Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Aqua Teen Overreaction Force?

Boston officials investigating this week’s marketing campaign gone awry should be sure to include themselves in the scrutiny, asking if they overreacted to the incident.

A In case you missed the story, Cartoon Network, a division of Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting, recently launched a “guerrilla marketing campaign” to promote its new adult-audience cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force. As part of the campaign, the network hired New York marketing firm Interference Inc. to place notepad-sized, electronically lit signs of the show’s “mooninite” characters in unusual locations around urban areas.

The campaign received little notice in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Austin, Texas. But in Boston, public officials treated the signs as a possible terrorist threat, closing bridges, subway stations, roadways, and even part of the Charles River while bomb squads removed the signs.

Once the nature of the signs became known, Boston mayor Thomas Menino issued a press release blasting the campaign:

It is outrageous, in a post-9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme. I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred during the response to today’s incidents.

Estimates for those expenses have already topped $1 million.

Boston officials’ initial concern is understandable and appropriate. Seeing an out-of-place object containing batteries, circuitry, and glowing lights is unsettling in these times and it should be investigated. But at what point should Boston officials have realized that the signs posed no threat, and called off the bomb squads?

This raises an issue that we often discuss here at Cato, and that has become especially important in the post-9/11 era: should we be more concerned about Type-1 errors (false positives) or Type-2 errors (false negatives)?

Detection systems, whether mechanical (burglar alarms, ultrasounds) or human (analysts, emergency services workers) are rarely error-free. Often, we have to decide whether we want a very sensitive detection system that likely will detect any real problem but also subjects us to Type-1 errors, or else a less sensitive system that likely won’t give us many false alarms but may also miss a real problem.

Boston officials’ bomb-squad response to the mooninite signs is a perfect example of a Type-1 error produced by a highly sensitive detection system. I suspect that government officials would defend the high sensitivity, saying “it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

But Type-1 errors can end up making us feel very sorry. The current Iraq War can be considered a Type-1 error resulting from the Bush administration’s high sensitivity to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Or consider the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, during which local schools publicized that they were in “lockdown mode” and keeping schoolchildren indoors — that is, they went into “better safe than sorry” mode. The snipers later told police that the schools’ pronouncements enticed the snipers to try to kill a child, and they ultimately wounded a 13-year-old as he arrived at his Bowie, Md., middle school.

For an excellent discussion of why 9/11 should not lead us to be too accepting of Type-1 errors, read Ohio State University national security professor John Mueller’s article “A False Sense of Insecurity?

Facts, Lies, Statistics and NIEs

The big news on the defense and foreign policy front is the release earlier today of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, an unclassified summary of which is now available online (.pdf). Congressional staff are poring over a much longer (90-page), classified version. President Bush was presented with a copy of the full report yesterday.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley discussed the NIE with reporters, characterizing the report as “a good statement about the risks if we do not succeed in Iraq, for Iraqis, for the region, and for Americans here at home.” (Count this as Exhibit A for the defense.) 

Bloggers immediately pounced on the report to make the counterpoint, namely that the Bush administration’s escalation plan — by the NIE’s own admission — couldn’t possibly work (Exhibit B for the prosecution).

The near-instantaneous interpretation of a key intelligence assessment is hardly a new phenomenon. As I explain in my book John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap, the selective leaking and politically motivated interpretation of intelligence muddied the water on the nature of the Soviet threat in the late 1950s. (A more digestible paper I wrote for the Princeton Project on National Security that discusses these 1950s-era debates, as well as a discussion of the “Team B” controversy of the 1970s, can be found here.)

The response to the latest Iraq NIE fits a similar pattern. Each side is fixing on a few relevant passages to prove its case or, failing that, to engender doubt about the other side’s arguments.

For example, advocates for an expeditious withdrawal (of which I am one) can point to the NIE’s statement that “Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the time frame of this Estimate,” and conclude that the likelihood of success is extremely small.

On the other side, opponents of withdrawal can point to the NIEs discussion of what might ensue if and when U.S. forces withdraw. These are the passages that Hadley highlighted in his press briefing.

No NIE could ever hope to resolve such disputes. However, from my perspective, the key to interpreting NIEs lies in the probabilities assigned to various predictions. The likelihood that a particular event will play out is never expressed in numerical terms. But this NIE includes a useful tutorial for NIE naifs that tries to explain how different words (“likely,” “unlikely,” “probably,” “may be,” etc.) should be interpreted along a probability continuum, from remote to almost certain.

So, returning to the passage pertaining to a U.S. withdrawal, pay close attention to the qualifiers (in my italics, with my impertinent questions in brackets):

If coalition forces were withdrawn [ever? in less than 18 months?], if such a rapid [how rapid?] withdrawal were to take place, we judge that the Iraqi security forces would be unlikely to survive as a nonsectarian national institution. Neighboring countries, invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally, might intervene openly in the conflict. Massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable. AQI, or al Qaeda in Iraq would attempt to use parts of the country, particularly al Anbar Province, to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq. [attempt, perhaps; but how likely is it that they would succeed in establishing a comfortable safe haven. My guess? Not likely. See here and here.] And spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion.

No one disputes that conditions in Iraq are dire. What remains of a debate in this country is between those who believe that we must pay any price, and bear any burden, to succeed in Iraq, because failure would spell the “beginning of the end” of Western civilization (hat tip to Justin Logan). On the other side are those who believe that the price that we have paid in Iraq is already too great, and that there is a no reasonable likelihood that the Bush administration’s stated goals in the country can be achieved at anything approaching a reasonable cost. This is a debate between the believers and the non-believers, if you will.

It would be unreasonable to expect, therefore, that this NIE will resolve the debate one way or the other. Ultimately, policymakers must make a judgment, on the basis of imperfect information, and be prepared to explain and defend that position to the people that elected them to office.

John McCain’s Empty Threat

The NYT has a front-pager this morning on the fact that “In Senate, Allies of Bush Attempt to Halt Iraq Vote.” It describes a resolution offered by John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham that seeks to “set benchmarks for the Iraqi government and describe the troop increase as a final chance for the United States to restore security in Baghdad.”

“Final chance?” Sounds serious. But is it? Consider McCain and Lieberman were at AEI earlier this month, warning, in the case of Senator McCain, that if we were to leave, it would be “the beginning of the end, in some respects” of Western civilization.

But say you’re an adviser to Maliki, and you see these two offering a resolution that says this is your last chance, this is it, we’ll pull the plug if you can’t get it together. (Put aside the fact that there’s no chance either of them would ever vote to actually cut off funding for the war, the only practical tool Congress has to stop it.) Then your researchers bring you their AEI presentation in which McCain says it’s the beginning of the end of Western civilization if we leave.

Would you be worried? Would you think “Uh oh, if we don’t meet all of the American objectives, John McCain and Joe Lieberman are going to stop supporting the war. Of course, in their own minds, leaving on those terms would mean the beginning of the end of Western civilization, but they still might do it!” Doubtful.

If John McCain and Joe Lieberman think the stakes are as high as they implied at AEI, then they should just say flat-out: We can’t leave, no matter what, unless we achieve our goals. That’s an honest position, although one I think profoundly misguided.

Of course, the American people wouldn’t be too hot on such a proclamation. They certainly wouldn’t be inclined to, say, elect someone who said that to be president. But consistency’s never been McCain’s strong point.

It’s almost like the guy’s running for president or something.

Toward a Neo-Khomeinist Foreign Policy*

From the annals of irony, this from Laura Secor’s interesting rundown of the Iranian political scene in the NYT Magazine:

Composed partly of military and paramilitary elements, partly of extremist clerics like [Taqi] Mesbah-Yazdi and partly of inexperienced new conservative politicians, those in Ahmadinejad’s faction are often called “neoconservatives.” But to the extent that they have an ideology, it is less new than old, harking back to the early days of the Islamic republic. Since that time, the same elite has largely run Iranian politics, though it has divided itself into competing factions, and the act of wielding power has mellowed many hard-liners into pragmatists. Ahmadinejad’s faction, on the other hand, came into power speaking the language of the past but with the zeal of the untried.

Ali Ansari refers to “Iran’s neoconservatives” repeatedly in this book, but I thought it was more rhetorical flourish than an actual description that people use in Iran.

* Title reference here.

The Chuck Hagel Surge

Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel burst onto the national scene this week as the leading critic of President Bush’s “surge” plan for Iraq. After his widely reported speech at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, he’s become a hot topic in the blogosphere.

His possible presidential candidacy made the front page of the Washington Post today, and he got a love note from Peggy Noonan at opinionjournal.com (probably to be printed in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal). The Post says, “He is reviled by his party’s conservative base.”

Yes, right now the only thing conservatives know about him is his opposition to George W. Bush’s war plans, and conservatives are still inexplicably in thrall to the big-government Bush. But I’ll predict that over, say, the next 12 months leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Hagel is going to look increasingly wise and prescient to Republican voters. And as they come to discover that he’s a commonsense Midwestern conservative who opposed many of the Bush administration’s worst ideas, he’s going to look more attractive.

To see what all the fuss is about, click here.

Taylor vs. Woolsey this Sunday on Foreign Oil

This Sunday, I’ll be debating former CIA chief James Woolsey at a “conservative summit” in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the National Review. The topic: “Resolved: That the federal government should act to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.” James Woolsey, of course, will take the affirmative. 

Unfortunately, it seems as if there’s no room for new attendees, so if you’re not already registered for this weekend confab, you probably can’t get in. There is a good chance, however, that the debate will air live on C-SPAN (either I or II). So if you’ve got nothing better to do at 10:30 am EST Sunday, you might want to tune in.

The last time I tangled with Woolsey directly, it was during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee in July 2005. Both he and I were part of a four-member panel to testify about the Chinese National Oil Company (CNOOC) bid to buy a controlling interest in UNOCAL. Woolsey argued that the merger was the first shot of WWIII. I argued that it’s no business of ours whether UNOCAL stockholders sell their shares to CNOOC and that it’s no skin off America’s nose one way or the other. For those who missed the resulting fireworks, let me just say that I tore him apart and did so in grand style. I fully expect to do so again this weekend.

Each of us will have five minutes at the NR event to state our case. That’s a tall order. There is a lot that can be said — and has been said — about the alleged evils of foreign oil. Rather than get too deep into the policy weeds (that can wait until the Q&A), I think I’ll use the few minutes I have at the start to say something like the following:

The case for importing oil is the same as the case for importing, say, computer chips. If it’s cheaper to buy something from abroad than to produce it here at home, then the economy in general — and consumers in particular — are made wealthier by imports. Governmental interventions to discourage energy imports are, by definition, government interventions to discourage the use of cheap energy.

Mr. Woolsey contends that the government must act because foreign oil supplies are increasingly subject to disruption. True enough. But that’s why market actors are busily stockpiling oil in private inventories. They are saving oil for a rainy day in the hopes of making a profit if and when that disruption occurs. Private investors are also sinking increasingly large sums of money into oil futures in order to hedge against other investment bets and to diversify equity-heavy portfolios. This has further increased the stock of oil held off the market for future use. 

Many petroleum analysts, such as Philip Verleger and William Brown, think that private inventory buildup and the surge of dollars into oil futures markets is responsible for a large part of today’s price. How large is unclear, but Brown thinks that oil would sell for around $27 a barrel today were this not going on. Think of this as an oil tax — imposed by the market itself — to account, in part, for the possibility of future supply disruptions. In short, what makes James Woolsey think that the market isn’t already hedging sufficiently against the possibility of import disruptions?

And let’s not forget that a supply disruption anywhere in the world will increase the price of crude oil everywhere in the world. Accordingly, even if we imported zero oil, we would still be just as economically vulnerable to a terrorist attack on Saudi oil-producing facilities as we are at present.

Mr. Woolsey’s argument that dollars spent on oil imports funds Islamic extremism is only partially true. Oil revenues in the Middle East are established by global supply and demand, so even if the U.S. spent no money on Persian Gulf oil, producers would see the same revenue coming in the door — all things being equal. 

Regardless, there is no correlation between oil profits and Islamic terrorism. A thorough examination of oil prices from 1983 to present compared with data concerning Islamic terrorist attacks (both in frequency and in body counts) reveals no relationship between the two whatsoever. We’ll soon be publishing the regression analysis to prove it.

In sum, foreign oil is cheap oil. Market actors have every incentive to take the risks of supply disruption into account when they buy products from abroad. Consumers can hedge against these risks, if they are so interested, in any number of ways. Government has no business doing for us what we can do for ourselves. Conservatives have no business embracing government dictates about what oil companies can buy and sell absent Mr. Woolsey’s consent.

I probably can’t pack all that into a five-minute opening statement, but we’ll see.

A Look into the “Grinder”

Senator Hagel is the one Republican in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who stood against President Bush’s plan to escalate the war in Iraq.  Explaining his reasoning, Hagel noted

There is no strategy. This is a ping pong game with American lives. And we better be damn sure we know what we are doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder.

Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney remains focused on the “enormous successes” our policy in Iraq has created, and grouses that people who oppose the President’s plan “are so eager to write off this effort or declare it a failure.”  In Vice President Cheney’s world, we are not in a “terrible situation” in Iraq.

The New York Times has a report today describing the early results of the “surge”:

In a miniature version of the troop increase that the United States hopes will secure the city, American soldiers and armored vehicles raced onto Haifa Street before dawn to dislodge Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias who have been battling for a stretch of ragged slums and mostly abandoned high rises. But as the sun rose, many of the Iraqi Army units who were supposed to do the actual searches of the buildings did not arrive on time, forcing the Americans to start the job on their own.

When the Iraqi units finally did show up, it was with the air of a class outing, cheering and laughing as the Americans blew locks off doors with shotguns. As the morning wore on and the troops came under fire from all directions, another apparent flaw in this strategy became clear as empty apartments became lairs for gunmen who flitted from window to window and killed at least one American soldier, with a shot to the head.

Whether the gunfire was coming from Sunni or Shiite insurgents or militia fighters or some of the Iraqi soldiers who had disappeared into the Gotham-like cityscape, no one could say.

“Who the hell is shooting at us?” shouted Sgt. First Class Marc Biletski, whose platoon was jammed into a small room off an alley that was being swept by a sniper’s bullets. “Who’s shooting at us? Do we know who they are?”