Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

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?”

Up from Neoconservatism

Today, NYT columnist David Brooks tells us that he is disillusioned with the dream of transforming Iraqi society from the top down.  Better late than never.  But then Brooks has the audacity to criticize Senator James Webb’s idea of a slow pull-out because “it takes no note of the long-term political and humanitarian consequences.”

This is too much. 

Let’s not forget that Jim Webb anticipated the current debacle in Iraq back in 2002.  At that time, David Brooks was calling skeptics of Bush’s Iraqi war plans “kibitzers.”  In fact, Brooks was not only urging Bush to use our military power to transform Iraqi society, he went further and advocated the use of military power to transform the entire Arab world.  Thus, on a John McLaughlin scale of “anticipating the long term consequences of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East,” Webb gets something approaching “metaphysical certitude” whereas David Brooks is off somewhere in the negative numbers.

The neocons have had a pretty good record with respect to short-term politics.  That is, they often get their policy proposals adopted.  Unfortunately, we all must face the disastrous consequences of those policies. 

Hear That? It’s the Sound of a Nation Constricting

Beginning today, citizens of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda are required to present a passport to enter the United States when arriving by air from any part of the Western Hemisphere.

This new restriction on local international travel is part of the “Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.” Tightening up on travel documentation was a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that Congress passed into law in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

To downplay the consequences of this new travel restriction, a Department of Homeland Security press release points out that over 90 percent of U.S. citizens, 97 percent of Canadians, and just about all Mexicans and Bermudans flying to the United States over the past week arrived with passports. But this means that fully 10 percent of Americans who currently travel overseas this way are going to be at least inconvenienced, and at most dissuaded, from doing so.

It’s hard to quantify what a marginal restriction on travel like this means, but let’s try:

As early as January 1, 2008, the new restriction may apply to citizens entering the U.S. from the Western Hemisphere by land or sea. Air travelers are probably more likely than land or border crossers to have passports so let’s assume that 10 percent of all American border crossers lack passports.

To get a rough idea of what this means, in 1999, there were approximately 300 million roundtrips between the United States and Mexico and the United States and Canada, the vast majority of them same-day trips. Let’s assume 250 million of them were U.S. citizens. If 1% of these trips don’t happen (10% of current non-passport holders) because of the new Western Hemisphere travel restrictions, that’s 2.5 million cross-border trips forgone each year, along with the commerce, goodwill, and freedom those trips would have entalied.

What price freedom? Well, let’s make it 10 bucks. At that price, using these strictly back-of-envelope estimates, WHTI costs $25 million per year (not counting the cost of administration). The net present value of a $25 million annual expenditure is $500 million (at a 5% interest rate). In other words, more than half-a-billion dollars (a low estimate) worth of freedom and commerce goes down the drain starting today.

It would be worth every penny if it improved our national security by a similar margin. Alas, it does not.

The reason why requiring passports at borders provides so very little security boils down to the fact that identity does not reveal intention.

In our daily lives, we use identity to assure ourselves of the bona fides of others - neighbors, coworkers, stores, and restaurants, for example. But terrorists and hardened criminals are not similarly constrained by the social and legal pressures we can bring to bear on our law-abiding neighbors.

You could have perfect knowledge of who everyone is - lock down everyone’s identity with a mandatory cradle-to-grave biometric tracking system - and you would still not prevent crime and terrorism. I have carefully analyzed the utility of identity for security in my book, Identity Crisis.

Terrorists can defeat an identity-based security system either physically or logically. They can enter the country someplace other than a border crossing for example - and the half-billion expendture on WHTI is 100% wasted. A logical evasion of identity-based border security is to enter the country legally, not having participated in terrorism planning or acts before. This was the technique used by al Qaeda with most of the 9/11 terrorists.

Checking passports at the border of the country is what security expert Bruce Schneier correctly calls “security theater.” It may make you feel safer, but it doesn’t make you safer. It does corral law-abiding citizens into the habit of showing ID as they go about their business, and it puts information about law-abiding travelers into government data stores for who-knows-what future use.

With the travel restrictions going into effect today, America does not get safer, just smaller.