Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

A Civil War May Be the Necessary Next Step Toward a Political Equilibrium in Iraq

Iraq is an artificial country, the combination of three former Ottoman provinces with a quite different Muslim group dominant in each province. Few people have significant loyalty to any government of the combination of these provinces, and Iraq can probably be held together only by a strong man who commands the support of the military. After Tito’s death, for example, the former Yugoslavia broke up into six independent governments, and the separation of Serbia and Kosovo is still likely.

My judgment is that the only plausible political equilibria in Iraq are the emergence of a strong man or the fragmentation into three independent governments dominated by the Sunnis, Shia, and the Kurds. A civil war, I suggest, may be the necessary next step toward either of these outcomes. Current U.S. government policy, of course, is to try to achieve an accomodation among these groups without continued violence or an indefinite U.S. military role, an outcome that is desirable but increasingly implausible.

The U.S. government may not have the capability to prevent a civil war in Iraq, and in any case, we may not have a dog in that fight.

Our government, ironically enough, may prefer the emergence of a Sunni strong man to maintain a unified Iraq, someone like Saddam Hussein who is not subservient to Iran; and of course, Hussein was “our” man in the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq war. Fragmentation into three governments would be the preferred outcome only if it did not precipitate a larger regional war. The problem is that the Turks may oppose an independent Kurdistan on their border, and the Saudis may oppose a Shia state subservient to Iran on their border.

The increasing sectarian violence in Iraq may yet be controlled by the military and police forces of the current government without indefinite U.S. military support. Fine, but the Iraqi government should be aware that popular support for an indefinite U.S. military role in Iraq is falling rapidly. In the event of a more open civil war, the U.S. government should avoid taking any side in the conflict and should pursue a loss-minimizing strategy during a rapid phase-out of U.S. troops. In anticipation of a possible fragmentation of Iraq, the U.S. government may still have enough leverage on other governments to reduce the prospect of a larger regional war.

There is no plausibly rewarding outcome to the U.S. role in Iraq. Sometimes, the wisest course, if also the most difficult, is to choose the least bad of a set of bad outcomes.

Michael Gerson Thinks You Are “Morally Empty”

If you like the work of the Cato Institute, that is.  “Morally empty” is how Bush’s former head speechwriter described the “small-government” aspect of small-government conservatism in this interview with Foreign Policy magazine:

It is superficially attractive. But in the long run, it’s politically self-destructive because [candidates] end up talking about the size of government while others are talking about education, healthcare, and serious public concerns. It’s morally empty because, from my tradition and political philosophy, any political movement has to have a vision of social justice and the common good in order to appeal [to people]. And government can play a part in that. I’ve seen over the last five years that it clearly can.

And in case you had caught your breath after almost six years of Bush’s foreign policy, here he is on the question “Which of the president’s speeches do you think best expresses his worldview?”

Probably the second inaugural, which he wanted to be the democracy speech—the culmination of a series of doctrines and approaches that we had defined in the previous two to three years. It talks very frankly about the necessity of democratic transformation for the future of American security. Particularly in the Middle East, the cycle of tyranny and radicalism has produced an unsustainable situation. That dynamic has to be changed, and democracy is the only way to do it. Some of it is working with authoritarian governments that may go down the path of reform, some of it is standing up for dissidents and taking the side of the oppressed, and some of it is confronting outlaw regimes that threaten the international order. This is, in many ways, the clearest crystallization of his foreign policy.

It’d be comforting to think they’ve learned their lesson, but they clearly haven’t.  In case your outrage quotient isn’t yet filled, you can read this interview at Christianity Today.  Gerson on the Democratic Party:

I would love to see the Democratic Party return to a tradition of social justice that was found in people like William Jennings Bryan. During that period, many if not most politically engaged evangelicals were in the Democratic Party, because it was a party oriented toward justice.

I don’t see much of that now in the Democratic Party. Instead of an emphasis on the weak and suffering, there’s so much emphasis on autonomy and choice. And so the party of William Jennings Bryan, the party of Franklin Roosevelt, I’m not sure it exists any more. But it would be good if it did.

Gerson on Republicans:

There are some members of the Republican Party who…have a much more narrow view of government’s role. It would be a shame if conservatism were to return to a much more narrow and libertarian and nativist approach.

Your Republican Party, ladies and gentlemen.  Bomb-slash-democratize the Arabs, accomplish “social justice,” cure AIDS in Africa, and ban gay marriage.  There’s going to be a lot of work left for the federal government, apparently, even after Bush leaves office.

Fear Is the Health of the State

James Fallows has an important–and brave–piece in the new Atlantic Monthly. Important because it reports the underreported good news in the war on terror: we’re winning. Indeed, after interviewing some 60 leading terrorism analysts while researching the article, Fallows has concluded that we’ve won. And the article is brave because one subway bombing while this issue’s on the stands and Fallows’s name might become the punchline to a thousand bitter jokes about pollyannaish predictions.

But if and when another attack happens, it won’t disprove Fallows’s point: we do not now, if we ever did, face an existential threat from the likes of Al Qaeda. As he puts it, “terrorists, through their own efforts, can damage, but not destroy us. Their real destructive power lies in what they can provoke us to do.” If fear, not reason, governs our reaction to terrorism, then Al Qaeda can provoke us into launching unnecessary wars and abandoning the constitutional protections we cherish. If we proclaim this conflict World War III (or IV–the hawks appear divided on this point, if on little else), then certain consequences follow for the American constitutional order. Which is one reason why Fallows urges the abandonment of the war metaphor.

Of course, Al Qaeda is a threat that should be taken very seriously–in some ways, more seriously than the adminstration has in the past. But for nearly five years, too much of the public debate over foreign threats has been dominated by breathless hysteria. The soundbite “the Constitution is not a suicide pact” has become the tell-it-to-the-hand of constitutional debate, as if it is a given that unless we gut the document, we will be committing national suicide. Peace and liberty don’t do well in an atmosphere of panic. Fallows’s calm, sober optimism serves as a useful corrective.

Transition in Cuba: How Would Raúl Rule?

Fidel Castro’s transfer of power to his brother Raúl is beginning to look like a test run for an eventual transition. As I wrote Tuesday (here, and in this op-ed in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera), the real question is whether the eventual permanent transfer of power will simply be a transition to new leadership or whether it will be a transition to a different kind of regime.

That’s a question to which probably nobody, even in Cuba, knows the answer. The Castro brothers have in fact been planning the transition to Raúl’s rule for some time. Given Raúl’s prominent treatment in the Cuban press recently, Cuba expert Brian Latell asked two months ago whether the transition has already begun.

Raúl has led the armed forces since the beginning of the revolution. The fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of massive subsidies to the island transformed Raúl’s role and that of the military. In the 1990s Raúl advocated policy changes that opened up the Cuban economy to foreign investment in a few sectors, such as tourism and mining, that earn foreign exchange. The Cuban economy also became dollarized. (Several years ago I asked the head of Cuba’s central bank why Cuba had become dollarized and whether he thought that was a good thing or bad thing. His response was a long one. He didn’t answer the first question, but did say they were not happy with the development and intended to dedollarize—something they began to do two years ago). As it happened, the military began running all sorts of businesses in Cuba in the 1990s including hotels, gas stations, travel services, and import-export agencies that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

When I visited Havana four years ago, I saw how retired military officials also play a prominent role. They are the ones entrusted to run the major state-owned enterprises. They produce a certain level of revenue for the state, beyond which they engage in what appears to be quasi-private business activity, all of which amounts to a strange mixture of socialist statism with entrepreneurship.

Foreign exchange and increased economic activity have helped spread the informal economy, another factor that may affect Raúl’s rule. Thousands of Cubans now conduct business or other activities independent of the state in all manner of areas (taxis, messenger services, restaurants, libraries, etc.).

Two other observations struck me during my visit to Cuba: 1. I don’t think I met anybody who truly believed in communism. I met with high officials at ministries and top people at the University of Havana and official think tanks, some of whom were very intelligent and quite sophisticated, and all of whom left me with an impression that cynicism about the revolution was widespread. 2. Discontent with the status quo among the general population was also widespread. To this day, the economy has probably not yet bounced back to the income or consumption levels that existed in 1989 or 1990. Food rations are skimpy and clinics cannot afford to provide basic medicines or supplies (patients must finance those goods themselves). Why put up with the lack of freedom if the revolution can’t even guarantee basic necessities?

Since Venezuela began to provide massive subsidies to Cuba a few years ago, Havana has backtracked on its limited reforms. The subsidies have not significantly improved living conditions in Cuba, however, and have made doing business more cumbersome. For all of the above reasons, whoever follows Fidel, including Raúl, will have a difficult time maintaining the status quo. I believe that Raúl will be willing to compromise on socialist principles if only to benefit certain constituencies such as the military and shore up his power. Limited economic reform, not political reform, would be on the agenda. My guess is that that will be the beginning of more fundamental policy changes. My hope is that those changes will also lead to political change and (this part is most unlikely) that the transition to a more open society happens as swiftly as possible.

ID-Based Security Is Broken - and Can’t Be Fixed

The Government Accountability Office testified to the Senate Finance Committee today that investigators were easily able to pass through borders using fake documents. Indeed, sometimes documents were not checked at all.

“This vulnerability potentially allows terrorists or others involved in criminal activity to pass freely into the United States from Canada or Mexico with little or no chance of being detected.”

That’s true, but shoring up that vulnerability would add little security while devastating trade and commerce at the border.

Identity-based security works by comparing the identity of someone to their background and determining how to treat them based on that. To start, you need accurate identity information. That’s not easy to come by from people who are trying to defeat your identity system.

Here’s a schematic of how identification cards work from my book Identity Crisis.

As you can see, proof of identity involves three steps: Info goes from the person to the card issuer; info goes from the issuer to the verifier via the card; and the verifier checks to make sure the person and the card match.

Each of these steps is a point of weakness. Let’s take them in reverse order:

Obviously, as the GAO found, if nobody looks at the ID card, the “verifier check” can’t be done and the system fails. If the verifier is careless, the system will also fail. This weakness can be fixed with machine-read biometrics, but that is time-consuming and it typically subjects everyone to monitoring, tracking, surveillance – whatever you prefer to call it.

If the card can be forged or altered, this compromises card security, the second point of weakness in the process. Weakness in card security (non-obvious forgery) is what GAO sought to expose when it stumbled across the fact that border agents weren’t checking IDs at all. Card security can also be fixed various ways, though the best, such as encryption, will also tend to increase monitoring, tracking, and surveillance of every card-holder.

The first step is the hardest by far to fix: getting accurate information about people onto cards. For anyone wanting to defeat the current U.S. identification system, there is a substantial trade in documents that are false but good enough to fool Department of Motor Vehicle employees into issuing drivers’ licenses and cards. Criminals also regularly use the option of corrupting DMV employees to procure false documents. Can this problem be curtailed? Yes. Solved? No.

For the sake of argument, let’s fix all these things with a cradle-to-grave, government-mandated, biometric tracking system. Enough to make even the irreligious think “mark of the beast.” Even then, we will not have effective security against serious criminals and terrorists. The greatest weakness of identification-based security remains.

Knowing who a person is does not reveal what they think or what they plan to do. Examples are legion in terrorism, and routine in crime, of people with no record of wrongdoing being the ones who act.

For example, Al Qaeda selected operatives for the 9/11 attacks who had no known records of involvement in terrorism. (See 9/11 Commission report, page 234.) It was operating in a mode to defeat watch-listing well before the spasm of watch-listing that underlies identification-checks like the ones GAO has found so flawed.

If we were to have a comprehensive, mandatory, biometric identification system, it would help find bad people after they are identified, but do little to secure against attackers who are not already known. Al Qaeda planners would have to continue factoring in a risk they have already accounted for.

And having such a system should be a big “if.” Subjecting all Americans to increased monitoring, surveillance, and tracking, then delaying their lawful trade and travel at the borders, would do a lot of damage to liberty and commerce. It would provide only a tiny margin of security – almost no margin against sophisticated threats.

Details, Please

Here’s a snippet of a National Review editorial on the Middle East:

The fight has to be taken to Syria and Iran, which doesn’t mean imminent military action, but does mean more serious pressure on all fronts. Iran’s agents in Iraq currently don’t fear us — they should. And our patience with the current round of ineffective nuclear diplomacy should be wearing thin fast. As for Syria, there are still sanctions that can be levied against it, and Israel should make it clear that it considers Syria’s continued arming of Hezbollah a hostile act. The downward drift of events in the Middle East is eventually going to force the Bush administration either to tacitly admit defeat in the region or to accept the confrontation that its regional antagonists are forcing. And defeat is too awful to contemplate.

This sort of thing is fine for a stump speech, or for a Senator’s think tank address, but there’s precious little policy guidance here. Magazines criticizing policy should be able at least to describe their counter-proposals in clear language that indicates what, exactly, is being proposed. For example, what does “more serious pressure on all fronts” toward both Iran and Syria look like?  Or, if our patience with the nuclear negotiations with Tehran should be “wearing thin fast,” what should follow on once it’s worn through? It seems there’s only one stick left.  Is NR proposing we use it?  There is no mention of any carrots.

Then we get proposed sanctions against Syria.  Never mind the fact that they would almost certainly fail to gain international support, given the Bush administration’s total indifference to world opinion on the current crisis.  Beyond that, economic sanctions generally have a remarkably poor track record of success, in particular unilateral sanctions.  But then comes the follow-on proposal to whisper in Israel’s ear and advise it to tell Syria that it considers Syria’s continuing patronage of Hizbollah “a hostile act.” Does that mean we should promote and then support an Israeli attack against Syria?

National Review’s editors, and the Bush administration itself, have the look of a compulsive gambler who, after losing his life savings, takes out a line of credit in the mistaken belief that his luck is changing.  Yes, the Middle East was in turmoil before Bush came into office, and yes, it will be in turmoil after he’s gone.  But the current “downward drift of events” that NR laments is a direct result of the Bush administration’s failed policies.  And yet NR is advocating an escalation of the same policies as a remedy.