Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Me, McCain, and a Skip Down Memory Lane

John McCain writing for the Op-Ed page of the New York Times: “Isn’t it more likely that antipathy toward the United States in the Islamic world might diminish amid the demonstrations of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the end of a regime that has few equals in its ruthlessness?”

Iraq is now the “cause celebre” for jihadists worldwide. But inside the Beltway that’s neither here nor there, since our “war on terror” discourse has morphed into praising the gains of the surge, regardless of how “fragile and reversible” those gains may have been. But discussions on Iraq should not be about “who was right about the surge,” because that argument is premised on the false belief that we attacked the correct country. The root of the problem is that politicians like Senator McCain use the surge to deflect attention from their own complicity in diverting America’s resources away from those who attacked us on 9/11 by invading a country that did not.

Criticisms Leveled against U.S. Approach to Counterterrorism

The New York Times reports this morning on criticisms leveled by two high-ranking U.K. counterterrorism officials against the United States’ current approach to counterterrorism.

It’s worth having the insights of people who have prosecuted suspects in all the major terrorist attacks in the U.K. since 2005, achieving a 90 percent conviction rate, so you should read the whole thing.

Selling “Security”

Imagine you are an official arriving at a disaster scene. As you approach, to your left is a burning and partially collapsed building. On an upper floor of the standing part of the building, one or two people are waving for help, evidently trapped. In the parking lot on your right are injured people, one or two of them in very dire straights, with a few Samaritans trying to render them aid.

You don’t know what caused this, but there are burned out remnants of a truck at the base of the building. It could have been a truck bomb, or it could have been an innocent crash and explosion.

Arriving behind you are firetrucks and ambulances. From the ambulances are coming people wearing white and carrying medical equipment. The people coming out of the firetrucks are carrying gas masks and wearing heavy boots and flame-retardant clothing.

What do you do? Check their IDs?

Heavens, I hope not.

But the Smart Card Alliance is trying to convince the world that disaster response and recovery scenes require machine-readable ID cards. (Their paper is being release just ahead of their big Washington, D.C. conference. See their membership list in the conference brochure.) Here’s what they say:

For both daily activities and emergency situations for [emergency response officials], it is necessary to quickly and unequivocally establish who is requesting access and what the ERO is allowed to do based on their certified skill set (e.g., medical personnel, law enforcement officer, firefighter). Without the ability to identify and qualify individuals with a high level of assurance, the response and recovery effort can be compromised, affecting the economic and human impact and the ability to return to life as normal.

On the contrary, disaster scenes are places where we rely on easy symbols like uniforms and equipment to judge who people are and what they are there to do. It is possible to contrive a situation where a wrongdoer or incompetent could access a disaster scene and do more harm, but that is precisely what it is: a contrivance. The overwhelming majority of the time, people dressed as firefighters are firefighters, generally qualified to fight fires. People dressed as Emergency Medical Technicians are almost always EMTs, generally qualified to administer emergency medical care.

Emergency scenes have all the credentialing they need. Checking a digital “smart card” at a disaster scene would be a stupid and life-threatening waste of time.

There are a lot of good things to be done with advanced identification cards and credentials. “Securing” disaster response and recovery does not seem to be one of them. The Smart Card Alliance should move along to use cases where there really are benefits rather than trying to sop up government “homeland security” money.

The War on Complacency

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff is worried that we are letting our guard down. In the current issue of the Armed Forces Journal, he writes: “Among the security challenges America faces in the future, there is none greater than the problem of complacency.”

Some would call that good news. All the threats that we are told to fear — Iran, EMP pulses in the atmosphere, hackers, rusty Russian ships sailing to Venezuela, Bill Ayers — are apparently less worrisome than our failure to worry sufficiently about them. Doesn’t that mean we’re safe? Can we have a parade?

But note the Catch-22. That thought is itself the trouble. Safety leads you to think that you’re safe, which leaves you vulnerable. Then they get you. Safety is fleeting because it allows its own destruction. That’s some catch.

If complacency is the problem, then those who argue that we are safer than people like Michael Chertoff say are part of the threat.

I am particularly guilty. I have promoted complacency in the face of terrorism:

Terrorists, who get their name from an emotion, are psychological warriors. They make fear. By telling Americans in every corner of the nation to plan for attack and stay eternally alert, we deliver the terrorists’ message, at least to those still listening to their government’s warnings. If combating terrorists is war, it is primarily a psychological one, where the stakes are as much the American psyche as safety alone.

Victory is the return to normalcy, not for the intelligence agencies and the FBI, but for the man in the street. Victory is persuading — or permitting — regular Americans not to be afraid. Conventional pundits of homeland security worry that the public will become complacent. We should worry that it won’t.

Before they take me away, I want to clarify my position. I am only for some complacency.

For example, Secretary Chertoff is complacent about many dangers that worry me. His article sings the praises of US-VISIT, the program where we take the fingerprints of nearly all foreigners legally entering the United States. He is complacent about the threat of treating immigrants and tourists — who support our economy, enliven our universities, and start many of our most successful companies — like criminals. The article boasts about DHS’s Improvised Explosive Device Awareness campaign but is complacent about the cost of preventing the use of a weapon that has never been used in the United States. Chertoff mentions Project Bioshield, but he is complacent about the danger that our efforts to combat bioweapons are themselves heightening the risk of attack by spreading knowledge of the feared technology. And he is complacent about the danger that spending tens of billions to combat bioterrorism takes resources from efforts to fight diseases that kill infinitely more Americans (infinite because we are dividing by zero in most years) .

Elsewhere, Chertoff called terrorism a “significant existential threat” — existential was apparently an insufficient qualifier. He evidently remains complacent about the danger of that sort of threat inflation.

The End of Jacob Weisberg

In an article for Slate (another version appears in Newsweek) entitled “The End of Libertarianism,” Jacob Weisberg mocks libertarians and other free-market supporters for arguing that interventionist government policies contributed to the financial crisis. In italicized exasperation he cries, “Haven’t you people done enough harm already?” According to Weisberg, it’s already clear that, when it comes to what caused the meltdown, “any competent forensic work has to put the libertarian theory of self-regulating financial markets at the scene of the crime.” Consequently, he argues, libertarians in general have now been utterly discredited. “They are bankrupt,” he concludes, “and this time, there will be no bailout.”

In firing this broadside, Weisberg poses as the pragmatic, empirically minded anti-ideologue. In fact, he is engaging in the lowest and most intellectually trivial form of ideological hack work.

As every good hack does, he bulls ahead with completely unjustified certainty. We’ve just experienced a global disruption of financial markets on a scale not seen in seven decades. And we’re still in the middle of it: the ultimate extent, severity, and consequences of this crisis remain unknown. Yet Weisberg can already sum up the story in a single sentence: the libertarians did it!

But consider the fact that it wasn’t until Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s Monetary History of the United States — published in 1963, three decades after the event — that our contemporary understanding of the causes of the Great Depression began to take shape. That understanding has been further refined by contributions from, among others, Ben Bernanke and Barry Eichengreen during the 1980s and ’90s.

So serious people will be debating what triggered the current crisis for a long time to come. I’ve been reading voraciously in recent weeks, trying to get some handle on what’s going on, and I can tell you that there is nothing like a consensus among scholars yet — and certainly not a consensus in favor of some simple, monocausal explanation.

With regard to government interventionism as a cause of the crisis, Charles Calomiris and Peter Wallison have marshalled strong evidence that Fannie and Freddie played a major role in inflating the real estate bubble. Despite the fact that these two gentlemen have forgotten more about financial markets than Weisberg will ever know, Weisberg dismisses their analysis as not only wrong, but risible.

Here’s what I think, at least at this point. I think the whole system failed. Without a doubt, private actors succumbed to bubble psychology and perverse incentives, and their risk-taking grew increasingly reckless. Yet Weisberg’s simplistic morality tale that good prudent liberals were foiled by go-go free-marketeers doesn’t come close to mapping reality accurately. When exactly did Democrats try to arrest and reverse the steady relaxation of lending standards? When did they try to rein in the GSEs? Meanwhile, European banks are being battered by this crisis as well. Does anybody really think that European financial regulators are closet libertarians?

Far be it from Weisberg, though, to let such inconvenient questions get in the way of his cheap ideological point-scoring. Indeed, he isn’t content just to blame libertarianism for the financial crisis. He goes so far as to claim that libertarianism as a whole has now been decisively repudiated. Wow, talk about contagion! Because of what some people said about financial regulation, we no longer have to pay any attention to what other people say about trade, health care, energy, taxes, federal spending, etc. Here Weisberg further burnishes his hack credentials by demonstrating his facility with the wild, unsubstantiated smear.

To be truly shameless, a hack needs to mix his smears with double standards. And, bless him, Weisberg comes through once again. If one (alleged) error means we never have to listen to someone again, why is anybody still listening to Jacob Weisberg? After all, Weisberg admits that he “blew the biggest foreign-policy decision of the past decade” by supporting the Iraq war. (Full disclosure: I blew it, too, but my colleagues at Cato — whom Weisberg wants to write off for all time — got it right.) By his own standard, then, Weisberg should have had his pundit card permanently revoked.

All too aware of my own fallibility, I’m a more forgiving sort. But with this sloppy, shoddily reasoned attack on me and my colleagues (Cato and Reason, where I’m on the masthead as a contributing editor, are both mentioned by name), Weisberg is definitely testing my limits.

The Future of the U.S. Military Presence in Iraq

After months of negotiation, the Bush administration may be nearing an agreement with the Iraqis that would cover the status of U.S. forces in the country after the UN mandate for the occupation expires at the end of the year. Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Rice began briefing lawmakers yesterday.

The news of an impending deal comes as a surprise only because the negotiations have dragged on for so long, and because the most contentious issues seemed so intractable. The key breakthrough appears to be an artful compromise on the question of extraterritoriality. (If you think that is hard to read, try saying it three times.) The Iraqis were demanding that U.S. personnel suspected of crimes be subject to Iraqi justice; American negotiators insisted that they be covered by U.S. laws. The draft agreement, reported the New York Times, “would give Americans immunity from Iraqi law when they were on military operations but would not apply if they were off duty.”

Although Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) complained that this might give away too much, and therefore expose U.S. personnel to unnecessary risks, the dual-track approach seems to me to represent a more significant concession on the part of the Iraqis. The compromise is generally consistent, meanwhile, with other SOFA agreements, such as those in South Korea and Japan, where U.S. personnel can be, and are, tried by South Korean or Japanese courts when offenses clearly occur while they are off duty, or when the crimes are perpetrated against local citizens, as opposed to other Americans. In terms of the legal protections, “on duty” vs. “off duty” disputes are usually sorted out easily between officials on both sides, but there have been some tough cases along the way. There is also the contentious question of pretrial detention, and where the person, if convicted, serves his or her sentence, or while the case is under appeal.

But, of course, the more serious risks to U.S. personnel, including members of the military, but also private contractors and diplomats working in Iraq, don’t have to do with who gets tried in what courts. For starters, political reconciliation, and the risk of civil war has not abated. If one erupts, say following a particularly horrible terrorist attack that prompts Shia reprisals against the minority Sunnis, then once again our troops would be caught in the middle, as they were in the spring and summer of 2006 following the attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra in February of that year.

Then there is the ongoing risk that our very presence in Iraq is stirring up hatred and resentment that might ultimately spill over in the form of violence against all Americans, not simply those stationed in Iraq. This violence may not manifest itself for years, but the risks are real. On that question, I always go back to Paul Wolfowitz’s candid testimony in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq.

Anger at American pressure on Iraq, and resentment over the stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, Wolfowitz conceded, had “been Osama bin Laden’s principal recruiting device.” Looking ahead to the post-Hussein period, Wolfowitz implied that the removal of Hussein would enable the United States to withdraw troops from the region. “I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to … be there for another 12 years to continue helping recruit terrorists.”

There are other sticking points contained within the draft agreement. The document reportedly calls for the removal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has previously insisted that such a timeline would be binding. The Bush White House still hasn’t taken the hint; the president continues to refer to troop withdrawals as ”aspirational” goals. Nonetheless, Bush might be willing to seize upon the new SOFA as a signal that progress is being made. The legend of the surge, which President Bush sold as a vehicle for eventually reducing the U.S. presence, will grow still larger if it actually does what it intended. On the other hand, the defenders of the surge – chief among them Sen. McCain – seem never to have bought this argument in the first place.

Will the draft agreement be ratified? The early signs are mixed, at best.The Iraqi parliament has had difficulty passing far less-contentious legislation. And there are ample grounds for one or more groups to claim that Malikihas conceded too much to the Americans, and block the deal. Moqtada al-Sadr’s supporters have consistently demanded an immediate withdrawal, and the concessions with respect to jurisdiction might strike some Iraqis as a bridge to far. But while Iraqi politicians will debate the merits of the proposed agreement, the parliamentarians in a considerably more mature democracy will not: the Bush administration maintains that the U.S. Congress has no authority on this matter; Gates and Rice’s consultations with congressional leaders, we are told, are largely a courtesy.

Terrorists Could Use Beverage Containers to Sneak Flammable Liquids Aboard Trains

Alas, (via Schneier) fear-mongering like this is working less well.

“If somebody wants to break the law and bring flammable liquids on, they can. It’s not like al Qaeda is waiting in their caves for us to have a sippy-cup rule.” Directing his comments to BART administrators, [Director Tom Radulovich] said, “You know, it’s just fearmongering and you should be ashamed.”