Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

“Isolationism”

There’s a mini-buzz in the blogosphere over the concept of isolationism today, since Jonah Goldberg is using the term in the LA Times and Jacob Weisberg is at Slate.

When the President kept referring to the specter of isolationism around this time last year, I wrote this piece in response, noting that

The term “isolationist” didn’t arise until the late nineteenth century, when it was made popular by Alfred Thayer Mahan, an ardent militarist, who used the term to slur opponents of American imperialism. As historian Walter McDougall has pointed out, America’s “vaunted tradition of ‘isolationism’ is no tradition at all, but a dirty word that interventionists, especially since Pearl Harbor, hurl at anyone who questions their policies.”

Bizarrely, libertarians, even given our support for unrestricted trade and extremely liberal immigration policies, have been victimized by the epithet.  So in some ways I think Jim Henley put it best when he pointed out that in many contexts today,

“isolationism” means a reluctance to travel a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense. I say, let’s have some of that.

Attorney General Gonzales and Mail Openings

The New York Daily News is reporting that the Bush administration has asserted the legal authority to search and inspect the mail without having to get search warrants. 

There is an “emergency” exception to the warrant requirement.  For example, if some bank robbers decide to take hostages and start making demands, a SWAT team can move in without a warrant.  When the emergency exception is ordinarily relied upon, the search is done out in the open - so the government’s actions are transparent.  The homeowner or business owner knows fairly quickly that agents conducted a search and can bring any abuse to the attention of the news media, the courts, or the legislature.  Those “checks” on police power are not in place with respect to mail openings.  We just don’t know what may be going on at the post office before we get our mail.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) specifically asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about mail openings at a 2005 hearing.  Here’s the exchange:

REP. JEFF FLAKE (R-AZ): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, General Gonzales.

Let me just try to bring this to the real world for a minute here, the real-world scenario, and see if we’re on the same page here. You may be familiar with one of the Fox News analysts, Andrew Napolitano, who wrote an op-ed a while ago. And let me just read a portion of it and get your response to it.

Quote: “The government can now, for the first time in American history, without obtaining the approval of a court, read a person’s mail and prosecute a person on the basis of what is in the mail.” Is that an accurate reflection of the law?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: I’m not – I don’t believe it is an accurate reflection of the law. Again, if we’re talking about the exercise of authorities under the Patriot Act, in most cases it does involve the department going to a federal judge and getting permission to use a proposed authority.

REP. FLAKE: I understand in most cases. But is that possible now, for the first time in history, without obtaining the approval of a court, to read a person’s mail and then prosecute the person on the basis of what is in that mail?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: That sounds to me like it would be a search. And I think that you would need probable cause to do that. You would need a warrant to do that, and you’d have to go to a federal judge in those cases, except, I think, in very rare circumstances, if in the event of an emergency. But even then you’d have to go to a judge after the fact and explain what you’ve done. So I don’t think that what he has said is accurate.

REP. FLAKE: But it would be accurate if you say in certain cases you would have to go to the judge after the fact.

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: But those are very rare and extraordinary circumstances. And so –

REP. FLAKE: How many of those circumstances have we had?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: I’m not aware of any.

REP. FLAKE: None?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: I’m not aware of any.

REP. FLAKE: If there are some, could you get back to my office with that information?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: I can certainly look into it.

Source: Hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, April 6, 2005.

I will be blogging about this some more later, but I expect the Senate and House Judiciary Committees will immediately begin to investigate this matter and call Mr. Gonzales in for questioning.

For background on the constitutional record of the Bush administration, read this.

Is Bush Helping Africa?

On Sunday, December, 31, the Washington Post featured a banner headline reading “Bush Has Quietly Tripled Aid to Africa.” The article noted:

The president has tripled direct humanitarian and development aid to the world’s most impoverished continent since taking office and recently vowed to double that increased amount by 2010 — to nearly $9 billion.

The moves have surprised — and pleased — longtime supporters of assistance for Africa, who note that because Bush has received little support from African American voters, he has little obvious political incentive for his interest.

“I think the Bush administration deserves pretty high marks in terms of increasing aid to Africa,” said Steve Radelet, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

Conservative press critics might be surprised at the positive tone of the article, which ran for 34 column inches, about a third of a page. But one could also wonder why the Post, in all that space, couldn’t find room for a single critical comment from a foreign aid skeptic. For decades, economists have argued that government-to-government aid bolsters dictatorial governments, increases dependency, and discourages local entrepreneurship and enterprise. People can hardly fail to note that Africa has been the largest recipient of economic aid for decades, and the continent remains poor and undeveloped. So will Bush’s huge increase in aid be more successful? The outlook isn’t good.

Post readers who want the full story might consult foreign aid critiques by pioneering development economist P. T. Bauer, former World Bank economist William Easterly, Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda, longtime aid practitioner Thomas Dichter, Cato’s Ian Vasquez, or four African economists, or this story from the BBC.

Sandy Berger: Oops, I Must Have Accidentally Stuck the Wrong Papers in My Briefcase, Hidden Them under a Construction Trailer, Come Back to Get Them, and Cut Them into Shreds

The Washington Post reports

On the evening of Oct. 2, 2003, former White House national security adviser Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger stashed highly classified documents he had taken from the National Archives beneath a construction trailer at the corner of Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW so he could surreptitiously retrieve them later and take them to his office, according to a newly disclosed government investigation.

The documents he took detailed how the Clinton administration had responded to the threat of terrorist attacks at the end of 1999. Berger removed a total of five copies of the same document without authorization and later used scissors to destroy three before placing them in his office trash, the National Archives inspector general concluded in a Nov. 4, 2005, report.

After archives officials accused him of taking the documents, Berger told investigators, he “tried to find the trash collector but had no luck.” But instead of admitting he had removed them deliberately — by stuffing them in his suit pockets on multiple occasions — Berger initially said he had removed them by mistake.

The fact that Berger, one of President Bill Clinton’s closest aides from 1997 to 2001, illicitly removed the documents is well-known: A federal judge in September 2005 ordered him to pay a $50,000 fine for his actions and forfeit his security clearance for three years.

What Berger did, and the ham-handed and comical methods by which he did it, are freshly detailed in the National Archives report, which the Associated Press obtained first under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Although the report reiterates that Berger’s main motive was to prepare himself for testifying before a commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, it makes clear that he not only sought to study the documents but also destroyed some copies and — when initially confronted — denied he had done so.

His lawyer, Lanny Breuer, said in a statement yesterday that Berger “considers this matter closed, and he is pleased to have moved on.”

More special rules for Washington insiders?

More Energy Security Gibberish (Wall Street Journal Edition)

Yesterday, the Journal ran a long, page one story featuring claims by retired Air Force General Charles Wald that oil production facilities around the world are dangerously vulnerable to terrorist attack and that the U.S. hasn’t done enough about it. General Wald is primarily worried about unguarded pipelines and chokepoints for tanker traffic and believes that the U.S. military needs to make “oil security” one of its chief concerns.

I was invited this morning by producers at CNBC’s Kudlow & Co. to debate General Wald, but alas, the General turned out to be unavailable, so the spot was scrapped. That’s too bad, because I was looking forward to engagement.

In short, General Wald is arguing that:

  • Market actors - who have spent billions of dollars on these facilities - are underinvetsting in security;
  • Producer states - who rely on oil revenues for most of their state revenue - are underinvesting in security as well; and finally:
  • If the U.S. military doesn’t do something about this, nobody will.

This is all pretty hard to swallow. Why would investor-owned oil companies be so carefree about their multi-billion-dollar facilities and capital assets? Are those companies run by stupid or myopic individuals? Likewise, poor governments have even more reason to be worried about securing oil production facilities and transit lanes than does the United States, because the economic harms caused by disruption would be far greater on the former than the latter.

While it’s certainly possible that oil companies and producer states are investing suboptimally when it comes to security expenditures, they have every incentive to make reasonable security investments. What makes General Wald think his assessment of the costs and benefits of those investments are better than those of investor-owned oil companies or the incumbent governments in question?

Now, let’s assume for the sake of argument that General Wald is indeed the master of this informational universe. If the U.S. taxpayer steps in via the U.S. military to undertake needed investments, what incentive do companies or governments have to make future security investments? Why wouldn’t both parties subsequently free-ride off the U.S. taxpayer for the rest of time?

And, not to put too fine a point on it, but is it really the military’s job to protect private corporate property? Shouldn’t the oil companies be paying those costs themselves? They, after all, are making a somewhat risky bet when they put their money into these regions. If that bet pays off, they make billions. If it doesn’t, then they should bear the loss alone if they’re going to reap the gain alone. Likewise, why should the U.S. military protect the economic assets of state-owned oil companies controlled by dubious regimes?

General Wald’s justification for all of this is that an oil supply disruption threatens the foundation of the American economy. That’s bunk. Recent research suggest that GDP is simply not affected that much by oil price spikes.

The contention that “we” aren’t doing enough to hedge against the possiblity of terror attacks on the oil supply infrastructure invites the question of just exactly who is this “we”? Market actors are building up oil inventories at a breakneck pace and an unprecidented amount of money is flowing into oil futures contracts. In other words, people in the market aren’t dumb. They know that a supply disruption is possible. And they’re acting on that possiblility by putting oil in the storage facilities for a rainy day.

But this is just more of the same-old same-old. Superficial bilge about energy security is the currency of the intellectual realm these days, and General Wald’s naval-gazing represents nothing new. What really got my attention was this:

In late 2002, he [Wald] was named deputy chief of the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, which also oversees parts of Central Asia and most of Africa. The command wasn’t on the front lines of the fight then about to begin in Iraq, and officers were searching for a mission.

Well, if the U.S. European Command has no mission and nothing to do, then why not shut it down? If it’s got to cast about looking for something to worry about, it can at least pick something that it can handle. Given how thinly stretched our troops are at the moment, is it really the best use of our resources to perform this nearly unimaginable task of defending thousands of miles of foreign pipelines from rifle-fired pot-shots?

The Pentagon Is Not Reporting the Good News from Iraq

The Pentagon said yesterday that violence in Iraq soared this fall to its highest level on record and acknowledged that anti-U.S. fighters have achieved a “strategic success” by unleashing a spiral of sectarian killings by Sunni and Shiite death squads that threatens Iraq’s political institutions.

In its most pessimistic report yet on progress in Iraq, the Pentagon described a nation listing toward civil war, with violence at record highs of 959 attacks per week, declining public confidence in government and “little progress” toward political reconciliation.

The Washington Post

Neocons Want a Mulligan on Iraq

And, it appears, President Bush may give it to them.  The LA Times reports:

military officials are taking a close look at a proposal advanced by Frederick W. Kagan, a former West Point Military Academy historian, to combine a surge with a quick buildup of the Marines and the Army. That could allow new units to take the place of the brigades sent to Iraq to augment the current force.

“It is essential for the president to couple any recommendation of a significant surge in Iraq with the announcement that he will increase permanently the size of the Army and the Marines,” Kagan said.

Kagan, who plans to release a preliminary report on his proposal Thursday, said he had discussed his ideas with people in the government. Although the military has had trouble meeting recruiting goals, Kagan said Army officials believed they could recruit at least an extra 20,000 soldiers a year. The Army missed its recruiting targets in 2005 but met this year’s goal.

This strategy faces a few obstacles, though.  First:

Only 12% of Americans support a troop increase, whereas 52% prefer a fixed timetable for withdrawal, a Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll has found.

Indeed.  This echoes this recent USA Today/Gallup poll which revealed that 57% of Americans want U.S. troops out of Iraq within one year.  Also, there are deeper problems with the “more troops” strategy:

Kalev Sepp, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School, said that the U.S. had demonstrated that many commanders simply did not understand how to mount effective, long-term counterinsurgency strategies.

Increasing the size of the force, Sepp said, will mean that U.S. forces continue to focus on killing insurgents, not training Iraqis. “That kind of approach is still tied to the idea that attrition, of just killing enough of our opponents, is going to get us to success,” Sepp said.

It’s disheartening in the extreme, almost to the point of being maddening, that President Bush continues to look to the folks who brought you the war in the first place for the way forward.  There are a few problems with the Kagan approach.

This surge of roughly 25,000 additional troops, at this stage in the conflict, is unlikely to even suppress the violence significantly in Baghdad.  Kaganites like to point to U.S. operations in Tal Afar as an analog.  In that instance, a population of (a guesstimated) 150,000 Iraqis was pacified by 3,800 U.S. soldiers, with Iraqi forces in tow.  Kagan protests, in response to those who say the forces don’t exist to replicate this strategy in the rest of Iraq or even Baghdad, that their opposition “rests on vague extrapolations of force ratios in Tal Afar to the entire population of Iraq or of Baghdad.”

But our extrapolations aren’t vague at all–they’re based on all the counterinsurgency literature out there.  Kagan’s plan doesn’t use the normal metrics for stability ops–he changes them completely.  He uses studies that are based on total population, but then decides, without much explanation, that only using the Sunni population for calculation is appropriate in this instance, since “it would be unnecessary and unwise to send coalition forces into Kurdistan or most of the Shiite lands.”

But force requirements in the literature aren’t based on hostile population or some sub-segment of the population, they’re based on total population.  Rarely can counterinsurgencies adequately quantify the number of hostile population.  So we use overall population for a metric.

Take this quintessential Parameters article by James Quinlivan of RAND.  Quinlivan points out that “From the start, practitioners of counterinsurgency have been clear in stating that the number of soldiers required to counter guerrillas has had very little to do with the number of guerrillas.”  You can’t slice the population the way Kagan does and then use the counterinsurgency literature for benchmarks.  It’s goalpost shifting.  Apples and oranges.

Discussing the more useful historical ratio, Quinlivan concludes that “Force ratios larger than ten members of the security forces for every thousand of population are not uncommon in current operations… . Sustaining a stabilizing force at such a force ratio for a city as large as one million … could require a deployment of about a quarter of all regular infantry battalions in the U.S. Army.”  The very study Kagan cites (.pdf) echoes this finding:

International troop levels should be at least 1,000 soldiers per 100,000 inhabitants and international police levels should be at least 150 police officers per 100,000 inhabitants, especially when there is the potential for severe instability.

And just to amplify that, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board released a study (.pdf) in 2004 concluding that “The United States will sometimes have ambitious goals for transforming a society in a conflicted environment. Those goals may well demand 20 troops per 1,000 inhabitants … working for five to eight years.”

Sure enough, if you look at the U.S. troop to Iraqi population in Kagan’s example of Tal Afar, you come up with more than 20 U.S. troops per 1,000 inhabitants.  To get a 20 U.S. troops per 1,000 inhabitants ratio in Baghdad alone (population 6,000,000), you come up with 120,000 troops.  And as Kagan admits in his article, the approach to Tal Afar, which involved building a large sand berm around the city to isolate it, “may not be appropriate for a large city like Baghdad.”  Probably right.

Kagan also skirts the issue of force protection, the primary focus on which has kept U.S. casualties “low” at 3,000.  Kagan admits, without openly pointing to the resulting skyrocket in dead Americans, that “close interaction with the population and even with the enemy is essential.”

This all leaves on the table the problem of whether or not a lot of the troublemakers in Baghdad wouldn’t head for the hinterland when they saw such a force coming.  Senator John McCain, for all his faults, has this right when he worries about playing “Whack-a-Mole” across Iraq.

So then, what about cranking it up to 20/1,000 for all of Iraq?  You’d need 500,000 troops.

In short, Kagan’s plan appears in any light to be a recipe for compounding the disaster of the neocons’ policies in Iraq thus far.  But despite the history of the last four years, neoconservatives still have a tremendous amount of sway with the White House.  Sharing the same a priori commitment to an illusory “victory” in Iraq seems to be a precondition of getting the president’s ear.  It would be good if someone, at some point, would attempt to disabuse him of this idea, and confront him with the cold facts on the ground.  It’s been almost four years.

The upshot, it seems, is that the neocons are going to get a “do over” in Iraq.  And, unfortunately, it looks like the U.S. military is going to pay the price for their Mulligan.