Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

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.

Soaring Cost Overruns

Last week, we found out that new combat ships for the Navy will cost taxpayers at least 59% more than promised.

Today, the Washingon Post reports that upgraded Air Force cargo planes will cost taxpayers at least 35% more than originally promised.

Are such cost overruns some sort of unfortunate accident? Or are they a routine scam perpetrated by an iron triangle of federal officials, companies feeding off the government’s teat, and members of Congress with taxpayer-financed activities in their districts? 

Examine the record of overspending in the table here and decide for yourself.

Hill Fires Back at Bolton

A lot of observers took note when former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton blasted the Bush administration’s new North Korea deal before the ink was dry:

You know, Secretary Powell in 2001 started off the administration by saying he was prepared to pick up where the Clinton administration left off. President Bush changed course and followed a different approach. This is the same thing that the State Department was prepared to do six years ago. If we going to cut this deal now, it’s amazing we didn’t cut it back then. So I’m hoping that this is not really what’s going to happen.

Now that the deal has been seemingly endorsed by the president, it looks like Christopher Hill, the architect of the deal, is feeling his oats and looking to shoot back at Bolton. On the Charlie Rose Show the other night, Hill engaged in this exchange:

CHARLIE ROSE: You believe — there are those who suggest there are hard-liners in North Korea who don’t believe this will happen.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Hard-liners in North Korea? There are hard-liners all over the place.

CHARLIE ROSE: Hard-liners in Washington?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: I sometimes think they’re all related, because there are hard-liners who don’t believe in a negotiated process.

Now, for those not versed in the subtlety of cufflinked diplo-speak, this isn’t such a jab, but in the State Department lexicon, this is about as close as you get to a middle finger. (Secretary of State Rice had responded to Bolton’s criticism by stating flatly, “He’s just wrong.”)

Substantively, there’s an interesting question here: do you take what you know to be an imperfect deal in order to at least, say, retard the North Koreans’ nuclear program? In a Korea war game conducted by the Atlantic magazine a couple years back, former Clinton administration official Robert Gallucci described the thinking after having argued with Kenneth “Cakewalk” Adelman and retired Lt. Gen Thomas McInerney about the right approach to dealing with North Korea:

“When I came back with the Agreed Framework deal and tried to sell it,” he said, “I ran into the same people sitting around that table — the general to my right, Ken across from me. They hated the idea of trying to solve this problem with a negotiation.

“And I said, ‘What’s your — pardon me — your [expletive] plan, then, if you don’t like this?’

“ ‘We don’t like—’

“I said, ‘Don’t tell me what you don’t like! Tell me how you’re going to stop the North Korean nuclear program.’

“ ‘But we wouldn’t do it this way—’

“ ‘Stop! What are you going to do?’

“I could never get a goddamn answer. What I got was, ‘We wouldn’t negotiate.’”

I pointed out that the North Koreans had — as McInerney emphasized — cheated on the 1994 agreement. “Excuse me,” Gallucci said, “the Soviets cheated on virtually every deal we ever made with them, but we were still better off with the deal than without it.”

To people who say that negotiating with the North Koreans rewards bad behavior, Gallucci says, “Listen, I’m not interested in teaching other people lessons. I’m interested in the national security of the United States. If that’s what you’re interested in, are you better off with this deal or without it? You tell me what you’re going to do without the deal, and I’ll compare that with the deal.”

He was adamant that we were better off under the Agreed Framework—cheating and all — than we are now. “When the Clinton folks went out of office, the North Koreans only had the plutonium they had separated in the previous Bush administration. Now they’ve got a whole lot more. What did all this ‘tough’ [expletive] give us? It gave us a much more capable North Korea. Terrific!”

On a less substantive note, all the back-and-forth sniping between the diplomats and the Boltonites should make Bolton’s forthcoming memoir all the more readable. He’s reportedly “typing as fast as his fingers can go.”

‘Terror Porn’

The Homeland Security budget has become a business-as-usual way for politicians to steer tax dollars to contributors and supporters. But even though the budget is being allocated using traditional pork-barrel methods, the arguments for more homeland security spending are based on exaggerated claims that the money is necessary to thwart terrorism.

Veronique de Rugy, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and Cato adjunct, call these claims ”terror porn.” ABC News’ John Stossel quoted de Rugy as part of a recent report:

[T]he bureaucracy hypes terrorism to justify its pork. “Terror porn” is what economist Veronique de Rugy calls it. Why “porn”? “Because porn sells, [and] terrorism sells even better,” she says. “It’s great for politicians. They can campaign on the fact that they are protecting us. They also can campaign on the fact that they’re bringing more money to their states.”

Lots of small towns do get absurd grants for homeland security. Lake County, Tenn., a rural county with only 8,000 people, got nearly $200,000 in homeland-security money. …”I don’t know that terrorists will come, but I don’t know they won’t come,” Lake County Mayor Macie Roberson told us, smiling.

At least he didn’t do what Columbus, Ohio did: spend it on bulletproof vests for police dogs.

Inordinate fear of terrorism leads to more than just wasteful spending. Stossel also cites a study estimating that 1,000 people have died because they avoided air travel and instead relied on a much riskier mode of travel:

Of course, terrorism is a real threat. But fear kills people, too. A University of Michigan study found that an additional 1,000 Americans died in car accidents in the three months after Sept. 11, because they were afraid to fly. We need to keep risk in perspective.

USA Today Goes 0-5 on REAL ID

This morning the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Public Liaison was good enough to email me a copy of USA Today’s editorial supporting the REAL ID Act.  Curiously absent from the email was a copy of, or even a link to, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero’s opposing view.

It has been called unwise to argue with someone who buys ink by the ton, but USA Today’s praiseworthy adoption of “Web 2.0” interactivity on its Web site shows how ink is shrinking in relevance.  So let’s go ahead and see how the paper did in its point-by-point assessment of REAL ID.  Below, USA Today’s points are in bold.  My commentary in roman text:

Taking the arguments of Real ID opponents one at a time:

•It won’t make the nation safer. True, there’s no guarantee that the law would have stopped the 9/11 hijackers and that determined terrorists won’t find a way around the new requirements. Averting terror attacks, however, requires layers of security. Credible IDs are an important layer.

To be more clear, the law would not have stopped the 9/11 hijackers.  All of the 9/11 attackers could have gotten driver’s licenses legally had the REAL ID Act been the law on September 11, 2001.  Identification really doesn’t provide any security against committed threats.

“Layered security” is a legitimate way of thinking about things.  One shouldn’t rely on a single security system, because that creates a single point of failure.  However, security layering doesn’t end the inquiry.  Each layer must provide security that is cost-justified.  If creating a national ID doesn’t create a substantial protection - and it doesn’t - the national ID layer does more harm than good.  Speaking of cost …

•It costs too much. Motorists will have to spend an estimated $20 more, a relatively small sum for a standardized, tamper-proof license. For states, the costs are estimated at up to $14.6 billion over five years, offset by as much as $100 million in federal grants this year alone, on top of $40 million in federal aid already provided. Governors can make a case for more help, but cost-sharing arguments shouldn’t stop the program from going forward.

DHS’s own cost estimate is that REAL ID costs over $17 billion dollars.  That’s about $50 per man, woman, and child in the United States.  State government officials are probably not enthused to know that DHS is making available less than 1 percent of the costs to implement REAL ID.

•It violates privacy. The creation of large databases always is reason to be wary. But the new regulations don’t create a national ID card or giant Big Brother-like federal database. States will still issue the licenses and retain information used to verify identity. Making an existing database more credible threatens privacy far less than many private sector data collections do.

To most people, a nationally standardized, government-issued card that is effectively mandatory to carry is a national ID card.

No database, huh?  Here’s section 202(d) of the Act:

To meet the requirements of this section, a State shall adopt the following practices in the issuance of drivers’ licenses and identification cards: …

(12) Provide electronic access to all other States to information contained in the motor vehicle database of the State. 

(13) Maintain a State motor vehicle database that contains, at a minimum–

(A) all data fields printed on drivers’ licenses and identification cards issued by the State; and

(B) motor vehicle drivers’ histories, including motor vehicle violations, suspensions, and points on licenses.

As to private sector data collections, these, at least, people can prevent.  But if the private sector is wrong to do this, two wrongs don’t make a right.

It forces illegal immigrants to drive without licenses or insurance. Illegal immigrants won’t be able to get Real ID licenses, but states will be allowed to issue permits allowing them to drive and obtain insurance. In any event, the nation’s immigration problems require a comprehensive solution in Washington; they can’t be solved at state motor vehicle departments.

When the state of New Mexico de-linked driver licensing and immigration status, uninsured vehicle rates in the state dropped from 33 percent to 17 percent.  Unlicensed driving, hit-and-run accidents, and insurance rates probably followed a similar course.  It’s true that states will be allowed to issue non-federally-compliant IDs, including to illegal immigrants.  Knowing that such cards are “for illegals,” illegals are unlikely to get them.  Thanks to REAL ID, these drivers will kill innocent law-abiding Americans on the highways.

It’s too hasty. This is just absurd. DHS gave states until the end of 2009 to have programs in place to replace all licenses by 2013 — a sluggish 12 years after the 9/11 attacks.

Each day that driver’s licenses lack credibility is a day of needless vulnerability. As DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress last month, “If we don’t get it done now, someone’s going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 Commission why we didn’t do it.”

Few have made the argument that REAL ID is “too hasty.”  The Department of Homeland Security’s regulations didn’t make the law workable and neither can a delay.  The real problem is the law itself, and it needs to be repealed.

Careful observers noted the contrast between Secretary Chertoff’s urgency when speaking to Congress about REAL ID and his Department’s willingness to kick implementation down the road another year and a half, to December 2009.  Cards wouldn’t even be in everyone’s hands until 2013.  This puts the lie to the idea that a national ID is a security tool at all.

USA Today’s editorial page has been rather good on privacy issues in the past, and willing to call out government hypocrisy.  They took a winger on this one and got it wrong.