Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

DHS Privacy Committee Meeting Tomorrow

The DHS Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee meets tomorrow (Mar. 21) at the Crowne Plaza Washington National Airport in Arlington. 

The morning agenda is heavy on REAL ID, and we’ll hear from Jonathan Frenkel, a Senior Policy Advisor at DHS who was one of the key officials responsible for writing the recently issued regulations.

The Washington Post on the Iraq War, Four Years Later

As the Iraq war entered its fifth year, with no end in sight, the editors of the Washington Post offered a mea culpa, of sorts, in yesterday’s Outlook section. Where they admit fault with their analysis of the Iraq war, it is largely in the ”questions not asked” category. These unasked questions pertained to the likelihood that Saddam Hussein would develop “a dangerous arsenal.” They were too accepting of the conventional wisdom on a host of issues. “Clearly, ”they explain, “we were insufficiently skeptical of intelligence reports.”

Their greatest error, however, was in underestimating the challenge of reconstructing Iraq.

The question that Gen. David H. Petraeus posed (as recounted in Rick Atkinson’s history, “In the Company of Soldiers”) as he led the troops of his 101st Airborne Division from Kuwait across the Iraq border, “Tell me how this ends?” – that question must be the first to be asked, not the last. The answer won’t always be knowable. But the discussion must never lose sight of the inevitable horrors of war. It must not be left to the generals in the field. And it must assume, based on experience from Germany to Korea to Afghanistan, that a U.S. commitment, once embarked upon, will not soon be over.

We raised such issues in our prewar editorials but with insufficient force. In February 2003, for example, we wrote that “the president [must] finally address, squarely and in public, the question of how Iraq will be secured and governed after a war that removes Saddam Hussein, and what the U.S. commitment to that effort will be… . Who will rule Iraq, and how? Who will provide security? How long will U.S. troops remain? … Many of these questions appear not to have been answered even inside the administration… .” They were still unanswered when the war, which we nevertheless supported, began. That should never happen again. (Emphasis mine)

No, it should not. And I take the Post editors at their word that they will strive to prevent that from happening again. In practical terms, however, does this mean that the Post would withhold support for military action against, say, Iran, if these questions are not answered to their satisfaction? I’m not sure.

But I can’t help but feel that their failure in early 2003 to ask such questions about war with Iraq derived not so much from sloppy analysis and insufficient curiosity (though those conditions certainly existed), but rather out of an inchoate concern that honest answers to such questions would have eroded support for a war that the Post editors believed – then and somehow still – to have been not merely justified but necessary. 

My suspicions are largely confirmed by the lessons that they have drawn, so far, from the Iraq experience. These include a conviction that preventive war is still a legitimate counter-proliferation strategy. (Jeffrey Record convincingly argues otherwise here). They have learned that democracy promotion is a difficult business, but they contend that the public demands that it remain a core object of U.S. foreign policy. (The latest polling data, as reported by the Post’s own David Broder last week, refutes this claim.) The Post editors have learned that multilateralism is preferable to unilateralism (who disagrees?) but that “international law and multinational organizations” cannot “always be counted upon.” In which case, what? They don’t say. Instead they concede, “Unfortunately, none of this provides bright guidelines to make the next decisions easier…”

But there is and should be a bright guideline for future military interventions, and it is nicely encapsulated in the final line of Ted Carpenter’s latest Policy Analysis: “Launching an elective war in pursuit of a nationbuilding chimera was an act of folly. It is a folly [U.S. policymakers] should vow never to repeat in any other country.”

It is clear that millions of Americans who supported the war in March 2003 on the erroneous belief that the war would be cheap, easy, and decisive, have since changed their mind. Knowing what they do now, most Americans believe that the war was a tragic mistake, a bad idea at the outset, made worse by the many errors committed by the Bush administration along the way.

The editors of the Post, apparently, have not learned this central lesson. And they, therefore, can be expected to support more elective wars in the future.

The New Warhawk Talking Points

Last night I caught a fair and balanced Fox News “All Stars” panel on Iraq featuring war partisans Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke as well as a journalist named Nina Easton and Brit Hume.

In the course of climbing over Barnes to snark the Democrats’ failed attempt to get U.S. troops out of Iraq, Kondracke made this claim:

[I]f all combat troops are out by the end of 2008, how can we possibly deal with the al Qaeda threat? Al Qaeda’s got somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000 hardened killers running at about in Anbar Provinces and Diyala Province and parts of Baghdad, and who’s going to fight them…?(emphasis mine)

25,000 al Qaeda fighters in Iraq? That would be a pretty remarkable figure, considering the Baker-Hamilton Commission noted (.pdf) that there were only 1,300 foreign fighters in all of Iraq. Sure, al Qaeda has taken on an indigenous component, radicalizing Sunni Iraqis who, before the war, had no taste for Salafism. But 25,000?  That seems wrong. (If there were 25,000 al Qaeda fighters, wouldn’t things look a lot worse than they do now?) I’ve certainly never heard a figure even in that ballpark.

So I had our intrepid interns do a little digging to see where Kondracke could possibly have found such a number. The only thing we could come up with was a November 2006 propaganda tape purportedly released by Abu Hamza al Muhajir, Mr. al Zarqawi’s successor as chief of al Qaeda in Iraq. But even Mr. al Muhajir didn’t make the astonishing claim Kondracke did:

“The al Qaeda army has 12,000 fighters in Iraq, and they have vowed to die for God’s sake,” a man who identified himself as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir said in an audio tape released Friday. He also claimed to have another 10,000 unequipped fighters ready to go into battle.

There’s a lot of disagreement about what to do in Iraq, and even a disagreement about some basic facts. However, amplifying and deploying al Qaeda talking points in the course of arguing for your preferred policy seems like a bad thing to do. One of the unfortunate things it leads to is legislators making daffy statements like this, courtesy of Rep. C. W. Bill Young (R-FL):

Nobody wants our troops out of Iraq more than I do. But we can’t afford to turn over Iraq to al-Qaida.

Al Qaeda is not going to take over Iraq. The rest of the parade of horribles that warhawks trot out are all plausible to varying degrees, but not that one. (See here and here.) As my colleague Ted Carpenter put it in his recent PA:

The organization does have some support among the Sunni Arabs in Iraq, but opinion even among that segment of the population is divided. The September 2006 poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 94 percent of Sunnis had a somewhat or highly unfavorable attitude toward al-Qaeda.

[…]

Sunni support for al-Qaeda is feeble; Kurdish and Shiite support is nonexistent. Almost to a person they loathe al-Qaeda. The Program on International Policy Attitudes poll showed that 98 percent of Shiite respondents and 100 percent of Kurdish respondents had somewhat or very unfavorable views of al-Qaeda. The notion that a Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated government would tolerate Iraq becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda is improbable on its face. And even if U.S. troops left Iraq, the successor government would continue to be dominated by the Kurds and Shiites, since they make up more than 80 percent of Iraq’s population and, in marked contrast to the situation under Saddam Hussein, they now control the military and police.

We face enough genuine dangers in extricating ourselves from the neocons’ quagmire. Let’s not waste time worrying about ones that don’t exist.

Al Qaeda in Perspective

Multiplicitous federal policies and programs threaten privacy - data mining, the REAL ID Act, National Security Letters, etc. - and they threaten trade and commerce too.  The link among them, of course, is the threat of terrorist attacks. 

An essential part of any security discussion is to get a handle on the threat.  Cato Unbound devoted some energy to that problem last September with exquisitely rational analysis from the Ohio State University’s John Mueller, while former Inspector General of the United States Department of Homeland Security Clark Kent Ervin argued, “I’d Rather Err on the Side of the Believers.” 

Now the RAND Corporation has released a report called “Exploring Terrorist Targeting Preferences.”  According to the press release announcing the report, it finds “little evidence of a coherent al Qaeda strategy for U.S. attack.”  The report explores four different theories of al Qaeda’s motivation, toward the end of determining its likely future actions.

I don’t have the capacity to critique the report and I don’t think it ends the inquiry, of course.  Al Qaeda’s motivation should be a matter of continuous study, along with all other threatening entities.  The capacity of threats to follow through on their intentions should be the subject of equally searching, continuous study.

But I think it is essential to have reports like this issued and discussed.  They are part of getting the threat of terrorism in perspective and solving the security dilemmas created by terrorism. These problems are not easy, but they are fully susceptible to solution consistent with our Constitution and our tradition of liberty.

What if the ‘Surge’ Succeeds?

Robert Kagan, a long-time senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for the Washington Post. On the chance that Kagan’s views were not getting enough exposure, the White House helpfully e-mailed the column to me this morning as part of their “Iraq Update: IN CASE YOU MISSED IT” series (ALL CAPS in the original).

It puzzles me that the Post and the White House would want to shine so much attention on Kagan given his long record of faulty predictions with respect to Iraq. After all, one wouldn’t expect CNBC, BusinessWeek or Money magazine to be touting financial analysts and stock pickers who were strong advocates of ENRON, WorldCom and Tyco.

And it is not like this is a passing fancy; Kagan has been bullish on war with Iraq for years. Kagan signed the infamous open letter to President Clinton in January 1998 calling for military action against Iraq ”in the near term” given that “diplomacy is clearly failing.” Less than six months later, he repeated his call for military action in an open letter to then-congressional leaders Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott.

One year after the start of the Iraq war, Kagan and frequent co-author William Kristol noted the “obvious success” of the signing of Iraq’s interim constitution and “other measures of progress” including “electricity and oil production” and signs of damage to the Baathist-led insurgency. Despite continued violence, Kagan and Kristol cautiously predicted, “We may have turned a corner in terms of security.”

Kagan and Kristol were particularly encouraged by the “hopeful signs that Iraqis of differing religious, ethnic, and political persuasions can work together.” Then they took a shot at the Iraq war skeptics, “both here and in Europe” who predicated “that a liberated Iraq would fracture into feuding clans and unleash a bloodbath.”

After compiling a list of Kagan’s greatest hits, salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald asks “Why would any rational person listen to Robert Kagan?” Of course, Kagan is free to write or opine or do whatever he likes – and the rest of us are free to ignore him. But it isn’t enough to ignore the people who got us into the war, and who now expect us to take them seriously on what to do next. As Greenwald notes, scorn is much more appropriate.

However, what if Kagan is right? What if he has finally gotten something right, after years of inaccurate predictions and fallacious reasoning? For the sake of argument, I’ll take him up on the premise of his latest article, “The ‘Surge’ Is Succeeding.” The column begins: “A front-page story in The Post last week suggested that the Bush administration has no backup plan in case the surge in Iraq doesn’t work. I wonder if The Post and other newspapers have a backup plan in case it does.”

I wonder if the American public much cares. The public realizes what Kagan does not: the costs of the Iraq war have already far exceeded any benefits that we as a nation might ultimately derive from it, even if we did not spend another dime on the venture, and even if no more soldiers are killed or wounded.

If, in fact, a miracle has happened, if a mere 8,000 or so of the expected 25,000 additional troops have succeeded where 140,000 U.S. troops have failed for the past four years, if this small number of U.S. military personnel have driven the insurgency underground, stiffened the resolve of the Iraqi government, cowed Iraq’s neighbors into cooperating, and paved the way for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, we can all be thankful for that.

But wait. Robert Kagan does not favor an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. Indeed, Kagan celebrates the announcement that U.S. troop levels in Iraq will remain at their current levels ”through at least the beginning of 2008” (again putting the lie to the notion of a surge, which implies a short-term increase).

Even 2008 is too soon to speak of withdrawal as far as Kagan is concerned. Any talk of drawing down forces (ever it is implied) can only give comfort to Moqtada al Sadr and al-Qaeda.

So if, by Kagan’s reasoning, the surge is succeeding, it merely paves the way for an indefinite troop presence at more or less current levels, at a cost of approximately $150 billion, perhaps 1,000 or so American troops killed, and 10 to 15 times that number wounded, each year.

That is what we get if the surge is succeeding. We shouldn’t be surprised that the public demands success of a different sort, the kind that will stop the flow of lives and money into the Iraqi quagmire that Kagan has long advocated.