Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

A President Who Knew When to Cast Off the Neocons

I’m reminded that today is the anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech in Berlin:

It’s a useful reminder that while Reagan included key neoconservatives in his administration, particularly in his first term, most of them always suspected that he was a fool, incapable or unwilling to take the heels-dug-in position that would bring down our Soviet adversaries. Even in 1982, at the height of the neocons’ influence on Reagan and just five years before this speech, neocon capo Norman Podhoretz was accusing Reagan of “following a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire, rather than … encouraging the breakdown of that empire from within.”

I could bore you with umpteen more examples of these sorts of (neo-)conservative denunciations of Reagan, but the man knew an opportunity when he saw it, and wasn’t going to listen to the naysayers and pessimists when they told him it wasn’t so. Reagan by no means got everything right, but on the big questions, he would be a welcome respite from today’s Republican Party, which has been handed over to the neoconservatives in exchange for the mess of pottage that is our Iraq policy.

Obama Calls Chávez an “Enemy”

Today there is a long interview [in Spanish] in Chile’s El Mercurio with Barack Obama on his views for Latin America. What struck me first was Obama’s claim that he “would start conversations with our enemies in Cuba and Venezuela.” Now, I’m not opposed to his willingness to sit down and talk with unfriendly regimes—I think that’s appropriate in certain circumstances—but what caught my attention was the use of the word “enemy” when referring to Venezuela. I think that constitutes clumsy diplomacy.

The Bush administration has been rather prudent in its approach to Hugo Chávez, despite all the hot air coming from Caracas and the allegations that his government has supported terrorist organizations in the hemisphere. Bush doesn’t even mention Chávez’s name in his speeches, and that drives him crazy. Chávez needs confrontation. His recent—and thwarted—push for a new intelligence law that would have turn Venezuela into a police state was primarily based on his paranoia of a U.S. invasion.

Now that Bush is about to exit the stage, Chávez needs to pick a fight with the next president of the U.S. He recently boasted that his name was being used in the presidential campaign. By calling him the “enemy,” Obama is setting the stage for a confrontation with Chávez in the event that he wins in November. This is exactly what the strongman from Caracas wants.

Condoleezza Rice Recants

Readers may recall Condi Rice’s 2000 Foreign Affairs article in which she declared, among other things, that with respect to regimes like Iraq and North Korea,

These regimes are living on borrowed time, so there need be no sense of panic about them. Rather, the first line of defense should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence – if they do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration.

My own favorite 2000-vintage Riceism is still “Carrying out civil administration and police functions is simply going to degrade the American capability to do the things America has to do. We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.”

But you get the idea that there is a fairly profound disconnect between the 2000 Condoleezza Rice and the 2008 Condoleezza Rice. And sure enough, the Secretary has an article in the current Foreign Affairs that serves as a broad denunciation of her earlier incarnation, and an attempt to cloak airy Wilsonianism in the guise of tough-minded realism. My friend Kara Hopkins over at The American Conservative takes the editorial equivalent of a belt-sander to the piece and is left with little more than a pile of sawdust for her efforts.

[I]n Rice’s convoluted calculus, stability, once the grail in international relations, is no longer a worthy end of itself: “Freedom and democracy are the only ideas that can, over time, lead to just and lasting stability.” To secure peace, we must first, in true revolutionary fashion, destabilize: “the process of democratization is likely to be messy and unsatisfactory.” How else to explain away the electoral successes of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood? Temporary “untidiness.” She sees this upheaval as a transitional period in a “generational” project—which means she has time to get out of town.

Realism, also overdue for a revival, fares no better in the Rice rebranding scheme. Surely no resident of the reality-based community believes that “what will most determine whether the United States can succeed in the twenty-first century is our imagination.”


Were these the delusions of a streetcorner radical, they might be silly. But coming from the Secretary of State, they’re dangerously mad–-and appropriating sound labels doesn’t make them less so.

I liked the old Condoleezza Rice quite a bit better, too.

Defeating Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves

I recently finished reading Michael Sheehan’s new book Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves. It jibes with much of what I think about terrorism and terrorism counterstrategy, but there’s more than that to recommend it.

Sheehan has extensive, on-the-ground experience in counterterrorism operations and policy in the federal government, in the military, at the UN, and in New York City, where he did the work that he is obviously the most proud of. The book overflows with recollections and opinions from someone who has been working on fighting terrorism for many years. This focus almost guarantees differences of opinion with someone like me, whose focus is limited government and protection of liberty, but the differences are profitable to explore.

For example, Ben Friedman and I both credited the recent Rolling Stone article arguing that domestic terrorism threats are overblown. Much derision has been poured on domestic terror threats like the “Lackawanna Six” and their obvious incompetence. But Sheehan has a different take:

The case of the Lackawanna Six is an interesting one. To some, these were just some suburban boys who were wanna-be jihadists—certainly not terrorists. But let’s take a closer look. Six young men who grew up in Lackawanna, New York, a small town outside of Buffalo, were inspired to form an al Qaeda cell by a man named Kamal Derwish in the spring of 2001… . All six went to Afghanistan and attended the al Qaeda camps, where they met bin Laden and were very much aware of his responsibility for the East African bombings and that of the USS Cole.

Derwish, a proven fighter and recruiter, was meanwhile sent on to advanced training. While he was gone, it appears that the others’ enthusiasm waned. They returned to the United States, while Derwish, upon completion of his higher training, went back to Yemen. In Yemen, Derwish found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time… . No one knows what that cell might have become if Derwish had returned to the United States to organize them. But these were not the innocent travelers that they’ve been portrayed by some to be.

A good point, and the foundation of Sheehan’s theme: crush the cell. Relative incompetents like the Lackawanna Six and the “muscle hijackers” of 9/11 can be pretty dangerous when activated by a well-trained leader like Mohammed Atta. An essential part of counterterrorism is to crush the cell before they reach that stage.

How do you do that? Sheehan has lots to say about how not to:

Soon after 9/11, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) was created, and a new building was constructed a few miles down the road from the CIA to house its staff. But that wasn’t enough. Later, Congress created the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI), whose staff was charged with supervising and integrating all other intelligence-gathering agencies: more bureaucracy to manage the swollen intelligence monolith. It was a classic Washington solution to a problem: create a new agency, hire more bureaucrats, and increasingly outsource the work to contractors.

The cost of these new organizations is absolutely staggering, but I’ve yet to see how they’ve appreciably helped the so-called war on terror.

Instead of all this bureaucracy, Sheehan argues for focused intelligence work, about which he has a lot of stories and information to share. There are gems (and a few lumps of coal) throughout the book.

Insight into the economics of security shines through, for example, when he tells the story of the intense inspection his rental car gets at the entrance to the Marine Annex near the Pentagon, comparing it to the Sheraton across the street:

[S]ince 9/11, the military has had an almost unlimited budget … . The Pentagon cites the targeting of U.S. military facilities as the reason for tight security. But hotels have been attacked by terrorists around the world as well, and at least as often as U.S. military bases. But because the hotel has to pay for its own protection, security there is almost nil.

From the coal department, Sheehan casually endorses a national ID card, saying it would “go a long way in controlling who we allow in our midst.” His is not the only good, insightful book on counterterrorism I’ve read that throws in a pro-national ID sentiment at the back end. I think that, given time to do it, folks who recognize the futility of inspecting every shipping container or patrolling every inch of our land and sea borders would recognize the same dynamics at play in trying to use a national ID system for security against terrorism.

But that difference and differences on signals intelligence and eavesdropping are things to work on and discuss as we join in defeating a key product of the terrorism strategy: self-injurious overreaction. Time and again in his book Sheehan emphasizes the importance of avoiding fear and overreaction while crushing terror cells. This is a notion about which lifelong security people and advocates for limited government can speak in unison.

North Carolina: REAL ID Implementation on Hold

North Carolina is not one of the states that has joined the REAL ID Rebellion. By all accounts, it was plodding along, getting ready to implement the federal government’s national ID mandate.

But now comes news that the changes North Carolina had planned are on hold. “ ‘The Real ID Act is pretty much at a standstill nationwide,’ said Marge Howell, a spokeswoman for the Division of Motor Vehicles,” according to one report:

As a means of complying with the federal Real ID Act, the state DMV had planned on implementing a requirement that people who apply for a new or renewed driver’s license start producing documentation showing the motorist’s proof of identity and legal address beginning Dec. 1. That has now been delayed.

Another change, set to begin on July 1, requires the DMV to mail a motorist’s license to a residential address instead of instantly issuing a license. Howell said that program won’t go into effect statewide at the beginning of July. Instead, the DMV plans to phase that program in.

Even the compliant states are getting the message that REAL ID is a non-starter.

I recently queried whether one of the largest companies producing driver’s licenses would continue to agitate for the national ID law or embrace a diverse, competitive identification and credentialing marketplace.

Gates vs. Fighters

The Secretary of Defense must read Cato-at-Liberty. I suggested Thursday that Robert Gates should break 25 years of fighter pilot rule over the Air Force when he picks Buzz Moseley’s replacement. And voila. General Norton Schwartz, who was head of US Transportation Command (the logistics center for the military, essentially) has experience as a C-130 (airlift) pilot and in Air Force Special Operations Command. He has even written about using AC-130 gunships to support urban combat operations.

This is the kind of guy the Army would pick to run the Air Force. The Air Force fighter leadership apparently wanted to elevate Gen. John Corley, commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, a former F-15 guy, to the top spot. Not only did Gates not do that, he moved Schwartz’s deputy from Transcom, Lieutenant General William Fraser III, a three-star former bomber pilot, to Vice Chief of the Air Force.

Gates is slapping around the figher mafia that runs (ran?) the Air Force. The chances of F-22 procurement going beyond 183 (the Air Force, at least until today, wanted 381) just went down, although Congress and the next administration will have something to say about that. The China threat inflation coming from the Air Force should diminish. The Air Force’s commitment to supporting Army led counter-insurgency campaigns will increase. The cries that the Air Force is underfunded will soften.