could be right, but they have almost no evidence. Like the others, Benjamin supports his claim with a handful of past examples of Al Qaeda attacks that occurred around election time. But if Al Qaeda attacks occur when they are most convenient for the attackers, they will be randomly distributed throughout the year, meaning that a certain percentage, which will head toward 1/12 as years go by, will fall in the month before elections. Citing a few attacks that occured around election time is evidence of nothing.

What about specific attacks? Do they reveal qualitative evidence for the hypothesis that Al Qaeda tries to sway elections, such as attackers saying that this was their goal? Short answer: no. The only Al Qaeda attack that remotely fits this billing, and the one that all the experts cite, is the Madrid train bombings in 2004.

The attack came 72 hours before Spain’s general elections. When the Popular Party, led by José María Aznar, made a clumsy attempt to blame the ETA, a Basque separatist terrorist organization, the Spanish elected the Socialists, who then pulled troops from Iraq. Because the terrorists evidently influenced the election, pundits tend to assume that this was their aim.  But evidence for this assumption is almost nonexistent. The main data point is that some plotters may have read a tract on a website saying to attack around election time. That’s about it.

What’s more, the plot was only an Al Qaeda attack in spirit. So far as we know from public sources, there was not central planning from the remnants of Al Qaeda in Pakistan or elsewhere. The perpetrators organized locally. Even if they meant to swing the election, their tenuous connection to other groups makes it hard to form conclusions about the movement as a whole.

Some might say that what matters about the Madrid attack is the lesson that other terrorists drew from it. The apparent success in influencing the election might provoke imitation. Maybe so. But there is scant indication that imitation has occurred.

Terrorist plots, especially those that occur in countries foreign to the plotters, are tough to pull off. They require considerable organization. Police and intelligence agencies are hunting jihadist groups. They are likely to organize attacks to maximize the odds of success rather than to fit US election cycles.

In general, we should be wary of analysis that talks about Al Qaeda as a unified entity. Al Qaeda is a loosely connected network of small organizations and groups of guys. Assigning overarching preferences or goals to them can be analytically useful, just as talking about a country as a unified actor can be. But this kind of theorizing exaggerates terrorist unity. Psychology tells us that we tend to see patterns in random events – causality, order and centralization where none is. We overtheorize, experts in particular. They deserve skepticism.

A Defense Cut?

Republicans are up in arms over signs that the Democratic leadership in the House may be considering cutting the defense budget.

Last week, Barney Frank told the editorial board of the SouthCoast Standard-Times – a local paper in Massachusetts – that the Pentagon’s budget should be cut by 25%. I didn’t believe this at first. The Democratic position on these matters has long been to support the Pentagon’s budget requests for fear of opening a line of attack for Republicans. But Congressman Frank’s office confirms that he did indeed say this.

You might say, so what? Frank is not on any defense committee and is probably just running his mouth for his liberal base in a reelection campaign. Maybe so. But Frank does not have a serious opponent and is close with the Democratic leadership in the House. It’s would be surprising if he got crosswise of Speaker Pelosi. Plus, you already have John Murtha, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, telling reporters that, because of the bailouts, defense spending will need some trimming (Murtha, who has taken to calling his constituents names, might actually lose his seat). So it’s fair to guess that we’re seeing an emerging position or trial balloon. Frankly, it’s shocking that any Democrat would take this stance a week before elections where they stand to gain a couple dozen seats by standing still. The Republican reaction (danger! war! surrender!) is utterly predictable.

It is also wrong. The truth is that we should cut the defense budget by more than 25%. The non-war defense budget has grown by around 45% since Bush took office, once you adjust for inflation. The Pentagon accounts for half the world’s military spending, most of which is irrelevant to counter-terrorism, and more than half of U.S. discretionary spending. The threats we face from rival militaries are historically small. We can save plenty of money and still be safe – probably safer, in fact, since our profligate defense spending serves our instinct to intervene willy-nilly around the world, creating enemies.

What’s important to keep in mind is that cutting defense spending requires cutting defense commitments and force structure. Frank is quoted saying: “We don’t need all these fancy new weapons.” That’s true, but you don’t save 25% of the budget by going after weapons procurement alone. You need to cut force structure. If you do that while keeping troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, the Philippines, and Japan, sending a peacekeeping force to Sudan, defending Taiwan, threatening Iran, rebuilding a failed state or two, and defending Georgia and Ukraine from Russia, the military will scream in justified agony. Saving on defense starts with doing less.

Today at Cato

Article: “Mark-To-Model, Into The Twilight Zone,” by Steve H. Hanke and John A. Tatom in Investor’s Business Daily

Daily Podcast: “Rail Versus Gas,” featuring Randal O’Toole on

Article: “Questionable Deals in a Volatile Region,” by Malou Innocent and Christopher Preble in The South China Morning Post

Radio Highlight: Robert A. Levy discusses the constitutionality of the bailout on WBAL’s “The Ron Smith Show” (Baltimore)