Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Apocalypse Warning False Alarm; Diplomacy Continues Apace

Since the apocalypse (which Bernard Lewis darkly warned in the Wall Street Journal might be scheduled for today) seems not to be forthcoming, it may be better to focus on more workaday concerns, such as Iran’s decidedly non-apocalyptic response to the Western proposal over its nuclear program. 

Although the full details aren’t out yet, Reuters is reporting what most expected: the Iranians say they’re willing to talk, but not willing to accept American demands that Iran stop enriching uranium as a precondition for talking. Top Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani is quoted as saying that “Iran is prepared to hold serious talks from August 23.” 

The first thing to wonder about is what the European response to this will be. It’s fairly clear that hardliners in the Bush administration are hell-bent on pressing for a UN Security Council vote to impose sanctions, but it’s not at all clear what the more sanguine Europeans will do. The Bush administration would be well-advised to make sure that Iran stays marginalized, and America does not act rashly in a way that turns the tables and marginalizes us. 

Also, notice that the Iranians brought up the one issue that the Bush administration has assiduously avoided discussing as a part of talks: “security cooperation.” This is international politics-speak for “we’re afraid you’re going to attack us.” Until President Bush makes clear that regime change would come off the table in return for Iran’s cooperation on the nuclear issue, the Iranians are going to be scared to death that Washington has the contingency plans out and is looking at military options. 

But the real lesson is how much was lost as a result of the administration’s foolish decision to try to impose a precondition for talks in the first place. A lot of conspiratorial talk around Washington has insisted that the precondition was put in as a “poison pill” to ensure that the diplomacy could go nowhere. I’m not convinced — I think there’s a simpler answer, and that is that the administration thinks, even after the Iraq debacle, that it has a lot of diplomatic and military weight to throw around, and that it could, to coin a phrase, “create its own reality” on the Iran problem. 

Were it not for the unseemly pettiness of the administration’s approach to this aspect of the problem, we could have spent the last two months talking to the Iranians (admittedly they could have still been enriching uranium), instead of waiting for a response from the Iranians (during which time they have been enriching uranium). If the administration had put a grand bargain on the table back at the beginning of summer, we’d be well on our way to getting an answer from Tehran. Instead, we’ve set in motion a largely pointless round of diplomacy that has little prospect of resolving the issue.

Data Mining or the Fourth Amendment?

Boalt Hall Law Professor and Visiting AEI Scholar John Yoo writes in a short piece on the AEI website that we should consider using data mining to pursue terrorists. He makes at least two errors: one historical and one statistical.

Discussing the recent vogue for making U.S. law more like Britain’s, Yoo writes:

[I]ncreasing detention time or making warrants easier to come by merely extends an old-fashioned approach to catching terrorists. These tools require individualized suspicion and “probable cause”; police must have evidence of criminal activity in hand. Such methods did not prevent 9/11, and stopping terrorists, who may have no criminal record, requires something more.

It’s hard to put aside that the vogue for making U.S. law more like Britain’s would undo part of what the Revolutionary War was fought for. And Yoo’s placement of the phrase “probable cause” in quotes — I hope that’s not to suggest that the language of the Fourth Amendment is quaint.

But putting all that aside, Yoo’s first error has to do with more-recent history. He argues that traditional investigative methods “did not prevent 9/11.” But traditional investigative methods weren’t applied to the problem. 

Operatives like Khalid al Midhar — an individual with jihadist connections known to the United States — entered the country, left in June 2000, and returned July 4, 2001 on a visa the United States gave him. As the 9/11 Commission pithily noted, “No one was looking for him.” Traditional investigative methods can’t be said to have failed when they weren’t being used.

Yoo’s second error is to believe that data mining can help locate terrorists. Data mining cannot be made useful in counterterrorism: The absence of terrorism patterns means that it is impossible to develop useful algorithms. The corresponding statistical likelihood of false positives would cause the results of a data mining operation to waste the time and energy of investigators while threatening civil liberties. 

Data mining does give a “lift” to marketers’ attempts to find people with certain propensities and interests. But the ”failure rate” (if the goal is to find new, willing customers) is typically above 95%. This is with hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of patterns to work with. Data mining also helps ferret out credit card fraud — again, using the thousands of instances of this crime that happen each year to develop useful algorithms.

Probability theory teaches that the percentage of false positives a test produces will rise dramatically as the incidence of the sought-after condition drops. If you’re searching American society for left-handed people (8–15% of the population) a data mining operation might work pretty well.  If you’re searching for the 10, 12, or two terrorists in the United States, an imperfect test will be useless, time-wasting, and thus harmful to the national security mission.

No, the Fourth Amendment is good policy as well as a part of the not-old-fashioned Constitution. It is better to focus investigations, not broaden them. The best way to find wrongdoing is to look where there is probable cause to believe something is afoot.

Exporters as Hostage-takers?

I subscribe to a useful digest of farm policy news called FarmPolicy. It’s a great little news service for those interested in agricultural issues.

Today in FarmPolicy, my attention and pique were raised by an article that included a statement from Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Co), who said that farming should be an integral part of national security. According to Salazar:

I would hate to think of a day where the United States of America becomes hostage to other countries (that export food to the U.S.), in a way that we are held hostage over our energy needs

I know of only two other countries that pursue a policy of total self-sufficiency in food(which seems to be what the senator is advocating): North Korea and Zimbabwe.

And we all know how well that’s going…

If you are interested in agricultural policy, Cato will be holding a forum next week to discuss the new Farm Bill. The forum will feature the secretary of agriculture, Mike Johanns, as well as Cal Dooley of the Food Products Association and Robert Thompson, one of America’s most respected experts on U.S. farm policy. Please join us.

Spoke Too Soon

Last week in this space, I lamented a couple of the routine, tiny steps that carry us further down the path to bigger and more intrusive government.

By giving state food stamp programs greater access to personal information about Americans, Congress had masked the cost of rescuing Americans from Lebanon. The result was a bill that expanded the federal role in international rescue while spreading personal information about us a little further.

This weekend I discovered the rest of the story. In a separate bill, Congress made available yet more funds for rescuing Americans from Lebanon. Additional cost, 17 cents per U.S. family.

As Tom Palmer pointed out, Lebanon has been a dangerous place as a matter of common sense and announced U.S. policy for quite some time. I suspect that he, like I do, wants Americans to travel far and wide, experience the world, and make friends. But it’s not the federal government’s responsibility to subsidize that process by rescuing Americans when they encounter danger. Americans who need rescue should foot the bill.

Catching Terrorists with 1920s Technology

On August 18, the Washington Post ran a story on the post-9/11 technology investments at the FBI. The story concludes, “five years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and more than $600 million later, agents still rely largely on the paper reports and file cabinets used since federal agents began chasing gangsters in the 1920s.”

As part of the agency’s enormous Trilogy project, a proposed Virtual Case File system designed to help agents share terrorist threat information was scrapped after $170 million and four years of development.

The Post story details the management lapses and lack of oversight at both the FBI and contractor SAIC that led to the breakdown and waste of taxpayer dollars (probably why companies like SAIC get the moniker “Beltway bandits”).

A few of the all-too-common government failings relayed in the article:

  • The contractor, SAIC, burned through federal taxpayer money at a furious clip, with little effort to control costs.
  • The scope and cost of the project continued to grow once it was underway.
  • The FBI conducted little oversight of the project, and failed to provide clear direction to the contractor, despite the project’s obvious importance to national security.
  • The FBI-VCF management disaster is one of many I discuss in my book Downsizing the Federal Government (see here [pdf] for a shorter summary).

    The federal government simply cannot manage large, complex tasks with any degree of efficiency. The list of multi-billion dollar failures of technology, highway, and weapons projects grows longer all the time.

    Labeling Dictators

    The Wall Street Journal’s “Remembrances” column notes the death this week of Alfredo Stroessner this way:

    Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the military strongman who ruled Paraguay from 1954 until 1989. Among 20th century Latin American leaders, only Cuban President Fidel Castro has served longer.

    Why is Stroessner a “military strongman” while Castro is “Cuban President”? Both came to power through bullets, not ballots, and ruled with an iron hand. Stroessner actually held elections every five years, sometimes with opposition candidates, though of course there was no doubt of the outcome. Castro dispensed with even the pretense of elections. Both ruled with the support of the army. In Cuba’s case the armed forces were headed by Castro’s brother, and indeed he has just turned over power to his brother who heads the military. So why does the Journal not give Stroessner his formal title of “president,” and why does it not describe Castro accurately as a “military strongman”?

    Pakistan and the “Other” Other War

    Today’s New York Times reports that Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is caught in “one of the most serious political binds of his nearly seven-year tenure.” Gen. Musharraf’s bind is an American bind, too, because he has been “one of Washington’s most indispensable allies” since the 9/11 attacks, and Washington is loathe to see a nuclear-armed country of 165 million people become an enemy in the war on terrorism.

    The tension between short-term diplomatic expediency and long-term political objectives has characterized U.S.-Pakistani relations for years. Another Pakistani general who took power in a coup, Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, aided U.S. efforts to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s (which we appreciated), even as his country was busy developing nuclear weapons (which we didn’t). 

    Today, the short-term benefit that we derive — Musharraf’s cooperation in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban — is being undermined by Musharraf’s political weakness at home. We don’t appreciate that groups in Pakistan have been linked to the London airplane bombing plot; we don’t appreciate that Pakistan’s government has proved either unable or unwilling to eliminate the flow of foreign fighters and foreign money into Afghanistan, as The Times of London reported yesterday; we are frustrated by the whitewash of the A.Q. Khan affair, one of the most notorious cases of nuclear proliferation in the history of the NPT regime; and it is uncomfortable, to say the least, for the Bush administration to say that it favors democracy while clinging tightly to an undemocratic ruler such as Musharraf. 

    And yet, the fear of what could come — and the worst-case scenario of an Al Qaeda sympathizer with his finger on Pakistan’s nuclear button is very, very bad — inhibits the United States from pressuring Musharraf on a range of issues. 

    How long can this persist? And what are we sacrificing over the long-term in order to see the Pakistani status quo remain in place?

    We are certainly sacrificing any semblance of consistency.

    Take, for example, the Bush administration’s approach to the issue of state sovereignty, and of holding a sovereign government responsible — to its own people and to the international community — for what takes place on its territory, and compare the three cases of Lebanon and Hezbollah, Iraq and Iran, and Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    In the war between Israel and Hezbollah, a fragile cease-fire remains in place as the Lebanese government attempts to reassert is authority over an independent militia supported by foreign governments. The AP reports that the Lebanese army deployment into southern Lebanon “marks the extension of government sovereignty over the whole country for the first time since 1969.”

    In the other war of great interest for Americans, the war in Iraq, Shiite militias, also supported by foreigners, undermine the legitimacy of the government, and threaten to drag the country into a full-fledged civil war.

    In the first instance, the U.S. government supports a UN force (one that will not include U.S. troops, thankfully) to shore up a weak government. The implication is that the Siniora government cannot be held responsible for Hezbollah’s actions. (The fact that Hezbollah is a member of the government adds a further complication.)

    In the case of Iraq, the United States has darkly warned Iran and Syria to halt the flow of foreign fighters across the border, and to cease all support for the ethnic militias. Several agitators outside of the administration have declared Iran and Syria’s meddling in Iraq to be an immediate casus belli. The implication is that Tehran and Damascus are in complete control of their borders, and of all money that flows (even from private hands) to the militias. This is not a problem of weak governance; it is a problem of mendacious governments.

    Return, then, to Pakistan’s behavior in America’s “other” other war — the one that we launched after the 9/11 attacks.

    The Times of London story reported that “Highly trained foreign fighters are pouring back into Afghanistan across the Pakistani border to take on British and other Nato troops.” One source told The Times: “We know they are coming from Egypt, Syria and the Yemen and there may well be foreign fighters from other countries who are once again taking up the Taleban cause.”

    The parallels are hardly perfect — few are. In fact, the problem in Pakistan’s lawless northwest territories is worse than what is taking place in Iraq, or what was happening (and might still happen) in southern Lebanon. In the case of Lebanon, Hezbollah posed a direct threat to Israel. In Iraq, the threat is of an incipient civil war evolving into a full-scale conflict, and then a regional war. In Afghanistan, if the Taliban’s resurgence facilitates Al Qaeda’s efforts, and if the Pakistani-Afghan border proves as porous to other things (e.g., nuclear materials or weapons) as it is to people and money, it threatens the whole world.

    The Bush policy in Lebanon is in support of an international force. In Iraq, the president favors confrontation with the foreigners meddling in Iraqi internal affairs. With respect to Pakistan and Afghanistan, we adopt a muddled, middle course — fearful of pressuring Musharraf else his government falls, but frustrated by the extent to which Pakistan remains at the center of the terror war.

    If the trend lines were moving in an upward trajectory — if Islamic radicalism was on the decline in Pakistan, if Afghanistan was becoming more stable, if Musharraf was making meaningful progress towards democratization, or, at least, gaining strength against the radical Islamists — we could hold to the current course on the assumption (hope, really) that we could ride out the storm and that circumstances will ultimately improve.

    But the trend lines are not moving in a favorable direction, and it suggests that a different approach is needed. At a minimum, we must be thinking about, and preparing for, a post-Musharraf future, whenever that might come.