Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Sen. Obama’s Fan Base

Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign received some modest support over the weekend, one from a predictable source, the other modestly surprising.

An editorial in Saturday’s Washington Post welcomed Obama’s attempt to flesh out his foreign policy views in a speech last week before the Chicago Council of Global Affairs. While appropriately knocking his silence on trade issues, the Post praised Obama for his support for a larger military; his willingness to exert pressure on Iran – he stressed that the military option must remain on the table; and his proposal to double U.S. foreign aid to $50 billion by 2012.

Overall the Post editors were encouraged by Obama’s invocation of Franklin Roosevelt, who said that the United States must “lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.” Obama might have cited a more recent speech, by a still living politician, that made essentially the same argument (see George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2005), but that presumably would not have played well with the base.

Robert Kagan’s praise for Sen. Obama is more troubling. After all, Robert Kagan, one of the founding members of the Project for a New American Century, is a leading advocate of the decision to go to war with Iraq in the first place. Kagan is also a passionate believer in the Bush administration’s stay-the-course strategy in Iraq. (He also wrote recently in favor of preparing the groundwork for a war with Iran.)

Kagan and Obama are ostensibly on opposite sides with respect to Iraq, with Obama favoring a timeline for withdrawal. On this crucial issue, Sen. Obama does seem to be differentiating himself from the policy elite and reflecting the will of the country; 64 percent of Americans favor a timetable for withdrawal in 2008, according to the most recent New York Times/CBS poll.

How to explain, therefore, that Senator Obama has a fan in Mr. Kagan? It could be that Kagan, who is advising Sen. McCain “on an informal and unpaid basis”, wants to undermine Obama’s credibility on the left, thereby ensuring that a less charismatic candidate will emerge from the Democratic field. But that seems too cynical. It also assumes that McCain will be the nominee, which is an even greater stretch.

A more likely explanation is that Kagan is genuinely excited about Sen. Obama’s embrace of the foreign policy status quo. Kagan had a hand in shaping this status quo in the mid-1990s, when he (along with William Kristol) called for the United States to play the role of benevolent global hegemon, aka friendly empire, aka world’s policeman. At a time when 76 percent of Americans say that the U.S. plays the role of world policeman too much, Kagan has found yet another politician who believes the U.S. doesn’t play the role often enough. 

This is disappointing. Sen. Obama had earlier said, when asked about his opposition to the war in Iraq, that he was not opposed to all wars, just dumb wars. This makes for a good soundbite, but it does not illuminate the philosophy guiding the most important decisions that a president will make concerning the use of military force abroad. His speech last week shed little additional light on the subject.

Simply put, which of the major actions conducted by the U.S. military since the end of the Cold War classify as “dumb wars”? Would President Obama have sent troops to Panama? To Haiti? To Somalia? Would he have declared, as George H.W. Bush did, that Saddam’s aggression against Kuwait would not stand? Would President Obama have favored using ground troops in Kosovo (as Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and, reportedly, Hillary Clinton did) or would he have opted for Bill Clinton’s approach – relying on a bombing campaign that killed perhaps 1,500 people in order to force Slobodan Milosevic to the bargaining table?

And what of the military actions that were not taken during the 1990s? Would President Obama have sent U.S. troops into Rwanda in 1994 in an attempt to halt the genocide that occurred there? And what would their mission have been, specifically? To pry the machetes out of the hands of murderous thugs, mainly Hutus? Or would U.S. troops commanded by President Obama have sought merely to provide safe haven for endangered Tutsis?

In the course of the 2004 presidential campaign, one of Senator John Kerry’s advisers turned aside questions about whether Kerry would have launched a war with Iraq in March 2003 with the response “We don’t answer hypothetical questions.” With all due respect, what other kinds of questions are there? Indeed, necessarily hypothetical questions are essential to helping voters to sort out the positions of the various candidates.

U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has involved the promiscuous use of our military power, often in places that had no connection to U.S. vital interests. Americans are justifiably frustrated by the high costs and questionable benefits of these policies, and they are looking for realistic alternatives that would more equitably share the burdens of policing the globe with other countries. While many Americans still value “engagement,” loosely defined, they reject the presumption that this engagement must take the form of the U.S. military undertaking dubious missions of questionable import, while the rest of the world looks on from a distance.

Robert Kagan is on the side of those who believe that U.S. military power has not been used often enough in the 15 years since the end of the Cold War. The editors of the Washington Post seem squarely in this camp as well, given that they have consistently supported the use of force abroad, even clamoring for several interventions that the White House ignored. These opinion leaders stand on the opposite side of most Americans, three out of every four of whom are fed up with Kagan and the Post’s benevolent global hegemony.

Where does Senator Obama stand? We still don’t know.

Yeltsin the Hero

More than any other man, Boris Yeltsin moved the Russian people from tyranny to a rough approximation of freedom. For that he is one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century.

In a way he personalizes Mikhail Gorbachev’s accidental liberation of the Russian and Soviet people. Gorbachev intended to reform and reinvigorate communism. He brought Yeltsin from the rural region of Sverdlovsk in 1985 to shake up the stagnant party as the Moscow party boss. But Gorbachev set in motion forces that he couldn’t contain. Once people were allowed to criticize the communist system and glimpse an alternative, things moved rapidly–partly because of Yeltsin’s unexpectedly radical leadership.

Two years later Gorbachev and the party hierarchy pushed him out of the Politburo. But he turned around and ran for the Congress of People’s Deputies, won, and then was elected to the Supreme Soviet. He created Russia’s first parliamentary opposition (in the Supreme Soviet) and then won election to the new Russian parliament. Against the continuing opposition of Gorbachev, he was elected to the chairmanship of that body, thus becoming president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.  He stunned politicos by resigning from the Communist Party.

And then in 1991, less than four years after being pushed out of politics by Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became the first elected leader in a thousand years of Russian history, winning a popular election for president. Six weeks later he hit his high point. When hard-line communists tried to stage a coup, Yeltsin courageously raced to parliament to rally opposition.  He jumped on a tank to address the crowd, creating one of the iconic images of the collapse of communism.

At that point Yeltsin was the boss, eclipsing Gorbachev, and the Soviet Union was on its way out. Yeltsin effectively dissolved the Soviet Union, leaving 15 newly independent states in the vast expanse that was once the USSR. As biographer John Morrison notes,

His greatest achievement was to avoid the violent “Yugoslav scenario” and allow the Soviet Union’s 15 republics to go their separate ways peacefully in 1991-92 without civil war. Yeltsin defied nationalist demands for the restoration of a greater Russia and made huge concessions to the other successor states, notably Ukraine, but got little credit for it.

Not many political leaders happily let their subjects go. What other political leader ever gave up control over 14 countries? But by doing so, he avoided years of bloodshed. Yeltsin then set about freeing prices and privatizing state property, the largest privatization in the history of the world. As the New York Times notes, he was one communist leader capable of learning from–and feeling shame about–the success of capitalism:

On a visit to the United States in 1989, he became convinced that Russia had been ruinously damaged by its state-run economic system, in which people stood in long lines to buy the most basic needs of life and more often than not found the shelves bare. Visiting a Houston supermarket, he was overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic variety of meats and vegetables available to ordinary Americans.

A Russia scholar, Leon Aron, quoting a Yeltsin associate, wrote that Mr. Yeltsin was in a state of shock. “For a long time, on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands,” Mr. Aron wrote in his 2000 biography, “Yeltsin, A Revolutionary Life.” “ ‘What have they done to our poor people?’ he said after a long silence.”

Yeltsin wasn’t perfect. He was often boorish and apparently had an excessive taste for alcohol. Despite letting the other Soviet republics go, he launched the devastating war in Chechnya. He unconstitutionally dissolved parliament in 1993; when communist lawmakers defied him, he sent tanks to shell parliament.  But it should be noted that Yeltsin at that time was seeking to defend liberal democracy against a return to communism. Imagine if Nazi legislators had stayed in the German parliament into 1949, resisting Adenauer’s policies and threatening to bring back National Socialism. Would it be undemocratic to call out the military to counter them? Fareed Zakaria’s worry in 1997 that Yeltsin’s creation of a “Russian super-presidency” might be abused by his successors looks all too prescient now. But a reversion to communism would have been worse.

And finally, after becoming the first elected leader in Russia’s history, he became something even more important–the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power. True, he turned Russia over to Vladimir Putin, making him more like Ronald Reagan, who delivered the United States to the Bushes, than George Washington, who left us in the capable hands of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Still, the words that President Reagan addressed the American soldiers who invaded Normandy could also be applied to Boris Yeltsin: “These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

Raise a glass tonight to Boris Yeltsin, the man who freed a continent and helped end the Cold War.

Since the Middle East Is Under Control, Let’s Rattle Russia’s Cage

Fred Kaplan has a sharp piece on Slate on the recent push to deploy a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland, and the inevitable Russian fits over same.

The only thing I’d add to the Kaplan piece is to observe the ongoing and remarkable refusal on the part of the administration to accept the concept of tradeoffs in its foreign policy. We would like it very much if the Russians would become more amenable to adopting a US-friendly approach on Iran in the Security Council. Fine. But to expect them to do so while we steamroll their interests in Central and Eastern Europe is more than a bit naive.

The Chinese Defense Budget: Myths and Reality

About a month ago, I noticed that Heritage Senior Research Fellow John J. Tkacik, Jr. had argued that China’s defense spending equaled $450 billion, closing in on the U.S. defense spending figure. I thought this was bizarre, but didn’t devote a lot of time to figuring out how Mr. Tkacik had come up with such a figure.

But now I see that Heritage president Ed Feulner has taken to the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times to advance Mr. Tkacik’s claim, so it may merit some debunking at this point.

The claim that China’s defense budget amounts to “about what America spends” is absurd. Dr. Feulner is using a macroeconomic tool that gives a completely erroneous assessment of Chinese military spending.

Purchasing power parity is useful as a heuristic for comparing the overall economies of nations, because it accounts for the fact that one dollar—in U.S. currency—buys a different amount of a fixed basket of goods in one country than in another. Think of attempting to buy, say, one dollar’s worth of rice in the United States and one dollar’s worth in China. One could get more rice for a dollar in China, and PPP is a useful way of observing that fact.

However, as the highly respected International Institute for Strategic Studies warns, PPP’s “use for the purpose of [defense] calculations should be treated with caution.” Dr. Feulner does not heed this warning. He starts by taking the highest available estimate of Chinese defense spending—which is too high to begin with—and then blankets the total figure with the PPP conversion rate, yielding a figure of $450 billion. This ignores the fact that much of Chinese spending is dedicated to foreign military hardware—such as Russian airplanes—and other assets to which PPP should not be applied. Accordingly, IISS has begun, this year, applying PPP only to the personnel and other relevant costs of the Chinese military, since the comparison of “one dollar’s worth of soldier” applies relatively better.

Another problem with the argument that China’s military budget is as large as America’s is the question “Where’s All the Stuff?” If China is spending as much on its military as is the United States, where are the aircraft carriers? (America has 12, China 0.) Where are the many fleets of long-range bombers? What about our thousands of nuclear weapons compared to China’s couple hundred? If Dr. Feulner’s estimate held, the Chinese are being reassuringly wasteful with their money.

The attempt on the part of Mr. Tkacik and Dr. Feulner to inject a figure of $450 billion into the debate over Chinese defense spending does a profound disservice to a rational discussion of U.S. China policy. It is a stunning claim that threatens to create a seriously misleading picture of the People’s Liberation Army.

A “War” of Words

In this week’s Sunday Washington Post, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff responds to former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski’s March 25 piece Terrorized by ‘War on Terror.’

Brzezinski described how the “War on Terror” meme is undermining the United States’ national interests, “a classic self-inflicted wound”:

The “war on terror” has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration’s elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America’s psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us.

Though Brzezinski assigns more cynicism to the current administration in its approach to Iran than might be warranted, his insights are powerful:

The culture of fear is like a genie that has been let out of its bottle. It acquires a life of its own – and can become demoralizing. America today is not the self-confident and determined nation that responded to Pearl Harbor; nor is it the America that heard from its leader, at another moment of crisis, the powerful words “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; nor is it the calm America that waged the Cold War with quiet persistence despite the knowledge that a real war could be initiated abruptly within minutes and prompt the death of 100 million Americans within just a few hours. We are now divided, uncertain and potentially very susceptible to panic in the event of another terrorist act in the United States itself.

Susceptible to panic, indeed. With the groundwork for that panic laid by our own leaders.

Chertoff’s response is essentially a confession to Brzezinski’s insights. “Make No Mistake: This Is War” starts with the obligatory - and, frankly, tired - 9/11 reference:

As the rubble of the Twin Towers smoldered in 2001, no one could have imagined a day when America’s leaders would be criticized for being tough in protecting Americans from further acts of war.Now, less than six years later, that day has arrived.

His next step is a surprisingly tawdry attempt to link Brzezinski with the minuscule fringe of 9/11 conspiracy theorists.

Since Sept. 11, a conspiracy-minded fringe has claimed that American officials plotted the destruction. But when scholars such as Zbigniew Brzezinski accuse our leaders of falsely depicting or hyping a “war on terror” to promote a “culture of fear,” it’s clear that historical revisionism has gone mainstream.

Chertoff’s next shot is stunningly revealing.

The impulse to minimize the threat we face is eerily reminiscent of the way America’s leaders played down the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary fanaticism in the late 1970s. That naive approach ultimately foundered on the kidnapping of our diplomats in Tehran.

In translation: “Your caution with Iran, Brzezinski, brought down President Carter’s administration. We’re not making that mistake.”

Iran was a threat to the Carter administration, and Iran is a threat to the Bush administration. But is it a threat to our country? Secretary Chertoff appears focused on defending the current political regime, not on assuring the American people of their security.

There is much more to commend these two pieces. On the “war” question, Chertoff says: “Well, the short answer comes from our enemies. Osama bin Laden’s fatwa of Feb. 23, 1998, was a declaration of war … .”

Chertoff has apparently ceded control of the Department of Defense to bin Laden, who said in October 2004, “All that we have to do is to send two Mujahideen to the furthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses … .” It’s hard not to conclude that our relatively less powerful terrorist opponents are playing our political leaders like a fiddle.

Speaking of the Department of Defense, if there is an actual “War on Terror,” one would expect the Secretary of Defense to make that case.

Link Analysis and 9/11

In our paper Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining, Jeff Jonas and I pointed out the uselessness of data mining for finding terrorists. The paper was featured in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this year, and a data mining disclosure bill discussed in that hearing was recently marked up in that Committee.

On his blog, Jeff has posted some further thinking about 9/11 and searching for terrorists. He attacks a widespread presumption about that task forthrightly:

The whole point of my 9/11 analysis was that the government did not need mounds of data, did not need new technology, and in fact did not need any new laws to unravel this event!

He links to a presentation about finding the 9/11 terrorists and how it could have been done by simply following one lead to another.

Jeff feels strongly that Monday morning quarterbacking is unfair, and I agree with him. Nobody in our national security infrastructure knew the full scope of what would happen on 9/11, and so they aren’t blameworthy. Yet we should not shrink from the point that diligent seeking after the 9/11 terrorists, using traditional methods and the legal authorities existing at the time, would have found them.

Morbid Comparisons

On Monday, a student at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 of his colleagues and then himself – the most deadly peacetime shooting incident in U.S. history. Many Americans are still grieving about this incident and are puzzled about what would lead a young man to such deadly behavior.

On Wednesday, terrorists killed 312 civilians in Iraq, including 140 civilians in a truck bombing across from the busy Sadriya market in a mostly Shi’ite neighborhood in Baghdad, only hours after Prime Minister al-Maliki committed the Iraqi government to assume responsibility for security by the end of this year. The deaths due to the terrorism in Iraq on Wednesday substantially exceeded the high level of recent terrorism. Terrorists killed 500 Iraqi civilians last week, including 47 civilians killed when a suicide bomber blew up a car at a busy bus station in Karbala.  A truck bomb destroyed a major bridge across the Tigris River, and a suicide bomber penetrated the fortress-like Green Zone, blowing himself up inside the parliament cafeteria and killing one member of parliament. Moreover, last week was not unusual in Iraq. Over the past year, terrorist attacks killed 73 Iraqi civilians per day, including those by the 17 bombings that killed 50 or more civilians. (These estimates are from press releases by Antiwar.com and are based on reports in the Iraqi press).

Most Americans have no comprehension of the level of terrorism in Iraq. Since the American population is 12 times the Iraqi population, the above numbers should be multiplied by 12 to understand the relative magnitude of terrorist activities in the United States and Iraq. At the recent rate of terrorist activities in Iraq, around 876 Americans per day would be killed by terrorist attacks! At that rate, Americans would be experiencing a level of grief and despair beyond our current comprehension.

I draw several lessons from this morbid comparison: There is every reason to improve our understanding of the motives that led to the massacre at Virginia Tech and the responses that might have reduced the number of fatalities, because the victims were Americans and these conditions are more likely to be under our control. At the same time, we should recognize that the presence of a substantial number of American troops in Iraq may have contributed to but, at least, has not reduced the extraordinary rate of terrorism, that more troops or different tactics are not likely to be more successful, and that the several civil wars underway in Iraq are not under our control. We have an important stake in reducing the number of future incidents like that at Virginia Tech and Oklahoma City. It is much less clear that we have an important stake in the outcome of the several civil wars in Iraq.