Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

War Is Swell

In his post below, Justin Logan outlines some of Max Boot’s howlers on Iraq, and asks: “why should anyone be listening to him now?”  It’s a good question.  However, I think Boot serves a useful function.  If you find yourself arguing that neoconservatives are empire-hungry, war-mad, and contemptuous of civil liberties–and your opponent accuses of you of setting up a straw man–point him to Boot.  He’s the real deal.   

As Justin noted, here’s Boot making ”the Case for American Empire.”  And here he is telling us that “Empire” is the right term:

“No need to run away from the label,” argues Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York: “America’s destiny is to police the world.”  

Here’s Boot offering America’s occupation of the Philippines–with its 200,000 dead civilians–as a success, and as reason for hope that Iraq will be a success as well.  Here he is suggesting that China may be looking into “creating man-made earthquakes” as a way of fighting an asymmetric war against the United States.  (There’s a threat to keep you up nights.)  So threatening is the world we live in, in fact, that it’s time to ”Forget privacy, we need to spy more.” 

But for classic Boot, you can’t beat this LA Times column from last summer, in which he declares that General Curtis LeMay was one of the “greatest peacemakers in modern history,” a proper candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize.  It’s an odd choice.

  As head of the air war in Japan during WWII, LeMay ordered the firebombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000 civilians; as well as the bluntly named “Operation Starvation” designed to destroy Japanese food supplies.  “I suppose if I had lost the war I would have been tried as a war criminal,” LeMay said later.

Well, “they” started it, some will say.  But if deliberately killing large numbers of civilians doesn’t disqualify one from “peacemaker” status, then how about trying to start a nuclear war?  As head of Strategic Air Command in the ’50s, it was LeMay’s view that the United States should strike the Soviet Union while America retained nuclear superiority.  If the weak-willed civilians wouldn’t sanction preventive war, he hoped to provoke an incident that would allow him to deliver his “Sunday Punch,” unleashing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and causing an estimated 60 million Russian dead.  Without authorization, in 1954 he ordered B-45 overflights of the Soviet Union, commenting to his aides, “Well, maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started.”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay repeatedly challenged President Kennedy’s courage, urging him to approve airstrikes.  That action might well have led to the nuclear exchange LeMay dreamed of.   All in all, it’s not surprising that some people identify LeMay as the model for General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, a movie that according to Fred Kaplan, author of Wizards of Armageddon, got a little too close to the truth for comedy. 

In the column linked above, “Messed up Are the Peacemakers,” Boot suggests that modern-day peace activists have questionable priorities and bizarre affections.  Maybe so.  But he’s hardly in a position to criticize them.

Unsurprising News from the Pentagon

The Washington Post reports yesterday on cost overruns for weapons procurement. “It is not unusual for weapons programs to go 20 to 50 percent over budget, the Government Accountability Office found.”

That’s for sure. As I’ve documented, it’s not unusual for weapons to more than double in cost. I’m talking about the F/A-22 Raptor, the V-22 Osprey, the CH-47F helicopter, the Patriot missile, and on and on. See here, and see the discussion in Downsizing the Federal Government.

The same pattern occurs in federal highway projects, energy projects, and many other government endeavors.

Part of the reason this occurs is that contractors and government officials have a quiet understanding that the initial cost numbers that are used to get projects launched should be low-balled. Both sides know that later on, after projects are underway, excuses can be found to raise the price tag. “The scope of work has expanded.” “We couldn’t have foreseen those additional problems.” “The mission requirements have changed.” “There are new regulatory requirements.”

It doesn’t really matter. Once the money is flowing to certain states and jobs are at stake, no member of Congress has an incentive to be frugal with taxpayer money. 

Max Boot as Oracle

Max “Case for American Empire” Boot’s latest LA Times column walks us through a seminal text in counterinsurgency, David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, in the course of describing the “Keys to a Successful Surge.”

Since the ideas are mostly Galula’s and not Boot’s, the column is decent, but this seems as good an occasion as any to recall that Boot was arguing that victory in Iraq would be quite easy as recently as 2003.  This was his take then:

Formal empire is passe, and Americans have little enthusiasm for it. Promoting liberal democracies with U.S. security guarantees is more our style. In Iraq, that means purging the Baathists, providing humanitarian relief, starting to rebuild, and then setting up a process to produce a representative local government…

This means using American troops to secure all of Iraq. It will be insufficient to set up a peacekeeping force whose authority extends only to the capital. It will be unacceptable to say that peacekeeping is not a job for the U.S. military. Since the United States is committed to a “unitary” Iraq, it will have to commit sufficient force to make this a reality. This probably will not require the 200,000 troops suggested by Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, but it will require a long-term commitment of at least 60,000 to 75,000 soldiers, the number estimated by Joint Staff planners. (emphasis added)

So in 2003, Max Boot was arguing that 60-75,000 U.S. troops could provide security all across Iraq, while simultaneously “purging the Baathists, providing humanitarian relief, starting to rebuild, and then setting up a process to produce a representative local government.”

Why should anyone be listening to him now?

Aqua Teen Overreaction Force?

Boston officials investigating this week’s marketing campaign gone awry should be sure to include themselves in the scrutiny, asking if they overreacted to the incident.

A In case you missed the story, Cartoon Network, a division of Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting, recently launched a “guerrilla marketing campaign” to promote its new adult-audience cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force. As part of the campaign, the network hired New York marketing firm Interference Inc. to place notepad-sized, electronically lit signs of the show’s “mooninite” characters in unusual locations around urban areas.

The campaign received little notice in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Austin, Texas. But in Boston, public officials treated the signs as a possible terrorist threat, closing bridges, subway stations, roadways, and even part of the Charles River while bomb squads removed the signs.

Once the nature of the signs became known, Boston mayor Thomas Menino issued a press release blasting the campaign:

It is outrageous, in a post-9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme. I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred during the response to today’s incidents.

Estimates for those expenses have already topped $1 million.

Boston officials’ initial concern is understandable and appropriate. Seeing an out-of-place object containing batteries, circuitry, and glowing lights is unsettling in these times and it should be investigated. But at what point should Boston officials have realized that the signs posed no threat, and called off the bomb squads?

This raises an issue that we often discuss here at Cato, and that has become especially important in the post-9/11 era: should we be more concerned about Type-1 errors (false positives) or Type-2 errors (false negatives)?

Detection systems, whether mechanical (burglar alarms, ultrasounds) or human (analysts, emergency services workers) are rarely error-free. Often, we have to decide whether we want a very sensitive detection system that likely will detect any real problem but also subjects us to Type-1 errors, or else a less sensitive system that likely won’t give us many false alarms but may also miss a real problem.

Boston officials’ bomb-squad response to the mooninite signs is a perfect example of a Type-1 error produced by a highly sensitive detection system. I suspect that government officials would defend the high sensitivity, saying “it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

But Type-1 errors can end up making us feel very sorry. The current Iraq War can be considered a Type-1 error resulting from the Bush administration’s high sensitivity to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Or consider the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, during which local schools publicized that they were in “lockdown mode” and keeping schoolchildren indoors — that is, they went into “better safe than sorry” mode. The snipers later told police that the schools’ pronouncements enticed the snipers to try to kill a child, and they ultimately wounded a 13-year-old as he arrived at his Bowie, Md., middle school.

For an excellent discussion of why 9/11 should not lead us to be too accepting of Type-1 errors, read Ohio State University national security professor John Mueller’s article “A False Sense of Insecurity?

Facts, Lies, Statistics and NIEs

The big news on the defense and foreign policy front is the release earlier today of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, an unclassified summary of which is now available online (.pdf). Congressional staff are poring over a much longer (90-page), classified version. President Bush was presented with a copy of the full report yesterday.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley discussed the NIE with reporters, characterizing the report as “a good statement about the risks if we do not succeed in Iraq, for Iraqis, for the region, and for Americans here at home.” (Count this as Exhibit A for the defense.) 

Bloggers immediately pounced on the report to make the counterpoint, namely that the Bush administration’s escalation plan — by the NIE’s own admission — couldn’t possibly work (Exhibit B for the prosecution).

The near-instantaneous interpretation of a key intelligence assessment is hardly a new phenomenon. As I explain in my book John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap, the selective leaking and politically motivated interpretation of intelligence muddied the water on the nature of the Soviet threat in the late 1950s. (A more digestible paper I wrote for the Princeton Project on National Security that discusses these 1950s-era debates, as well as a discussion of the “Team B” controversy of the 1970s, can be found here.)

The response to the latest Iraq NIE fits a similar pattern. Each side is fixing on a few relevant passages to prove its case or, failing that, to engender doubt about the other side’s arguments.

For example, advocates for an expeditious withdrawal (of which I am one) can point to the NIE’s statement that “Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the time frame of this Estimate,” and conclude that the likelihood of success is extremely small.

On the other side, opponents of withdrawal can point to the NIEs discussion of what might ensue if and when U.S. forces withdraw. These are the passages that Hadley highlighted in his press briefing.

No NIE could ever hope to resolve such disputes. However, from my perspective, the key to interpreting NIEs lies in the probabilities assigned to various predictions. The likelihood that a particular event will play out is never expressed in numerical terms. But this NIE includes a useful tutorial for NIE naifs that tries to explain how different words (“likely,” “unlikely,” “probably,” “may be,” etc.) should be interpreted along a probability continuum, from remote to almost certain.

So, returning to the passage pertaining to a U.S. withdrawal, pay close attention to the qualifiers (in my italics, with my impertinent questions in brackets):

If coalition forces were withdrawn [ever? in less than 18 months?], if such a rapid [how rapid?] withdrawal were to take place, we judge that the Iraqi security forces would be unlikely to survive as a nonsectarian national institution. Neighboring countries, invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally, might intervene openly in the conflict. Massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable. AQI, or al Qaeda in Iraq would attempt to use parts of the country, particularly al Anbar Province, to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq. [attempt, perhaps; but how likely is it that they would succeed in establishing a comfortable safe haven. My guess? Not likely. See here and here.] And spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion.

No one disputes that conditions in Iraq are dire. What remains of a debate in this country is between those who believe that we must pay any price, and bear any burden, to succeed in Iraq, because failure would spell the “beginning of the end” of Western civilization (hat tip to Justin Logan). On the other side are those who believe that the price that we have paid in Iraq is already too great, and that there is a no reasonable likelihood that the Bush administration’s stated goals in the country can be achieved at anything approaching a reasonable cost. This is a debate between the believers and the non-believers, if you will.

It would be unreasonable to expect, therefore, that this NIE will resolve the debate one way or the other. Ultimately, policymakers must make a judgment, on the basis of imperfect information, and be prepared to explain and defend that position to the people that elected them to office.

John McCain’s Empty Threat

The NYT has a front-pager this morning on the fact that “In Senate, Allies of Bush Attempt to Halt Iraq Vote.” It describes a resolution offered by John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham that seeks to “set benchmarks for the Iraqi government and describe the troop increase as a final chance for the United States to restore security in Baghdad.”

“Final chance?” Sounds serious. But is it? Consider McCain and Lieberman were at AEI earlier this month, warning, in the case of Senator McCain, that if we were to leave, it would be “the beginning of the end, in some respects” of Western civilization.

But say you’re an adviser to Maliki, and you see these two offering a resolution that says this is your last chance, this is it, we’ll pull the plug if you can’t get it together. (Put aside the fact that there’s no chance either of them would ever vote to actually cut off funding for the war, the only practical tool Congress has to stop it.) Then your researchers bring you their AEI presentation in which McCain says it’s the beginning of the end of Western civilization if we leave.

Would you be worried? Would you think “Uh oh, if we don’t meet all of the American objectives, John McCain and Joe Lieberman are going to stop supporting the war. Of course, in their own minds, leaving on those terms would mean the beginning of the end of Western civilization, but they still might do it!” Doubtful.

If John McCain and Joe Lieberman think the stakes are as high as they implied at AEI, then they should just say flat-out: We can’t leave, no matter what, unless we achieve our goals. That’s an honest position, although one I think profoundly misguided.

Of course, the American people wouldn’t be too hot on such a proclamation. They certainly wouldn’t be inclined to, say, elect someone who said that to be president. But consistency’s never been McCain’s strong point.

It’s almost like the guy’s running for president or something.

Toward a Neo-Khomeinist Foreign Policy*

From the annals of irony, this from Laura Secor’s interesting rundown of the Iranian political scene in the NYT Magazine:

Composed partly of military and paramilitary elements, partly of extremist clerics like [Taqi] Mesbah-Yazdi and partly of inexperienced new conservative politicians, those in Ahmadinejad’s faction are often called “neoconservatives.” But to the extent that they have an ideology, it is less new than old, harking back to the early days of the Islamic republic. Since that time, the same elite has largely run Iranian politics, though it has divided itself into competing factions, and the act of wielding power has mellowed many hard-liners into pragmatists. Ahmadinejad’s faction, on the other hand, came into power speaking the language of the past but with the zeal of the untried.

Ali Ansari refers to “Iran’s neoconservatives” repeatedly in this book, but I thought it was more rhetorical flourish than an actual description that people use in Iran.

* Title reference here.