Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

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.

State-Building vs. Counterinsurgency

In the National Interest (online), Amitai Etzioni argues that, in Afghanistan, the United States should avoid building out the central state, and instead co-opt militia leaders, including the Taliban.

Amen. Americans, even those writing counterinsurgency manuals, conflate counterinsurgency and state-building.

Both presidential candidates’ plans for Afghanistan share this failing. They both support a surge of troops and effort in Afghanistan based explicitly on the idea that our objective should be to build the Afghan state to win the loyalty of the people in the insurgent, meaning Pashtun, areas.

A better plan is a rough replication of what we did in Iraq’s Anbar province. There, we paid off the main body of insurgents and allowed them to rule in their area, provided that they turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Don’t believe the myth of the surge. This tactic, which pre-dated General David Petraeus’ assumption of command and had nothing to do with higher troop levels, was the main cause of the pacification of Iraq’s Sunni regions.

You could call this counterinsurgency strategy “appeasement” or “state-breaking,” as opposed to state-building. Having bought peace by dividing authority, there is no obvious way to put Humpty Dumpty back together – the dilemma we now face in Iraq. But if (a big if in Iraq) the division of power is remotely stable, that is not necessarily a problem, at least from a US perspective. You prioritize; sacrificing cohesive central authority for counterterrorism and rough stability.

This strategy stems from the idea that the trouble is the central state itself. You limit its sphere and leave the insurgency, essentially an alternative state, to its. Doing so is only possible where the insurgency has limited geographic orbit and ambitions – a common condition in divided societies with weak governments. Saddam Hussein himself employed this tactic late in his rule, as Austin Long explains in Survival.

In Afghanistan, where power has always been decentralized, the state-breaking strategy has more obvious merit than Iraq. Extending central governance is to undertake a struggle of indeterminate length, which is likely to fail at tremendous expense, while feeding the insurgency by antagonizing the Pashtun population. As Nir Rosen’s informative Rolling Stone article points out, the Afghan state reaches many Afghans not through the provision of services but via predatory national police. Our effort in Afghanistan, with its limited ambitions and reliance on local powers, has always had an element of this strategy, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. But Washington’s embrace of the idea that we have neglected state-building in Afghanistan in favor of Iraq threatens to change this.

Our enemy in Afghanistan is really three insurgencies, and even the main body of the Taliban is really a loose-knit group of militias. Summit-style meetings with purported Taliban leaders will not do the trick. Deals with Taliban commanders will be incremental.

Sooner or later, the United States needs to leave Afghanistan. The idea that we can only do so once it is a centralized, peaceful country that collects taxes and provides services throughout its territory is a recipe for staying forever. We invaded Afghanistan to deny anti-American terrorists haven and deter anyone from offering it. We can maintain those conditions without a strong central goverment, and therefore without a perpetual occupation, if we do something like what Etzioni suggests.

The American Way of War

On TPM Cafe, a part of the Talking Points Memo media empire, I’m in a week-long discussion of a new book, The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men and a Republic in Peril, which oddly takes the title of the Russell Weigley classic without acknowledgement.

The other participants are the author, Eugene Jarecki, who directed Why We Fight, Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher, Andrew Bacevich, the Boston University professor, Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, and Naomi Wolf. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, is supposed to show up, but hasn’t yet.

I can’t recommend that you read the book, but I do recommend the discussion, especially if you’re interested in military-industrial complexes.

A Welcome Change

The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus reports:

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has taken steps to make it easier for U.S. intelligence agencies to recruit first-generation Americans with foreign relatives.

The story, first broken by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, is likely to be overlooked given the focus on the campaign and on the financial markets, and might seem an obscure policy change given the high-profile national security challenges that our intelligence professionals and military personnel confront every day.

In fact, it is a crucial step toward leveraging our unique strengths as a nation. America’s openness is often seen as a vulnerability, but it should be seen instead as a sign of our vitality. The desire of millions of non-Americans to come to the United States and try to make a better life for their families remains strong, despite our recent troubles. To deny first-generation Americans the opportunities enjoyed by other Americans on the dubious grounds that they pose a unique security risk makes no more sense than any other form of blanket profiling. After all, we didn’t kick Lutherans of mixed Danish-Polish and German descent out of the FBI after Robert Hansen’s treason was discovered.

First-generation Americans, or Americans with other extensive foreign contacts (spouses, close friends, study abroad), are likely to have native or near-native proficiency in languages other than English that are in desperately short supply in our intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The hurdles for these citizens were never insurmountable; many ultimately do obtain needed security clearances. In his award-winning book The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright profiled one of them: Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American FBI agent, the only Arabic speaker in the New York office at the time of the USS Cole bombing, and one of only eight Arabic speakers in the entire agency.

But notwithstanding men like Soufan, the laborious and time-consuming process associated with obtaining a security clearance, and the prevailing presumption against such persons, doubtless discourages many well-intentioned people from even trying to obtain a job in law enforcement or intelligence. Here’s hoping that this change helps to open the doors to qualified men and women who are every bit as patriotic as Americans whose families have been here for generations.