Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Losing Elections, Losing Wars

Senator John McCain’s advisers evidently told him to crank up the rhetoric a bit yesterday, because his longstanding stump speech line about “rather lose an election than lose a war” became this:

When we adopted the surge, we were losing the war in Iraq, and I stood up and said I would rather lose a campaign than lose a war. Apparently Sen. Obama, who does not understand what’s happening in Iraq or fails to acknowledge the success in Iraq, would rather lose a war than lose a campaign.

There’s something strange about the logic of that statement. McCain’s implying that “losing” the war will win Obama the election — that the American people want to “lose.”

And, it turns out, by McCain’s definition of losing, he’s correct. A Rasmussen/FOX survey reports today that 63% of Americans want troops home from Iraq within one year:

Twenty-four percent (24%) would like to see the troops brought home immediately while 39% say they should be brought home at some point within a year.

Terrorist Attacks on Aviation - 11 Per Day!

… or so you would infer from a statistic reported on the Threat Level blog.

Threat Level reports on a new policy that has the Transportation Security Administration doing deep dives into people’s public-record dossiers when they arrive at airports without government-issued ID: “The new rules went into effect June 21, and in the first five days, 1705 people out of 10 million attempted to fly without identification and 59 of those were denied access to the plane.”

Fifty-nine refuseniks in five days works out to more than 11 terrorist attacks thwarted per day.

Of course, these weren’t actually terrorists. These were people whose papers weren’t in order. When this happens, TSA employees at its operations center in Virginia dig into public records databases and relay questions to screeners at the airports. If a traveler passes the test, he or she can fly. If the database information is wrong, or if the traveler is forgetful, he or she is stranded.

We were already quite a long way from getting any actual security benefit out of these programs, but as Threat Level suggests, all one need do to impersonate another is memorize the information about them in public records. I think this will happen most often among siblings and family members, who already know such info. But we’re talking about public records. They are collected, packaged, and sold by services like Lexis-Nexis. Sophisticated criminals and terrorists could get them just like anyone else.

Or they could present government-issued ID, having adopted the “clean-skin terrorist” technique that was recently reported to Capitol Hill by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Naomi Klein Doesn’t Know What She’s Talking About

Johan Norberg has done the world a service with his workup of Ms. Klein’s rubbish, but now here’s Jonathan Chait to pile on:

[Klein] pays shockingly (but, given her premises, unsurprisingly) little attention to right-wing ideas. She recognizes that neoconservatism sits at the heart of the Iraq war project, but she does not seem to know what neoconservatism is; and she makes no effort to find out. Her ignorance of the American right is on bright display in one breathtaking sentence:

“Only since the mid-nineties has the intellectual movement, led by the right-wing think-tanks with which [Milton] Friedman had long associations–Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute–called itself ‘neoconservative,’ a worldview that has harnessed the full force of the U.S. military machine in the service of a corporate agenda.”

Where to begin? First, neoconservative ideology dates not from the 1990s but from the 1960s, and the label came into widespread use in the 1970s. Second, while neoconservatism is highly congenial to corporate interests, it is distinctly less so than other forms of conservatism. The original neocons, unlike traditional conservatives, did not reject the New Deal. They favor what they now call “national greatness” over small government. And their foreign policy often collides head-on with corporate interests: neoconservatives favor saber-rattling in places such as China or the Middle East, where American corporations frown on political risk, and favor open relations and increased trade. Moreover, the Heritage Foundation has always had an uneasy relationship with neoconservatism. (Russell Kirk delivered a famous speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he declared that “not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.”) And the Cato Institute is not neoconservative at all. It was virulently opposed to the Iraq war in particular, and it opposes interventionism in foreign policy in general.

Finally, there is the central role that Klein imputes to her villain Friedman, both in this one glorious passage and throughout her book. In her telling, he is the intellectual guru of the shock doctrine, whose minions have carried out his corporatist agenda from Santiago to Baghdad. Klein calls the neocon movement “Friedmanite to the core,” and identifies the Iraq war as a “careful and faithful application of unrestrained Chicago School ideology” over which Friedman presided. What she does not mention–not once, not anywhere, in her book–is that Friedman argued against the Iraq war from the beginning, calling it an act of “aggression.”

It ought to be morbidly embarrassing for a writer to discover that the central character of her narrative turns out to oppose what she identifies as the apotheosis of his own movement. And Klein’s mistake exposes the deeper flaw of her thesis. Friedman opposed the war because he was a libertarian, and libertarian conservatism is not the same thing as neoconservatism. Nor are the interests of corporations always, or even usually, served by war.

No word on any forthcoming apology from John Cusack.

Secretary Chertoff Brings Security Revelation to Capitol Hill … After Four Years

But will it change policy?

To the amusement of those of us who have focused on the security value of watch-listing for some time now, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said some interesting things on Capitol Hill last week. Reports CBS News:

“The terrorists are deliberately focusing on people who have legitimate Western European passports, who don’t appear to have records as terrorists,” Chertoff told lawmakers. “I have a good degree of confidence we can catch people coming in. But I have to tell you … there’s no guarantee. And they are working very hard to slip by us.”

Perhaps this is new information to Secretary Chertoff. Perhaps this is revelation to lawmakers. But some of us have had in inkling about this problem for a little while now. In August 2004, the 9/11 Commission reported that two out of three terrorist planners prefer clean-skin terrorists. (Sound like a toothpaste commercial?) From page 234:

Khallad claims it did not matter whether the hijackers had fought in jihad previously, since he believes that U.S. authorities were not looking for such operatives before 9/11. But KSM asserts that yound mujahideen with clean records were chosen to avoid raising alerts during travel. The al Qaeda training camp head mentioned above [not identified by name in the report] adds that operatives with no prior involvement in activities likely to be known to international security agencies were purposefully selected for the 9/11 attacks.

Given the availability of this tactic, I wrote in my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood (available to anyone in Congress free for the asking going on two years now) that watch-listing is essentially impotent against terrorism.

So maybe Congress will now get it. But will it change policy?

Bob Blakely of the Burton Group has used the occassion of the millionth entry on the terrorist watch list to write on his personal blog about the chance of catching terrorists with watch-listing. He does an elaborate examination of the process given various reasonable assumptions about the number of border crossers and the number of terrorists, known and unknown. Read through it to take the nature of the problem and Bob’s thinking to heart, but here’s his conclusion:

[T]his system is trivially easy for even the dumbest terrorist to circumvent. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the thing to do to defeat this system is stop sending known terrorists through it. Catching a new recruit without a terrorist history happens only by accident, and it happens with very low probability. We’re spending God knows how many millions of dollars on this list, and it cannot possibly do the job for which it’s intended.

Bob has some understanding of bureaucratic behavior, and he has a clever answer to the question whether all this knowledge will change policy.

I realize that it’s bureaucratically impossible to dismantle a large government system which has been publicly criticized, so in a helpful and public-spirited gesture I’ll offer the following alternative suggestion:

Put everybody on the list.

It’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s inevitable eventually anyway as long as the list continues to grow at its current rate, and it makes checking people against the list really easy (you can do it even without a computer!).

Hilarious! That will satisfy the political impulse to double-down on bad policies, and once everyone is on it, the list can be ignored by our security bureaucracy, freeing it to focus on security measures that work.

Louisiana Rejects REAL ID

Melissa Ngo reports and comments on her “Privacy Lives” blog about the passage of a particularly strong anti-REAL ID law in Louisiana.

There’s a gem in the comments from a military veteran on the notion that the Veterans Admininstration might withhold benefits to those not having a national ID as required under the REAL ID Act:

I would suggest those who are in office stop thinking you are in control of the American people. I for one went to war once, I am not afraid to do so again. The government serves the people, not the other way around.

Obama vs. Sudan

Here’s Obama, being interviewed by Fareed Zakaria, on why he supports creating a no-fly zone in Sudan to protect Darfurians (whether the UN backs it or not):

In a situation like Darfur, I think that the world has a self-interest in ensuring that genocide is not taking place on our watch. Not only because of the moral and ethical implications, but also because chaos in Sudan ends up spilling over into Chad. It ends up spilling over into other parts of Africa, can end up being repositories of terrorist activity.

This formulation, which comes ironically just after Obama praises George Kennan and realism, demonstrates a dangerous confusion between charity and self-defense. Tragic as it is, the civil war underway in Darfur (whether or not it’s a genocide, the government backed violence against civilians is part of a counter-rebel campaign) has virtually no effect on US welfare. If instability in that part of Africa hurts trade, the impact is infinitesimal. The idea that war in Sudan or Chad would cause terrorism is based an analysis of failed states that does not stand empirical scrutiny. Sure, terrorists have participated in civil strife in several failed states in the Muslim world, but that hardly proves that Sudan or Chad would be a terrorist haven, especially terrorists that target Americans. In fact, it is American participation in conflicts in the Muslim world that makes us a terrorist target, not the absence of our stabilization efforts.

If Obama is so concerned about the violence against civilians in Sudan endangering Americans, why is he only advocating a no-fly zone? Sudan has an air force, but the combatants in Darfur mostly travel on the ground. If our safety is at stake in Darfur, why not buttress the obviously insufficient African Union force with US ground forces?

But an even better way to end chaos in Sudan would be to take the side of the Sudanese state against the rebels, instead of aiding the dissolution of Sudan via a no-fly zone.

Probably Obama does not really believe that our interests are at stake in Sudan but feels compelled to buttress a humanitarian argument with an interest-based one. Advocates of intervening in the Balkans and Iraq used the same all-good-things-go-together trick. Bombing Serbia to protect Kosovars was supposed to save NATO, protect Europe from instability and so on. Invading Iraq was supposed to spread freedom in the region, remove a threat to Saudi Arabia and get our troops home from there, solve the Arab-Israel conflict, quell terrorism, make the North Koreans and Iranians quit pursuing nukes, and produce several other miracles.

This sort of oversell confuses public debate and makes it harder to end interventions. If your sense of charity says that we should get mixed up in another civil war in Sudan, you’re probably not going to want to pay a very high price in blood and money. But once you told everyone that they can never sleep soundly unless Darfurians do, it’s a lot harder to hit the road if the war turns ugly.

Obama’s position on Darfur is indicative of a larger problem in his foreign policy view, which you might call a belief in (or rhetorical commitment to) the indivisibility of security, a tendency to define insecurity anywhere as a threat to security everywhere. He wants to expand the ground forces so we can better fight occupational wars to fix failed states, and agrees with John McCain that we need to surge troops and resources into Afghanistan to transform it into a stable state, which is the wrong objective there. He thinks fighting terrorism requires that he “make it focus of my foreign policy to roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate,” a project that will dovetail nicely with our current President’s plan to end evil. This approach to foreign policy is so expansive that it is unrealistic and thus inoperative. That makes it loose talk, which is less harmful than neoconservatism, but nothing to write home about.