Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Should America Defend Europe if it Won’t Defend Itself?

Iceland, in the midst of economic crisis, is considering closing its defense agency. Reports the Iceland Review:

Former Minister of Justice Björn Bjarnason described the Iceland Defense Agency as “remnants of times past” and said it might even complicate defense relationships with other nations. The Coast Guard should be focused on instead.

It may well be true that Iceland doesn’t have many enemies. But if the Europeans don’t believe they need defending, then isn’t this another good reason to bring home America’s troops? Certainly there’s no reason for the U.S. to defend countries which don’t bother to field militaries themselves!

Senator Lugar: ‘Lift the Embargo and Engage Cuba’

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the highest ranking Republican in the Foreign Relations Committee, has released a minority staff draft report on U.S. policy towards Cuba. It states that Washington’s sanctions against Havana have failed to bring democracy to the island and it recommends lifting the embargo and engaging Cuba.

The report’s recommendations are very similar to those that Ian Vásquez and I wrote for Cato’s recently published Handbook for Policymakers.

Is Anyone in Washington Listening?

As my colleague Ian Vásquez wrote a couple of weeks ago, Latin Americans are fed up with the war on drugs. The F[ailure] Word is increasingly being used in the region to describe Washington’s prohibitionist strategy. Just take a look at today’s Wall Steet Journal op-ed by former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico).  And last week, Caracol TV, Colombia’s main TV network, started airing a highly-publicized three-hour documentary called “Won Battles, Lost War” on the futility of the War on Drugs in that country. Over the last year, other Latin American leaders have also been calling for a different approach to drug trafficking that range from decriminalization to legalization.

During last year’s campaign president Obama promised to treat Latin Americans as partners. It remains to be seen if anyone in his administration is listening to these calls.

The Federalist Society’s ‘War on Terror’

I have been a proud member of the Federalist Society and have long appreciated the institution as a a valuable resource for libertarians and conservatives. It has none of the sinister shadowiness that the left sometimes tries to stick it with.

But an event invitation I received today suggests that the organization is a little bit stuck - in reactive, undisciplined thinking about counterterrorism.

The War on Terror: Litigation Update is an event happening tomorrow at the National Press Club. The title and introduction six times use the term “war” with reference to terrorism-related cases and legal issues, and it asks, “Will the new administration’s policies remain grounded in the laws of war, or will they switch to a pre-September 11 law enforcement paradigm?”

Stating the alternatives this way is too slanted to go without comment. It implies that the lone alternative to a war footing is hapless dawdling.

Dawdling is not the only alternative to “war,” of course, and the Federalist Society’s tradition of thoughtful intellectual discourse is demeaned by the suggestion that it is.

At our counterterrorism conference in January, we explored how excessive reactions to terrorism and terrorist acts can be self-defeating. Among other things, trying terrorists in military tribunals and specially designed national security courts will tend to exalt terrorists and tell the world that they are a force we struggle to reckon with. This wins them support and recruits.

The better approach is to treat terrorists as criminals, with transparent fairness, which will drain the romanticism from their deeds and stories. Terrorists hate to be treated like criminals. The first of the “five demands” in the 1981 IRA hunger strike was the right not to wear a prison uniform. Treating them as ordinary criminals saps their legitimacy and the strength of their challenge to incumbent power in the eyes of key audiences.

By using an unfair characterization of the alternatives and binding its inquiry so tightly to the “war” metaphor, the Federalist Society is being intellectually dishonest and unhelpful in the effort to defeat terrorism. Hopefully, it will correct this error in the future.

China in Africa

Tom Ricks used to cover the Pentagon for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He wrote terrific books about the Marines and the war in Iraq. Now among other gigs, he is a blogger for Foreign Policy. It’s great when top-notch reporters write for blogs, even when they are overly enthusiastic about counterinsurgency warfare. That is an issue we will take up with Ricks when he visits Cato on March 13 for a forum on military reform.

I have a smaller bone to pick now. Ricks, like many Pentagon types, is worried about Chinese activities in Africa. He links to a story about a bridge-building project in Mali and suggests that the Chinese are doing something clever that we will someday realize has harmed us.

I hear variants of this all the time — China is doing stuff in Africa, so we must imitate them. It doesn’t make sense. Even if you think the United States has a zero-sum relationship with China where their gain is our loss (I don’t), you should worry about something else. There is little that China can do in Africa to make it stronger or to damage U.S. interests.

There are basically three things Americans worry about China doing in Africa: gaining influence from aid and diplomacy that it will use against us, gaining wealth from investments that it will use against us, or somehow screwing up our access to oil.

On the first concern, you have to ask what influence in Africa gets you, other than a happy feeling. Traditionally, as in World War II or the start of the Cold War, we worried about hostile states gaining industrial might by conquest that they could harness against us in a war. Whether or not that was a valid concern is open to academic debate, but there was never much reason to worry about Soviet efforts to buy support in poor countries during the Cold War. There was little to gain there in a geopolitical sense, outside of raw materials rare enough that they might be blocked from the market in a war. It makes even less sense to worry about China gaining influence in Africa now. If Mali likes China because it builds bridges there, so what? We are not poorer or less safe for it.

What about investments? Chinese investments in Mali are more useful to Mali and China than government aid, assuming the investments are sensible ones. If they are wise investments, however, U.S. companies won’t be far behind, and our national income will rise as a result. If they are not economically sensible, they will not enhance Chinese power, and we should not imitate them.

The biggest worry is that China is locking up energy supply in Africa. This concern is born of a failure to understand that oil is a global commodity. If the Chinese tap more of it, American consumers pay less too. If they own production facilities, that matters not at all if the oil is going to market. If the Chinese have a mercantilist energy policy, that is their problem. For more on energy alarmism, see here, here and here.

There is nothing sinister or clever about Chinese activity in Africa. Americans shouldn’t worry about it.

While we’re talking about Foreign Policy bloggers and developing countries, be sure to check Stephen Walt’s attack on his employers’ vacuous cover story: “The Axis of Upheaval.” Great stuff.

The TSA Strip-Search Machines

USA Today reports that the Transportation Security Agency is replacing metal detectors in some airports with body scanners (sometimes known as “strip-search machines”).

This doesn’t sit right with many people.

The TSA has done a questionable job so far of informing the public about what the machines do and - most importantly - of the fact that they’re optional.

Back in October, St. Petersburg Times columnist Robyn Blumner wrote about her experience.

As I stepped out of the virtual strip-search machine I immediately felt a shock wave of humiliation and intrusion, particularly as I looked around the security area and realized I was the only female traveler around and the only person “randomly” selected. The TSA agent hadn’t bothered to explain that I had the right to decline and submit to a pat-down by a female agent instead — a choice I would have taken.

A friend wrote me the other day to tell of her recent experience:

For the past year I’ve been reading stories about new machines being tested by TSA at airports which x-ray or wave scan passengers in order to detect explosives or other items hidden under one’s clothing. I’ve been horrified by these stories and the accompanying sample pictures which show a pretty detailed picture of the person’s body parts. I think the use of this technology is a gross violation of the right to privacy, particularly when used randomly on passengers for no probable cause or even reasonable suspicion of any wrong doing.
… .

This past Sunday in Miami, … after going through the normal metal detector, a TSA agent had me enter a machine which looked similar to the puffer machines (explosive trace portals) from the outside. He told me to put my feet on two premarked spots. The door closed, and an internal panel of the machine rotated part of the way around my body. Then the machine opened, and he had me turn, put my feet on different preprinted places, the door then shut, and the panel rotated around my body again. All the while I had to keep my arms raised.

My hunch and a subsequent internet search confirmed that TSA is using millimeter wave body-imaging technology at the Miami International Airport. I saw a picture of the machine I was lead through. However I also read on the TSA website that use of this technology is supposed to be VOLUNTARY. Several places on the TSA website describe it as an alternative OPTION available for passengers.

… .

At no point did the TSA agent tell me what the machine was doing. I was not told of any other options available to me such as a pat down or wand. There were no signs informing passengers that they were being x-rayed/wave scanned for viewing of them naked at a remote location.

I never would have willingly entered that machine had I known in advance what it was. In my opinion, this technology should not be used at all, but if it is, TSA needs to do a better job on site of disclosing its actions and the capabilities of its equipment. TSA also should make advising passengers of their rights a high priority.

I’ve corresponded with Peter Pietra, the TSA’s Privacy Officer, and he disputes the absence of signs at the Miami airport. I think he’s done a creditable job of trying to build privacy protections into this system. You can find information on the millimeter wave strip-search technology here and here.

But maybe it’s not enough. We’re talking about trying to maintain privacy with a technology that’s fundamentally intrusive.

Back to Robyn Blumner:

Here is the inevitable: You give people with routine jobs the ability to rummage around in other people’s intimate lives — innocent people who are not suspected of anything — and bad stuff happens. Privacy goes out the window, boys will be boys, the rules, law and even the Constitution don’t stand a chance. Titillation trumps training, at least for some.

Why must we fight about this? Because we transferred so much more responsibility for airline security to the government in a knee-jerk reaction to the 9/11 attacks. This was a bad idea, for reasons I discussed at length in a March 2005 debate about airline security with Reason’s Bob Poole.

Instead of this lumpy, government-provided airline security, I said, “Airlines should be given clear responsibility for their own security and clear liability should they fail. Under these conditions, airlines would provide security, along with the best mix of privacy, savings, and convenience, in the best possible way.”

TSA is not balancing all these interests well. Government agencies are terrible at responding to consumers compared to businesses, whose bottom lines rely on it. As I said in the Reason piece, the fix to this problem is to rethink aviation security from the ground up. The TSA should be eliminated.