Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Cheney’s Questions: Still Unanswered

I worry that this is so old and worn that everyone’s seen it already, but the NYT ran an article on April 13, 1991, that quoted then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney’s response to questioning as to why the US military didn’t depose Saddam in 1991:

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, elaborating today on Mr. [GHW] Bush’s sentiments, said that sending the United States military to finish the job violates a number of “basic principles” about setting clear-cut military objectives to support policy goals.
 
‘What Kind of Government?’

“If you’re going to go in and try to topple Saddam Husein, you have to go to Baghdad,” Mr. Cheney said. “Once you’ve got Baghdad, it’s not clear what you do with it. It’s not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that’s currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Baathists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundementalists? How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?”

Sure hearkens back to Brent Scowcroft’s remark that “The real anomaly in the Administration is Cheney.  I consider Cheney a good friend—I’ve known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore.”

The President’s Prerogative to Torture

Tom Palmer links to this truly remarkable clip of a recent presidential press conference.  In it, David Gregory asks the president what his reaction would be if a US operative were captured in Iran or North Korea and subjected to the type of treatment the administration is currently arguing for.  The response is typical Bushian avoidance and obfuscation, but the president over and over makes one point that I think is totally wrongheaded.

He repeats (I’m paraphrasing) that “you cannot ask a young intelligence officer to violate the law.  They will not violate the law…And that’s why we need to clarify and codify [our new] Common Article 3 interpretation so that officers have a defined standard to go by.”

The answer, of course, had nothing to do with the question, but I think President Bush isn’t making sense here.  Bush is trying to play to the ”ticking nuke” scenario that we’ve heard so much about.  (Whenever somebody starts with an absurd hypothetical and then starts reasoning backward in order to make policy, you know you’re in trouble.)

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, took up this issue in the Wall Street Journal the last time the president was trying to defend torture.  Bowden argues that apropos of John McCain’s last attempt to pass a law prohibiting American torture (successful, but arguably negated by a signing statement from Bush)

Cruel treatment of prisoners is already banned. It is prohibited by military law and by America’s international agreements. American citizens are protected by the Constitution. I see no harm in reiterating our national revulsion for it, and maybe adding even a redundant layer of legal verbiage will help redress the damage done to our country by pictures from Abu Ghraib and reports of widespread prisoner abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Bowden got to the bottom line about torture, too, without any doe-eyed illusions about the nature of war:

The point the White House is missing here is that even with important captives like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, official authorization for severe interrogation is not necessary. Just as there is no way to draw a clear line between coercion and torture, there is no way to define, a priori, circumstances that justify harsh treatment. Any attempt to codify it unleashes the sadists and leads to widespread abuse. Interrogators who choose coercive methods would, and should, be breaking the rules.

That does not mean that they should always be taken to task. Prosecution and punishment remains an executive decision, and just as there are legal justifications for murder, there are times when coercion is demonstrably the right thing to do.

That, it seems to me, is an essential point, and totally runs against Bush’s current protestations.  The president is arguing that, in the ticking time bomb scenario, the intelligence officer will just stand there, twiddling his thumbs and waiting for the Sears Tower to implode, because he doesn’t have preauthorization to slap around the terrorist.

That’s absurd.  People commit murder in extreme circumstances, and they have the chance to explain the extreme circumstances in a process of law.  Sometimes the circumstances are so extreme that they’re exonerated.  The point is that most murders don’t occur under such extreme circumstances, and you want the law to govern the broadest possible swath of situations.  The guy who beat up the terrorist–in contravention of the law–and in so doing defused the ticking time bomb and saved Chicago is going to be a national hero, should that ever happen.  No judge would convict him, no president would refuse to pardon him, and it’s hard to believe there’d even be much international outrage.

But Bush’s approach is to assume a lifeboat ethics hypothetical, and then reason backward to make the law.  (Bush even concedes during the interview that as to an intel officer in the ticking time bomb scenario, ”I know nobody’s gonna prosecute ‘em.”)

Bush should worry less that an intelligence officer is going to sit on his hands and watch the time bomb tick, and worry more about what writing torture into law would do for everyday interrogations.

Putting an End to “The War on Terror”

Our responses to the threat of terrorism are all too often described as “the war against terrorism.”  But this makes no linguistic sense; terrorism is one of many dangerous phenomena, not an enemy.  We do not describe our responses to the threat of hurricanes, for example, as a war against hurricanes.  More important, the war metaphor has severely biased both the nature and extent of our responses to the threat of terrorism.

First, the war metaphor implies that the primary response to the threat of terrorism should be a military response.  Terrorism, however, is the tactic of those who are motivated to seek political change by violence but are militarily weak.  The most important and too often neglected first question to address is whether some change in policy – such as the foreign basing of U.S. military forces – would reduce the motive for a terrorist threat against Americans at a lower cost than any other potential response.  Maybe not.  In that case, the most effective responses to the residual threat of terrorism are improvements in intelligence, intelligence sharing, and the capability of local police forces – with several special operations forces the only important military response.  The very expensive new weapons systems in the U.S. defense budget, in contrast, contribute nothing to increasing our security against the threat of terrorism.

Second, the war metaphor leads to an overreaction to the the threat of terrorism by inviting misleading comparisons of current conditions with those during prior conditions properly described as wars.  Those who defend an aggressive response to the threat of terrorism are quick to point out that the current losses of liberty and property to counter this threat have been small relative to those during wars.  But the threat of terrorism is very different than the threats during a war in three dimensions: Terrorism presents the small probability of a small loss (unless terrorists acquire a nuclear weapon) but one that may be extended indefinitely.  A war presents a larger probability of a large loss but one that is likely to be limited to a few years.  Most of us are prepared to sacrifice some liberty and property when there is an increased threat to our lives, but the difference in conditions presented by the threat of terrorism and wars strongly affects how much that we are prepared to sacrifice.  In general, people should be expected to be willing to pay a lower current price for security when the expected loss is lower and the period of potential loss is longer; for both of these reasons, how much liberty and property we should be expected to sacrifice in response to the threat of terrorism is far less than during a war.

This perspective leads me to conclude that the U.S. Government should substantially reduce the several dimensions of the current cost of responding to the threat of terrorism to a level sufficient to support only the most effective of these responses for a duration that may be indefinitely long.  Americans may have a lot to learn by a better understanding how Britain, Spain, and some other countries have responded to a threat of terrorism for decades with little sacrifice of liberty or property.

We may still need to replace the war metaphor with some metaphor that better reflects an effective, sustainable response to the threat of terrorism, but I will leave that to someone who is a better wordsmith.

New at Cato Unbound: Veronique de Rugy on Anti-terrorism Spending

In today’s installment of Cato Unbound, AEI resident scholar (and Cato adjunct scholar) Veronique de Rugy argues that the $271.5 billion devoted by the federal government to homeland security since 9/11 has not been well spent.

“Not only are we over-investing in homeland security,” de Rugy argues, “but most times we spend too much money in the wrong way and on the wrong things.”

The consequence is that we are no safer. “Bad security is often worse than no security at all,” de Rugy writes. “By trying, and failing, to make ourselves more secure, we make ourselves less secure.”

Doublespeak and the War on Terror

Last week, Cato published my paper “Doublespeak and the War on Terrorism.” Of course, this has not kept President Bush from using doublespeak. 

In his televised address this week, Mr. Bush said that all members of the U.S. military are “volunteers.” Not so. We do not have the large-scale conscription of civilians, but we do have “stop-loss” orders from the White House, which means soldiers that have fulfilled the terms of their enlistment contracts may not leave military. The men and women who wanted to return to civilian life after serving their term of service are not “volunteers.”  In military circles, the stop-loss order is known as the “backdoor draft.”

Fortunately, more people are calling attention to such misuse of language by government. Go here for a column by Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post. Go here for a column by Dick Meyer of CBS News.

We’ll never be able to stop the government from engaging in doublespeak because the government is constantly engaging in mischief. But if we’re vigilant about it, we can keep the government in check.

Saddam’s Supergun

An article in Sunday’s New York Times takes you to a Graveyard of Goofy Weapons south of Baghdad.  Among them, the remnants of Saddam’s Project Babylon, which, if completed, would have been the world’s biggest spud gun:

the barrel alone would have been 512 feet long and weighed 1,665 tons. As the pieces lying around in the lot in Iskandariya illustrated, the barrel was wide enough to fire projectiles “the size of industrial garbage cans,” as Mr. Lowther put it.

Estimates on the cost of two planned superguns and a smaller prototype called Baby Babylon range from $25 million to several hundred million dollars. If the big guns had operated as designed, they could have shot a 300-pound projectile 600 miles, or lifted a much larger payload into orbit if it was outfitted with a small rocket engine.

Doubtless there’s some true believer out there in the right-wing blogosphere trumpeting this story, hailing it as confirmation that Saddam was the Arab Hugo Drax, coming ever closer to having the means to kill us all.  What if he had loaded up an industrial garbage can with some of those degraded mustard gas shells, floated the whole works off our southern coastline and aimed it right at Disneyworld? 

Well, it’s never too late to be retroactively terrorized, but most of us are probably with Lt. Col. James A. Howard, quoted in the article after visiting the site: “I think a gun this big would be kind of dumb.” 

Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me

The Washington Post decided to bury a story on page A17 today on how the IAEA responded to a House Intelligence Committee report on Iran (.pdf).  The report, which came out to media fanfare a few weeks ago, was drafted by John Bolton’s hyper-hawkish lieutenant Fred Fleitz, who’s reportedly currently drafting a report on North Korea’s capabilities.

Anyway, the IAEA was none too happy with Mr. Fleitz’s handiwork, calling attention to several unsupported claims, among them that Iran is producing weapons-grade uranium at Natanz, noting that the 3.5 percent to which Iran has enriched is a far cry from the roughly 90 percent that is needed for a weapon.

The IAEA was similarly displeased with Mr. Fleitz’s accusation that Mohamed el Baradei kicked an inspector off the Iran project for worrying that Iran was deceiving inspectors.  The IAEA responded by calling this allegation “outrageous and dishonest,” pointing out that the inspector in question was still working on Iran.

More alarming by far, though, is David Albright’s* characterization of what’s been going on:

This is like prewar Iraq all over again.  You have an Iranian nuclear threat that is spun up, using bad information that’s cherry-picked and a report that trashes the inspectors.

*Albright’s outfit, the Institute for Science and International Security, really has been doing yeoman’s work on the Iran question, including its analysis (and posting) of Iran’s August 22 response to the EU3+US proposal.  If you want as dispassionate an analysis as you can get of the issue, go to ISIS.  Good stuff.