Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

More Willful Obtuseness from Michael Gerson

From this week’s Newsweek column, ostensibly about the “lessons of Iraq” and his new book:

Another false lesson is found in the assertion that the Iraq War has actually been creating the terrorist threat we seek to fight—stirring up a hornet’s nest of understandable grievances in the Arab world. In fact, radical Islamist networks have never lacked for historical provocations. When Osama bin Laden proclaimed his 1998 fatwa justifying the murder of Americans, he used the excuse of President Clinton’s sanctions and air strikes against Iraq—what he called a policy of “continuing aggression against the Iraqi people.” He talked of the “devastation” caused by “horrible massacres” of the 1991 Gulf War. All this took place before the invasion of Iraq was even contemplated—and it was enough to result in the murder of nearly three thousand Americans on 9/11. Islamic radicals will seize on any excuse in their campaign of recruitment and incitement. If it were not Iraq, it would be the latest “crime” of Israel, or the situation in East Timor, or cartoons in a Dutch newspaper, or statements by the pope. The well of outrage is bottomless. The list of demands—from the overthrow of moderate Arab governments to the reconquest of Spain—is endless.

I find it difficult to believe that even Gerson finds this reasoning persuasive. If it were, why protest about how this isn’t a war on Islam? Why go to great pains to describe the common ground between people in Islamic countries and ourselves? Why cast anything we’re doing as a “war of ideas?” If Gerson’s argument were persuasive, it wouldn’t make a lick of difference whether the president held a press conference and made obscene gestures at Muslims making the hajj, and tipped his hand about the grand conspiracy to keep Islam weak.

After all, the list of demands is endless. Right? Right?

Spitzer’s Speedy Flip-Flop

Wow. A brief 36 days is all it took New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (D) to abandon his stance on driver licensing and New Yorkers’ public safety. As I wrote at the time, Spitzer got it right when he announced that he would de-link driver licensing and immigration status because of the safety benefits to the state’s drivers.

But shrill attacks from anti-immigrant groups came fast and furious. A small group of 9/11 victims’ family members, grief curdled into hatred of immigrants, regularly bandy fear and their loved ones’ memories for political purposes. And they did so with relish when Spitzer announced his plan. It’s crassness that one would expect a New York pol to stare down.

But Spitzer, unable to withstand the heat, seems to have gone scrambling for an out. The New York Times reports that Spitzer will team up with DHS officials today to announce New York’s planned compliance with the REAL ID Act. It requires proof of legal presence to get a compliant license.

This a flat out reversal of the position Spitzer took just over a month ago. The justification he gave - correctly - for de-linking licensing and immigration status was New Yorkers’ safety. With driver licensing treated as an immigration enforcement tool, illegals don’t get licensed, don’t learn the rules of the road or basic driving skills, and don’t carry insurance. When they cause accidents, they flee the scene, leaving injured and dead New Yorkers and causing higher auto insurance rates. As I noted a few weeks ago during his brief flirtation with principle and fortitude, “Spitzer is not willing to shed the blood of New Yorkers to ‘take a stand’ on immigration, which is not a problem state governments are supposed to solve anyway.”

He may try, but Spitzer can’t honestly claim that he’s been consistent. New York’s compliance with REAL ID, were it actually to materialize, would put REAL ID compliant cards in the hands of citizens and make New York driver data available to the federal government. Thus, possession of a non-REAL-ID-compliant license would be tantamount to a confession of illegal status. Thanks to Spitzer’s flip-flop, illegal aliens will now recognize that getting a license merely provides federal authorities the address at which to later round them up for deportation.

Needless to say, they’re not going to get licenses, and the safety benefits Spitzer correctly sought for New Yorkers just 36 days ago will not materialize. The result is what’s known in regulatory circles as risk transfer. There will be more injuries on New York’s roadways so that the U.S. can have a national ID system. Alas, the security benefits of that system, as I showed in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, are negative.

I was impressed and surprised by how right Spitzer had gotten it when he de-linked driver licensing and immigration status in New York. I’m once again impressed, but in a much different way, by how quickly he went scampering away from this good policy. The reactionary critics of his policy obviously really got to him.

A Layered Conundrum in Iraq

There’s been much discussion of the relationship between security and political progress in Iraq. Until about a year ago, the thinking was largely that advances on the political front would iron out wrinkles in the security environment. Since the fighting was fueled by competition over power and resources (the basis of politics), once the political problems were resolved, there would be fewer flashpoints to fight over. Then, with the advent of Surgeism, the thinking became that once the security environment was stabilized, political leaders would take advantage of the relative calm to make peace among themselves. The thinking was that it was hard for to make deals with other leaders whose followers were busy killing your followers.

These are oversimplifications, and there is some merit in both arguments. The relationship goes both ways. But in two comments, yesterday and today, you can see how the question of our staying indefinitely affects the security environment and the political environment in different ways. Here’s Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch describing the prerequisite for sustaining the tamping down of violence, particularly in Sunni areas:

“They have to be convinced that we’re not leaving. That’s the issue. If they were to think we’re leaving we’d have also [sic] sorts of trouble,” Lynch said, clambering over a makeshift earthen bridge across the canal.

There’s a perfectly intelligible logic here. If people think you’re leaving, they’re going to start hedging their bets, and making deals with centers of power outside the national government that have large enough constituencies to influence a post-America Iraq. So from a tactical level–trying to control violence in a particular region, say–the point is to convince the Iraqis that we’re not going anywhere.

But then you take that to the strategic level: forcing political factions who don’t like each other into cooperating and compromising on sharing power at the national level. Tom Friedman describes the situation this way:

As one U.S. official in Baghdad pointed out to me last week, “at no point” since the testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker “have you had the four key Iraqi leaders in the same country at the same time.” They saw the hearings as buying them more time, and so they took it.

“We have created a real case of moral hazard in Iraq,” said Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist at George Washington University. “Because all the key players think the Americans are going to bail them out, they have no incentive to make any real concessions to one another.”

So if we’re not staying forever, we won’t get cooperation in leveraging local and regional forces into deals like the “Anbar Awakening” and they’ll start hedging their bets. If we are staying forever, the Iraqi national leadership says “What’s the hurry? Let’s see what’s happening in Tehran…” Something that’s helpful at one level is destructive at the other. And the two levels are closely interrelated.

The Draft: Way to (More) War

The United States’ increased military activity following the declaration of the “War on Terror” has inspired a growing movement to reinstitute compulsory service — that is, to bring back the draft. Perhaps surprisingly, the movement is largely on the political Left.

We could joke cynically that the new draft movement shows Democrats’ love of slavery is still strong nearly a century and a half after the 13th Amendment. But draft advocates have a serious motivation: They see the return of compulsory service as “a way to peace.”

Their thinking goes like this: If the draft were reinstated, then a cross-section of the public would be directly affected by U.S. military action — our children could be drafted. The public would thus develop a more critical view of military involvement than what they have now. They would pressure Congress and the White House to give greater attention to the troops’ well being, would prompt a withdraw from Iraq, and would decrease the likelihood of questionable missions in the future. As an Iraq war veteran wrote in a Sunday NYT op-ed:

[S]erious consideration of a draft could set off such a violent reaction from the American public that the pressure on politicians to abandon their cliché-ridden rhetoric and begin a well-considered withdrawal would be overpowering.

The draft advocates’ motivation is respectable. Unfortunately, their strategy is too clever by half — or, perhaps, not clever enough about the incentives and disincentives of political leaders who dispatch troops, and about 20th century American military history.

With no compulsory service, America’s military can only rely on volunteers to fill its ranks. If political leaders are overly aggressive in their use of the military, or if service members are poorly treated, poorly compensated, and poorly trained and equipped, or if they are exposed to unacceptable risk, then the Pentagon will have trouble with recruitment and retention. That’s why, when the United States abandoned selective service in 1973 after 25 years of paying conscripts poorly, training them minimally, and using them as cannon fodder in Korea and Vietnam, the Pentagon had to increase troops’ compensation significantly and reduce their risk of being killed or injured in combat (which was accomplished, in part, by developing and deploying advanced weaponry and improving troops’ skills and training).

Call this the “enlistment veto” — because the United States has an All-Volunteer Force (AVF), would-be volunteers act as a check on the politicial leaders who would send them to war and the military leaders who would command them. If those leaders are reckless and abusive in their use of the troops and miserly in the troops’ compensation, then the military will have trouble filling its ranks. As a result, the leaders would be less inclined to use the military because the understaffed force would be less likely to achieve military success.

Contrast the AVF with compulsory service, where there is no enlistment veto. With the draft, young people are forced to soldier for America’s political and military leaders regardless of the soundness of those leaders’ decisions, their treatment of the troops, and the troops’ level of compensation, training, and equipment. With the draft, U.S. politicians have an ample, cheap supply of military manpower to use as they see fit.

Put simply (and perhaps crudely): If political and military leaders were given a larger, cheaper supply of a vital input to war — namely, troops — would that result in less military involvement or more?

A look at selective service in the 20th century shows politicians can find all sorts of questionable uses for the military when young people are forced to serve. Following the expiration of the WWII draft in 1947, the United States adopted the peacetime selective service program for the period 1948–1973. In that quarter-century, the United States dispatched troops to the following foreign entanglements:

  • China (1948–1949)
  • Korea (1951–1953)
  • Egypt (1956)
  • Lebanon (1958)
  • Panama (1958)
  • Vietnam (1960–1975)
  • Panama (1964)
  • Dominican Republic (1965–1966)
  • Cambodia (1969–1975)

Did U.S. leaders show they more highly valued the cheap, forced labor of the selective service era than the more costly, more discriminating labor of the post–selective service era? Complete data on casualties for the two time periods are difficult to compile, but we can make a rough comparison by using fragmented data [sources]. The two major U.S. military involvements of the selective service era (Korea and Vietnam) saw 81,165 hostile action deaths of U.S. troops and 256,587 wounded. In contrast, for the period 1980–1999 (including the Gulf War and Somalia) plus the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (as of 10/06/2007), U.S. troops experienced a total of 3,927 hostile action deaths, and the three prominent post-1980 military conflicts (as of 10/06/2007) yielded a total of 30,290 wounded.

Granted, the conflicts and geopolitical dynamics of the selective service era are different than the post–selective service era. But given the historical data, it’s very hard to accept draft advocates’ claim that reinstituting compulsory service would make the United States less aggressive militarily and would make political and military leaders more responsive to the troops’ concerns.

Draft proponents would respond that using compulsory service to supply troops for a politically unpopular war would lead to social unrest that would reshape U.S. politics. But is that unrest a stronger check on political and military leaders than the enlistment veto? Consider that there has been precious little change in Iraq policy despite protests and considerable public criticism of the war. And yes, the United States did change course in Vietnam after a lot of 1960s protests — but it took a very long time before that policy change happened. It is difficult to believe that the United States would have fought the Vietnam War the way it did, for as long as it did, if it had to rely on an all-volunteer military instead of being able to call on cheap, forced labor.

The “protests instead of enlistment veto” strategy becomes even more untenable when we consider U.S. demographics. The American public is aging, families are growing smaller and more fragmented, and it is older Americans with adult children — people who are not at risk to be drafted, and whose kids are not at risk to be drafted — who are increasingly dominating American politics. This older, less-connected American majority seems unlikely to take a stronger interest in the well-being of U.S. troops than the would-be volunteers themselves.

Zakaria on Iran

Fareed Zakaria has a terrific column on Iran today. A snip:

The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologist whom Bush has consulted on this topic, has written that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is “like Hitler … a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism.” For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence.

Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland’s and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?

The American people seem to have different sensibilities than do political elites. In a recent CNN/Opinion Research Poll, 68 percent of respondents to the question “If the U.S. government decides to take military action in Iran, would you favor or oppose it?” said they would oppose it, a 5 percent increase since 5 months ago.

At the same time, watching the Frontline special called “Cheney’s Law” the other night, I discovered that then-SecDef Cheney had urged Bush the Elder not to go to Congress to get authorization for Gulf War 1, believing that the president had the inherent authority to do whatever he wants with the American military. Further, Cheney told Frontline in 1996 that if Congress had failed to authorize the war, he would have advised the president to attack anyway. It’s pretty clear that the veep, at least, doesn’t much concern himself with the Constitution on these matters. Meanwhile, both Bush and Cheney are ratcheting up the rhetoric on Iran, increasingly painting themselves into a rhetorical corner. In a detached political science sense, this is all fascinating. As an American patriot, it’s scary as hell.

Putin, Another FDR?

The Washington Post reports:

President Vladimir Putin, Kremlin political consultants and state-controlled news media have found an American to admire: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

FDR, according to a consistent story line here, tamed power-hungry tycoons to save his country from the Great Depression. He restored his people’s spirits while leading the United States for 12 years and spearheaded the struggle against “outside enemies,” as the mass-circulation tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda put it….

And Roosevelt ran for a third and fourth term because his country needed him. Translation: Putin, too, should stay.

Putin used the Roosevelt analogy Thursday when he spoke to reporters after a televised question-and-answer session with citizens….

In a glowing 90-minute documentary on FDR that aired Sunday on RTR, a state TV channel usually given to growling at Washington, a narrator said that America’s 32nd president “came to the conclusion that he was the only person in the country who could lead America in the right direction through the most difficult period in the country’s history.”

“He became the only president of the United States elected for a third time. Americans trusted him,” the narrator said. “They believed that at a turning point in history he would not make a mistake.”

Which seems an appropriate time to mention my review in the October issue of Reason of the book Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933–1939, by Wolfgang Schivelbusch. It’s in the actual print magazine; go out and buy a copy. But committed devotees of the online experience can find it here. I noted that Schivelbusch found surprising similarities in the ideas, style, programs, and even architecture of the three charismatic collectivists.

“To compare,” Schivelbusch stresses, “is not the same as to equate. America during Roosevelt’s New Deal did not become a one-party state; it had no secret police; the Constitution remained in force, and there were no concentration camps; the New Deal preserved the institutions of the liberal-democratic system that National Socialism abolished.” But throughout the ’30s, intellectuals and journalists noted “areas of convergence among the New Deal, Fascism, and National Socialism.” All three were seen as transcending “classic Anglo-French liberalism”—individualism, free markets, decentralized power….

In Rome, Berlin, and D.C., there was an affinity for military metaphors and military structures. Fascists, National Socialists, and New Dealers had all been young during World War I, and they looked back with longing at the experiments in wartime planning. In his first inaugural address, Roosevelt summoned the nation: “If we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army.…I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

Five Years On — It’s (Well Past) Time to Make a Choice

Today’s Washington Post op-ed by 12 Army captains who served in Iraq is a sobering but welcome contribution to the voluminous literature on what went wrong in Iraq, and what we should do next. The entire article is worth reading, but the concluding paragraphs boil down the essential points:

There is one way we might be able to succeed in Iraq. To continue an operation of this intensity and duration, we would have to abandon our volunteer military for compulsory service. Short of that, our best option is to leave Iraq immediately. A scaled withdrawal will not prevent a civil war, and it will spend more blood and treasure on a losing proposition.

America, it has been five years. It’s time to make a choice.

This is how the debate over Iraq should have been framed at the outset – before Congress voted to grant the president authorization to use force.

Success in Iraq was always uncertain. How uncertain depended, in part, on the amount of effort we were willing to exert in the endeavor; but it also depended on a number of factors well beyond our control. And there is no evidence that George Bush ever seriously contemplated the costs of waging war for five years – he merely asserted on the eve of war that the costs of inaction outweighed the costs of action.

For a time, the American public went along. Now, five years on, a solid majority disagree. In poll after poll, Americans say that the costs that we have already paid in this war far exceed whatever benefits we might hope to derive from it. And they are looking to cut our losses.

They are unlikely to embrace a further escalation of the conflict, particularly one that entails the draconian step of reinstituting the draft. And they should not do so. As the Army captains concede, we might still fail, even if we flood Iraq with tens or hundreds of thousands more American troops. Hardly a ringing endorsement for that option.

If our national survival hung in the balance, if our very existence was threatened by an escalating civil war in Iraq, we would be spared such discussions: we would invest what was necessary, and worry about the consequences later.

But Iraq always was, and always will be, a war of choice. We should choose to terminate the mission, and refocus our attention – and, where appropriate, our still-strong military – on the enemies who struck us on 9/11.

That the choice is clear does not imply that the choice is easy. The ramifications of a U.S. withdrawal are likely to be horrible in the short term, especially for the many Iraqis who risked their lives by cooperating with the American forces, and the many more who are likely to be caught in a worsening civil war. We should do what we can to help the Iraqis, especially those who have helped us.

There are still other concerns. The real risk of that civil war spreading beyond Iraq’s borders, actions that could spawn a wider regional conflict, requires that a U.S. military withdrawal be combined with a diplomatic offensive to encourage all of Iraq’s neighbors to take prudent steps to contain the violence. Our problem is also their problem; they would be wise to cooperate with us, and with each other, to prevent a far worse catastrophe from unfolding there.

But such considerations do not change the basic calculus for the United States: given that we should not be willing to pay whatever might be needed to win, recognizing all the time that victory is uncertain, and might take years to achieve, we should leave.

I commend these 12 soldiers for their service in Iraq; and, although it can’t compare to their courage and sacrifice over there, I commend them for weighing in on the issue.