Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

“I Don’t Think We’re Losing”

On ABC News’ This Week, George Stephanopoulos played a clip of a question posed to Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker, asking whether or not we are winning in Iraq. (Podcast here, segment begins at 32:30.)

After an exceedingly long pause, Schoomaker responds by saying “I…y’know…I think I would answer that by telling you I don’t think we’re losing.”

If that’s the most affirmative response the Army Chief of Staff can offer, it’s time for a radical recalibration of our strategy. It’s a cliché at this point—but no less true—that for insurgencies to succeed, they don’t have to win; they simply have to avoid losing. And if we’re not winning, they’re not losing.

As a bonus, be sure to check out George Will lashing the neocons on the same broadcast, noting that the “magnificently misnamed neoconservatives are the most radical people in this town,” and that Bill Kristol’s recent plea for US airstrikes against Iran embodies an approach that wonders “why put off to tomorrow when you can have a war today?”

It’s enough to make you consider watching the Sunday morning talk shows. For more of Will’s wisdom, look to the upcoming Cato’s Letter, which features Will’s address at the presentation of the 2006 Friedman Prize.

Entangled in Iraq until 2016?

The Washington Times reports that U.S. military commanders believe American forces will be needed in Iraq until at least 2016.

There often are bad ideas in the arena of foreign policy. Sometimes there are very bad ideas. Occasionally, there are even monumentally bad ideas. Staying in the Iraqi snake pit for another decade belongs in the third category. As Cato scholars explain here, here, here and here, the Bush administration needs to adopt a strategy for a prompt exit from this unnessary and ill-conceived mission.

We need to have our forces out of Iraq in a matter of months, not years. And no reasonable person should want to keep our troops in harm’s way for another decade. Given the casualty rates during the first three years of this war, staying until 2016 would mean another 8,000 dead Americans. At that point, U.S. fatalities in Iraq would exceed the number the Soviet Union suffered during its ill-fated intervention in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Remaining in Iraq for another decade while the country descends into sectarian civil war is a policy that should appeal only to masochists.

There’s No Fixing the FBI’s Computers

While Congress and the Department of Justice consider mandating that ISPs retain data about all of our communications, the FBI, it seems, can’t keep its own IT systems up to date. Putting aside the irony to focus on practical matters, what will bring the FBI up to snuff? I told the reporter in the article linked just above that nothing will.

The problem is institutional; when an organization’s membership doesn’t enjoy feast or famine based on the success of the organization, very little can bring it into focus and create success. … Congressional and public oversight is a weak, weak substitute for competitive pressure.

But the FBI’s computer systems have to be fixed, don’t they? They do. And to get there, you might have to shrink the FBI and law enforcement generally — especially federal law enforcement.

Because of the nature of bureaucracies, I don’t think there is an effective management solution to the FBI’s problems with IT. The better answer occurs at a higher level of abstraction:

Too many risks and threats are being treated as public problems to be dealt with through law enforcement when they should be treated as private problems to be dealt with through security.

To illustrate: Imagine that the nation’s garages had been designed without garage doors. People finding that their lawn mowers and garden tools were being stolen could call the cops (public/law enforcement) or design and install garage doors (private/security). Much going on in Internet security and online anti-fraud these days equates to people without garage doors calling the cops. There should be more personal and corporate responsibility, less government and law enforcement.

Another example: Starting more than 30 years ago, the U.S. government started taking responsibility for airline security (public/law enforcement) rather than leaving it with airlines (private/security). In fact, President Nixon announced expansion of the air marshals program on September 11, 1970, 31 years to the day before 9/11.

Mixed responsibility allowed both the public and private sectors to avoid ownership of the risk that a flight would be commandeered and used as a weapon. After 9/11, the government took further control over airline security and absolved airlines of the liability that might have accrued to them in the courts. (I don’t think they should have been liable for the full consequences of 9/11 or would have been found liable in well-functioning courts, except perhaps for the lives of their passengers.)

The lesson that private owners of critical infrastructure across the country learned is: Failure to secure themselves will bring them protection from liability, subsidies, and government-provided security services. In other words, they have been shown that leaving their garage doors open and calling the cops is better for them than taking responsibility. (In insurance economics, this is called “moral hazard.”)

“How do you fix the FBI’s computers?” You don’t. And you won’t. That’s the best answer I know.

Does it come off as too ideological to argue that the FBI should be smaller? Consider that the management problems at the FBI are merely part of a different ideological choice: having a large federal law enforcement apparatus. It doesn’t have to be this way, and the management problems are a product of the fact that it is.

Does it come off “soft on crime” to argue that federal law enforcement should be reduced? The opposite tack — “tough on crime” — means accepting incompetent law enforcement, which is the best friend crime ever had.

“We Don’t Have a Colonial Office in the United States”

Go to any event on nation building in Washington these days, and you’ll hear endless bickering about whose fault it is Iraq hasn’t gone better. Maybe it’s DOD’s fault for commandeering the planning process. Maybe it’s the State Department’s fault for not letting Ahmed Chalabi be more involved. Maybe (this is the current favorite) we need a new Goldwater-Nichols Act to unify the bureaucracies behind the sorts of nation-building missions we find ourselves in in Iraq.

During a recent event at the US Institute of Peace, both Marine Corps Major Ben Connable and Matt Sherman, a former CPA official, blasted the State Department for not providing sufficient personnel for the mission in Iraq. As it happened, Bob Deutsch, the deputy senior adviser to Secretary Rice for Iraq policy was in the audience, and, well, let’s just say the sparks flew. A rough transcription of part of Deutsch’s comment is below:

We don’t have a colonial office in the United States. And the kind of—when I hear the criticisms of the civilian side of the government, that the State Department doesn’t have a whole bunch of police trainers that we can send out, that we don’t have a whole bunch of people who know how to run electricity companies, who know how to run oil companies. The Department of Energy doesn’t have people to send out to run oil companies. We don’t have a colonial office. And if we are going to do nation building, in Iraq or elsewhere, we’re going to need one. And I agree that that is a decision—that Secretary of State has made some decisions that we’re going to move the foreign service in directions with our transformational diplomacy in that direction. But it would have to be a larger U.S. government decision that we’re going to do that—which has all sorts of bureaucracy and fiscal implications that I’m not sure we’re prepared to buy off on.

I’m not sure whether to be reassured by the senior adviser’s tepid invocation of “bureaucracy and fiscal implications” that he’s “not sure we’re prepared to buy off on” as the primary obstacle to setting up a colonial office, or alarmed by the fact that he suggests that Secretary Rice has “made some decisions” that the foreign service is going to be “moved in that direction.”

At any rate, it’s sure a great time to pick up Chris Preble’s and my Policy Analysis on the topic of building a nation-building office into the State Department.

New at Cato Unbound: Ted Galen Carpenter Replies to Gerecht

Today at Cato Unbound Cato’s own Ted Galen Carpenter argues that Reuel Marc Gerecht’s strategy of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities may be harder than advertised and that “thousands of innocent Iranians would perish in U.S. air strikes.” Such an attack might trigger a “massive regional crisis,” Carpenter says. “America’s troubles with the Islamic world do not yet constitute a war of civilizations,” he writes, “but Gerecht’s strategy could well produce that result.” Carpenter argues that the U.S. should try to persuade Iran to give up its nuke program by offering a “grand bargain,” and if that doesn’t work, should pursue a policy of containment and deterrence, that, while “nerve-wracking,” has proved effective against deadlier and more fanatical regimes.

Don’t miss replies to Gerecht on Friday from Edward N. Luttwak and on Monday from Anthony H. Cordesman.

Bring Back the Baggage, Please

This is well past its purchase-by date, but Dafna Linzer had a Washington Post Outlook piece in March on the National Security Council’s “Sesame Street Generation.” Not as sneering as the title implies, the article describes the first generation of NSC officials to come of age in an era of American unipolarity. If the article is any indication, my exceedingly low expectations for my generation may have been a touch too optimistic.

In one particularly breathtaking passage, Meghan O’Sullivan, the president’s point person for Iraq on the NSC, describes her intellectual heritage and how that shapes her approach to policy:

For many of the generals with whom O’Sullivan consults in her current job, the painful experience of Vietnam permeates their thinking on Iraq. Not for O’Sullivan. “We are the first post-Vietnam generation, without the baggage of Vietnam, which doesn’t mean we don’t try to learn some of the lessons from there about counterinsurgency and so forth, but it’s not my first frame of reference and I think that’s a good thing,” said O’Sullivan.

Actually, having a pessimistic view of counterinsurgency would probably be a good thing. The new Army field manual on counterinsurgency is only the latest indication that the sunny optimism of the Bush administration was a mistake, and that counterinsurgency is much, much harder than administration officials thought it was before we went in to Iraq.

After the first Persian Gulf war, President George H.W. Bush famously exclaimed “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” It appears his son, and the Sesame Street Generation at the NSC—the Best and the Brightest, if you will, of Generation X—are doing their level best to bring it back.

Fake IDs Save Lives in Iraq

A fascinating AP report says that Iraqis are using fake IDs in light of the recent growth in sectarian killings.  The major groups in Iraq are not distinguishable by physical traits, but they are by name.  To avoid being killed, people are getting false identification cards:

Surnames refer to tribe and clan, while first names are often chosen to honor historical figures revered by one sect but sometimes despised by the other. 

For about $35, someone with a common Sunni name like Omar could become Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite name that might provide safe passage through dangerous areas.

This illustrates very well how genuinely complex security can be.  At any time, the relevant authorities in Iraq could have decreed that all people get (as near as possible) forgery-proof biometric ID cards and carry them at all times - a great way to batten down a country, right? 

Doing so would have fed directly into the strategy being used by the enemies of peace and security in Iraq today: setting up fake checkpoints and killing people who arrive there members of the wrong sect. Identity cards had a role in the Rwandan genocide just over 10 years ago, as well.

Those who believe that identity cards are a simple route to good security, well, they suffer what is so rightly known as the fatal conceit. Central planning that deprives people of control over their lives can be deadly–literally–in surprising and unpredictable ways.

Thank goodness for the fake ID outlets in Iraq today, and thank goodness the promoters of ”secure ID“ in the United States didn’t take their message to Iraq.

The tradeoffs involved in identification are discussed in my book, Identity Crisis.