Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

No Experience Needed

The Washington Post reports today that job-seeking Americans who peruse employment listings for the ensuing holiday shopping season are likely to find far fewer openings than last year. That is hardly a surprise: unemployment is rising, and people are looking for work in places and industries that they wouldn’t have considered previously.

It is far more surprising that President-elect Obama’s job listings for personnel to fill the top posts in his new administration seem to all be prefaced with ”only experienced persons need apply.” This from a man whose lack of experience did not block his path to the Oval Office, and might ultimately have cleared the way.

Don’t get me wrong: I much prefer a skilled surgeon to one who is performing his first operation. An accountant who has worked for dozens of clients will likely make far fewer errors than the person who has just started her own practice. But experience doesn’t automatically translate into competence; wisdom and insight might actually be impeded by years of working in the same field, exposed only to the canon of the profession.

New thinking is particularly needed in new industries. Most of the people that Jeff Bezos hired to staff his start-up had never worked in the Internet business, and quite a few had never worked in any business at all. Today, is a retailing juggernaut. 

New thinking – and new faces – are also welcome in old, tired industries that have run out of new ideas. (Yes, that means you Detroit automakers.)

Alas, the Washington foreign policy community has also largely run out of ideas, and the men and women in both established institutions and those newly created are still marketing products that Americans no longer want to buy. Ignoring the manifest lessons of Iraq, “experienced” Washingtonians on both the left and the right are clamoring for new and better ways to build foreign countries and fight other people’s wars; Beyond-the-Beltway Americans want to build our own country, and bring an end to our own wars.

Given his recent victory, Barack Obama clearly understands the public’s desire for change. But that applies to both foreign and domestic policy. The debacle known as the Iraq War won the support of left-leaning think tanks and academics – and 29 of 50 Senate Democrats – and yet the President-elect appears to be turning to this same, small cadre to staff his new administration. Maybe he didn’t mean it when he said that good judgment matters more than experience? Or maybe he doesn’t fully appreciate just how harmful our foreign policies since the end of the Cold War have been, and therefore misses the urgency of the need for change at Foggy Bottom and the NSC?

Should We Fear Sea-Smurfs?

On October 1, active duty US Army troops for the first time began an assignment under control of Northern Command, the Combatant Command created in 2002 for homeland defense. This deployment, and particularly the revelation that the troops were training for law enforcement missions like crowd control, caused an outbreak of consternation on liberal and libertarian blogs. There is great uncertainty about why the Pentagon assigned active duty troops for homeland security and what purpose they serve. The main fear is that the mission will contravene Posse Comitatus, the 19th century law that restricts the use of the military domestically. The ACLU even filed a Freedom of Information Act request to compel the release of plans for the troops’ use. This post is an effort both to answer some of these questions and to raise others.

Here’s the bottom line: The trouble is less this particular assignment, which probably does not upend Posse Comitatus, than the gradual militarization of various governmental tasks in the United States. The creation of the Sea Smurfs is just the latest step in that process.

The troops are the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry division. In this year-long assignment they will be a CBRNE Consequence Management Response Force, or CCMRF (pronounced Sea-Smurf). CBRNE stands for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive. The 1st BCT is the first of three CCMRF teams, who will comprise 15,000 soldiers in total. The other two will come from the Army National Guard. The Pentagon assigned these troops to Northern Command – probably over the objections of the Army, which likes to train its troops for war – because there was concern in Congress and elsewhere that Northcom could not ensure a proficient response to large scale disasters unless it controlled forces. For an example of this thinking, see this GAO report from April.

The assignment essentially amounts to extra training and equipment for responding to unconventional weapons attacks.  The training will occur at Fort Stewart in Georgia where the troops are based. It does not change rotation schedules to Iraq of Afghanistan.

Why is this not an obvious violation of Posse Comitatus? Because it is shot full of holes already. It is a statute, and other statutes create exceptions. Today, the military can provide equipment and expertise to police, fly fighter aircraft to protect airspace, respond to storms and do a host of other things in the United States. What Posse Comitatus now prevents the military from doing is law enforcement: arrests, crowd-control, detention, search and seizure activities, and so on. That does not apply to the National Guard when they are under state command.  And of course, there is an insurrection exception to Posse Comitatus. If the President declares an insurrection, troops can engage in law enforcement.

The 2006 Defense Authorization bill appeared to create new exceptions to Posse Comitatus. Those exceptions were undone, the status quo restored, via legislation passed by Senator Pat Leahy in early 2008. However, the administration’s theory of executive power says that they can use the troops as they see fit to deal with terrorism, whatever the law. There is probably a secret Office of Legal Counsel memo from 2001 that asserts that Posse Comitatus does not apply in the event of terrorist attacks. (That memo should be near the top of pyre when Obama takes office.)

Sea-smurfs can then do tasks short of law enforcement, including cleaning up after attacks. If terrorist attacks qualify as an insurrection, troops could perform law enforcement tasks in their aftermath. That might explain why the Sea-Smurfs received law enforcement training, but the Army denies that the training was related to domestic duties. It is good that the ACLU is trying to figure what exactly is intended.

Even if this mission is legal, however, it does not make it wise. Homeland defense activities like storms and terrorist attacks are the job of local and state authorities, and in extreme cases, the National Guard. Historically, these forces have been sufficient. Failures like Hurricane Katrina resulted more from poor decision making than the lack of capacity.

It’s true that a biological or nuclear attack is another can of worms.  (One reason to avoid man-power intensive occupational wars is that they prevent the National Guard from performing homeland missions.) It is also true that regular Army troops have more capacity. But the standard cannot be perfect preparation for all contingencies, especially when they are extremely low-probability events.

The real trouble with the Sea-Smurfs is the logic that justifies Northern Command: that Americans face a host of dangers at home that only military forces can protect them against. These dangers are grossly exaggerated, but even if they aren’t, someone beyond bloggers ought to be asking why it is the job of the military, let alone the federal government, to interdict drugs and refugees, clean up after storms, protect computers and hunt bad actors at home. Doesn’t this sap the military’s readiness for war? And doesn’t this militarization of government have some detrimental effect on liberal values?

Cato Today

Op-Ed: “The Voters’ Message to Republicans,” by Michael D. Tanner on

Given a choice between two “big-government parties,” voters will choose the Democrats every time.

Video: Daniel J. Ikenson discusses an auto industry bailout on CNN

Where is it written in scripture and in stone that we need to have a big three?…If one of them goes down, the industry will be doing much better.

Article: “Worse Than Bush?,” by Ted Galen Carpenter in National Interest Online

Although it is hard to imagine, Obama’s foreign policy could prove even worse than that of the Bush administration.

Article: “Save Parents the Lecture,” by Neal McCluskey in

Are there things that parents could do to improve education? Sure, but they don’t need… Barack Obama lecturing them on getting involved in their kids’ learning. What they need is real power over their kids’ education. What they need is school choice—but that’s something for which Obama refuses to use his bully pulpit.

Podcast: “The New Face of the GOP,” featuring Michael D. Tanner

DEA in Afghanistan

As Ted Galen Carpenter has noted, the War on Drugs is active in Afghanistan. Below is a photo from the DEA website of Special Agents burning a bunker of hashish in Afghanistan. Repeat: These guys are DEA agents, not U.S. soldiers.

There is an undeniable connection between the narcotics trade and Taliban funding. However, any drug eradication should be pursued as a means of resource denial to insurgents, not as a goal in and of itself. We have to be smart about this. A major portion of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from the opium poppy trade – half in 2007, though down significantly this year. The quickest way to create an insurgent is to destroy a man’s livelihood. Opium eradication for its own sake will make the central government and Coalition forces increasingly unpopular and feed the insurgency.

The addition of the DEA into the equation makes this continued loss of rapport more likely. Some might make the case for having a good cop/bad cop strategy when dealing with local farmers – “tell us where the Taliban are or we’ll let the DEA torch your crops” – which would be persuasive if NATO troops weren’t already engaged in drug eradication. The addition of an agency with narcotics prohibition as its sole reason for existence guarantees that a focus on opium will continue with greater intensity and long after outliving its limited military utility.

For additional background, read this.

Scholarship or Advocacy?

I was interested to see that AEI’s Michael Rubin has published a paper titled “Can a Nuclear Iran Be Contained or Deterred?”  Rubin makes several points.

First, he argues, there is a real chance that Iran may just launch an unprovoked nuclear first-strike against Israel: “There is reason to take the worst case scenario seriously.”  He bases this judgment on a quote from Rafsanjani boasting to a domestic audience that Iran may be willing to suffer the nuclear strikes that would result from any Iranian strike against Israel, and argues that the anti-nuclear war statements from numerous other Iranian officials (he only cites one) “should not be taken at face value. They may be taqiya, religiously sanctioned dissimulation meant to lull an enemy.”

What he ignores is the track record of diplomatic behavior in Iran indicating that the most basic imperative of international relations–national self-preservation–has figured prominently (alongside brinkmanship and risk-taking) in modern Iranian diplomacy.  Attempting to divine intentions from conflicting public statements or even operational plans (which reminds one of the “Team B” experiment) is far less helpful in ascertaining whether the regime values self-preservation than is evaluating what the regime has done when faced with overwhelming force.

Rubin offers two observations on nuclear deterrence, the first of which is either confused or problematic: that for deterrence to work, Iran’s leaders must “prioritize the lives of its citizenry above certain geopolitical or ideological goals.”  Rubin does not cite any academic research on this point, but it should go without saying that his deterring actor–the United States–would be unlikely to focus any response on a countervalue strike as opposed to counterforce.  That is, the United States would not focus on holding Iranian citizens hostage to deter the Iranian government from striking, but rather would hold the Iranian government itself and Iranian military capabilities hostage.  Rubin’s framing of the issue is skewed toward the former conception, which makes it look much more likely (“well, the Iranian government mistreats its people anyway”) that the Iranian regime could convince itself that it could disregard the enormous costs of American retaliation.  Any conceivable response to an unprovoked nuclear strike would mean, at a bare minimum, the end of the Islamic Republic and an end to its “geopolitical or ideological goals,” unless those goals are achieved with self-immolation and handing the mantle of Islam to the Sunnis.

Rubin’s essay makes a number of other highly questionable assumptions and judgments.  The unfortunate reality is that the paper appears to have been published without a literature review, which would have uncovered a number of previous studies that dealt directly with the subject of his study and came to different conclusions.  I published a paper on the topic in 2006, but there is also Barry Posen, the director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, who authored a paper on the same topic, also in 2006.  There is also Christopher Hemmer, a professor at the U.S. Air War College, who authored a paper on the topic in the Autumn 2007 issue of Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College.

It is important when researching topics as central as these to examine the existing scholarly work to determine whether there have been previous discussions that could serve to refine one’s own thinking.  The fact that this study (and the study that Dr. Rubin coauthored for the Bipartisan Policy Center) has been published without a literature review raises serious questions about the standards backing up the scholarship.

More Unwelcome Big-Think from Donald Kerr

Donald Kerr, principal deputy director of national intelligence, created a stir last year when he opined about “privacy” in a way that redefined the concept as congenially to the intelligence community as possible.

I put it this way in a critique at the time:

“If you’ve identified yourself to your ISP,” he appears to think, “you’ve identified yourself to me.” The folks in his world may think that way, but that’s not the way the rest of us look at it, and it’s not consistent with a sound interpretation of the Fourth Amendment or life in a free society.

Now he’s back at it with “cybersecurity.”

Walter Pincus of the Washington Post reports on two recent Kerr speeches that have “called for a radical new relationship between government and the private sector” in this area:

One approach would have the government take equity stakes in companies developing technical products, in effect expanding the practice of In-Q-Tel, the CIA entity that invests in companies.

Another proposal is to provide the same protective capabilities applied to government Web sites, ending in .gov and .mil, to the private industry’s sites, ending in .com, which Kerr said have close to 98 percent of the nation’s most important information.
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“We have a responsibility … to help those companies that we take an equity stake in or those that are just out there in the U.S. economy, to protect the most valuable assets they have, their ideas and the people who create them,” he said.

The government-ownership-of-private-assets train is rolling out of the station and Kerr wants his agency to be on board. But he’s wrong. It’s the responsibility of private owners to secure their assets.

This is big-think we do not need. Just like with his contortion of “privacy,” Kerr would upend the roles and responsibilities of government and the private sector by giving government an ownership stake, for “cybersecurity” reasons or any other.