Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Why Is Barack Obama Lecturing Scotland about Its Independence Vote?

Polls show a close vote over Scottish independence.  It is a momentous decision, but why is President Barack Obama bothering the Scots with his opinion?

Until recently virtually everyone outside of Scotland believed that the Scots would deliver a solid no vote.  But many in the UK’s north feel disenfranchised.  More fundamentally, many Scots reject the more vibrant market system which characterizes the UK as well as U.S. 

The tightening race has created panic in Westminster.  Now the three largest national parties are promising to pass along additional powers to the Scottish assembly—though they can’t agree on how much and which powers.

Britain’s government long has been overly centralized, but the rush to toss national authority overboard raises the question:  what is Westminster hoping to preserve?  If the Scots are so unhappy with the present system, why not accept the result with grace? 

Even a narrow win in which almost half of voters say they wanted to leave might prove Pyrrhic.  It would leave a barely united United Kingdom, one likely to face continuing Scottish dissatisfaction and future secession votes.

Yet a comical cavalcade of outsiders has been telling the Scottish what to do.

For instance, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said “it’s hard to see how the world would be helped by an independent Scotland.”  Russian President Vladimir Putin observed:  “one should not forget that being part of a single strong state has some advantages.”  Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang endorsed a “strong, prosperous and united United Kingdom.”

In June President Barack Obama declared:  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” meaning the UK, which he said appeared to have “worked pretty well.”  He worried about the impact on the U.S.:  “the United Kingdom has been an extraordinary partner for us.”  Moreover, “we obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains strong, robust, united and an effective partner.” 

President Obama didn’t stop there.  He also told the United Kingdom that it should remain in the European Union.  Opined the president:  “With respect to the EU, we share a strategic vision with Great Britain on a whole range of international issues and so it’s always encouraging for us to know that Great Britain has a seat at the table in the larger European project.” 

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Ca.) argued:  “It’s clear from this side of the Atlantic that a United Kingdom, including Scotland, would be the strongest possible American ally.”  He was joined by 26 colleagues in introducing a resolution declaring “that a united, secure, and prosperous United Kingdom is important for U.S. national security priorities in Europe and around the world.” 

While Westminster, which apparently requested the president to intervene, might find these arguments convincing, not so the Scottish public.  Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, who is running the yes campaign, observed that “Being told what to do tends to instigate a position in Scotland where we will say we will choose our own way forward.”

The American experience inspires some.  One Scottish independence activist told NBC News:  “Americans went through their own struggle for independence 200 years ago and it turned out pretty well for them.  They were the pioneers of this process!  You would expect America to look out for what’s in its own best interests and there’s no reason why Scotland shouldn’t be exactly the same.”

Indeed.  As I wrote in my new American Spectator article:  “Whatever the Scots choose on September 18, Americans should wish them well.”

What the President Said about ISIS, and What I Heard

It seems particularly appropriate, on this 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, to ponder anew what counterterrorism steps are prudent and effective, and what measures are reckless and counterproductive.

With this in mind, I was moderately inclined to go along with President Obama’s plan to attack the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), provided that he defined a limited and achievable set of goals, and therefore established limits on the size and scope of the U.S. military mission.

But when the president says this:

“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.” 

I hear this:

“All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note…”

Though they didn’t race there, a team of U.S. special forces eventually made their way to Pakistan and pumped a couple of bullets into bin Laden, so he’s not making these videos any more. That seems worthy. If we can repeat these sorts of operations elsewhere, and shut up a few more loudmouths, we should.

But the larger point stands. We shouldn’t terrorize ourselves. We shouldn’t exaggerate the threat posed by terrorism. And we shouldn’t react in ways that feed the terrorists’ narrative, or serve the terrorists’ goals.

The Naked Truth about TSA Spending

Governments tend to spend money on low-value activities because they do not have market signals or customer feedback to guide them. In this report, I examined the problem with respect to the Transportation Security Administration. As one example, TSA’s SPOT program for finding terrorists spends more than $200 million a year with few if any benefits.

Further confirmation of TSA’s misallocation problem comes from a new academic study looking at the full-body “nudie” scanners installed in U.S. airports at great expense between 2009 and 2013. A team of university researchers bought a Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter X-ray machine and began testing it on various types of weapons and explosives. It turns out that a terrorist could fool the machines pretty easily:

We find that the system provides weak protection against adaptive adversaries: It is possible to conceal knives, guns, and explosives from detection by exploiting properties of the device’s backscatter X-ray technology.

If you walked though the machines with a big block of C-4 plastic explosive in your hands, it would be detected. The problem, of course, is that terrorists are smarter than that:

We show that an adaptive adversary, with the ability to refine his techniques based on experiment, can confidently smuggle contraband past the scanner by carefully arranging it on his body, obscuring it with other materials, or properly shaping it. Using these techniques, we are able to hide firearms, knives, plastic explosive simulants, and detonators in our tests. These attacks are surprisingly robust, and they suggest a failure on the part of the Secure 1000’s designers and the TSA to adequately anticipate adaptive attackers.

The Rapiscan machines were pulled from U.S. airports due to concerns about civil liberties and the possible health effects of emitted radiation. But as one of the study authors observed to Bloomberg: “What does this say about how these scanners were tested and acquired in the first place? … It says there’s something wrong with the government’s process … [the process] is secret and not independent. Those are problems.” It’s also a problem that the government has a monopoly on aviation security, and that TSA is not accountable to anyone for its level of efficiency or performance. Well, it’s accountable to Congress I suppose, but that doesn’t really amount to much these days.

The good news is that airport security screening does not have to be a government monopoly. We should move to private contracting with federal oversight, which is the approach taken by Canada and numerous European countries. For more, see my report and check out the writings of Bob Poole at Reason.

Cato Live Tweeting Obama’s ISIS Speech! #CatoWHSpeech

#CatoWHSpeech

At 9:00PM tonight, President Obama will announce expanded U.S. military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He will likely explain an apparent change in direction that will include airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and possibly increased training and weapons procurement for the Iraqi military and “moderate“ segments of the Syrian rebellion. Americans are understandably worried about getting sucked back into an open-ended conflict.

Don’t miss Cato experts live tweeting Obama’s speech tonight, using the hashtag #CatoWHSpeech. You can check out the reactions and opinions of our scholars in real time. Just follow along and join in!

U.S. Policy Choices Regarding China

While the Obama administration has preoccupied itself with developments in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq, a far more important foreign policy relationship continues to deteriorate.  Late last month, a nasty incident occurred when a Chinese fighter plane intercepted and harassed a U.S. spy plane near Hainan Island, where China has a major submarine base.  It is just the latest in a growing list of spats between Washington and Beijing. 

Relations had already become tense because of China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and its acrimonious dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.  Washington suspects that China is trying to become the dominant power in East Asia and gradually displace the United States from that role.  Beijing suspects that the United States is trying to enlist East Asian nations in a de facto containment policy directed against China, although Americans also want to continue enjoying the benefits of an extensive economic relationship with that country.  Both sides are probably correct in their suspicions.

In an article over at the National Interest Online, I suggest that the Obama administration’s China policy is a dangerous muddle.  Instead of continuing to drift toward an implicit, hostile containment policy, even as America’s regional clout continues to erode, the United States should consider two other options.  One would be to recognize China as the pre-eminent power in East Asia, thereby accepting a Chinese equivalent of America’s long-standing Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere.  I discuss that option in greater detail in an article in China-U.S. Focus.  Britain’s willingness in the 1890s to defer to the United States in the Western Hemisphere ended tensions between the two countries and ushered in an era of extremely close relations.  A similar trend might occur following such a U.S. concession to China in East Asia. 

But as I note, Britain and the United States were both democratic, capitalist states with similar cultures and overlapping interests.  Today’s China, on the other hand, is an authoritarian, quasi-capitalist country.  Conceding regional pre-eminence to a country with those characteristics would be much harder and riskier for the United States.

The other policy option would be for the United States to adopt a much lower security profile in that part of the world and allow a natural balance of power to develop between China and its uneasy neighbors, led by Japan.  That approach would recognize that the strategic and economic dominance that the United States enjoyed following the end of World War II was artificial and has been fading for at least a quarter century.  Not only China’s rise, but the growing prosperity and capabilities of other East Asian nations have eroded Washington’s advantages.  U.S. power in the region is still superior to that of any other actor, but the margin grows narrower, and that trend is likely to continue.  Policymakers need to ask themselves whether it is realistic to expect that a country whose homeland is thousands of miles away can continue to be East Asia’s hegemon much longer.  It makes more sense to relinquish that role gradually and create incentives for Japan, Indonesia, India, Vietnam, South Korea and other countries to become more assertive in balancing China’s growing power and sometimes abrasive behavior. 

Fostering the development of an independent regional balance of power has some drawbacks.  It would require the United States to relinquish the security role it has played for nearly seven decades, as well as relinquish the prestige and influence accompanying that role.  And there is no guarantee that adopting a lower U.S. security profile in East Asia would produce the outcome we desire.  Although unlikely, it is possible that the countries there would capitulate and accept Chinese dominance instead of assuming the costs and risks required to balance that country.  Alternatively, the emergence of multiple well-armed powers could create greater instability in the region.  No strategy is risk free.

One point is increasingly apparent, however.  Clear policy choices, even if difficult, need to be made.  As China’s power grows, it will become harder and riskier for Washington to continue its contradictory strategy of containing China while trying to enjoy the fruits of a close bilateral economic relationship.  We need a more coherent China policy—and soon.

Degrade ISIS’s Capabilities, Avoid Mission Creep

In a primetime address Wednesday evening, President Obama will announce that he will authorize U.S. airstrikes in Syria as part of his larger strategy to degrade and destroy ISIS. This represents a marked escalation of U.S. action against the notorious group that now controls large swathes of northern Iraq and Syria. According to the New York Times, the president’s strategy will be “a long-term campaign far more complex than the targeted strikes the United States has used against Al Qaeda in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.”

In advance of his speech, I have written a piece for Reason in which I urge the president to listen to the American people.

A majority of Americans support a military response – though not U.S. troops on the ground. Very few are content with allowing ISIS to spread its influence with impunity, especially after the brutal killing of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The group has effectively declared itself an enemy of the United States, and there is growing support for action against the group before it even attempts an attack on the U.S. homeland (something that it appears only to be aspiring to, as opposed to actively planning for).

In the article, I also warn against mission creep, the possibility of which is all too real.

The hawks on both the left and right believe that a large U.S. ground presence is required because they don’t want to limit the mission to merely hitting ISIS – they want to restore stability and order in Iraq, exclude Iranian influence from Iraqi politics, and topple Bashar Assad in Syria. In other words, they want us back in the nation-building business, but now in two countries racked by civil war and sectarian hatreds, instead of just one.

To avoid being drawn into such a scenario, the president needs to clearly answer two particularly relevant questions: how large a response is justified; and what end state is acceptable? The president should resist sending in a large number of ground troops and be content to degrade ISIS to the point that it can be contained by the many enemies that directly surround it.

Read the whole thing here.

What Sort of Problem Is ISIS?

The quality of the discussion about what sort of problem ISIS poses to the United States has been unsurprisingly poor, given who is framing it. All Americans have been appalled by the grotesque killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American hostages held by the Islamic State. The justness of vengeance against their killers is something everyone agrees on.

But beyond that, the debate is stunning by its internal contradictions. Take, for example, the fact that the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently announced that while ISIS “poses a direct and significant threat to us,” there is “no credible information [it] is planning to attack the US.” This echoed the judgment of both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which issued similar judgments last month.

At the same time as those charged with threat assessment are stating ISIS does not at present pose a threat to US territory, our political leaders are unanimous in judging that the United States needs to involve itself more deeply in the war taking place across the Syria-Iraq border. Shouldn’t we worry at least a bit that taking sides against it in that war makes the Islamic State more likely to target the United States at home, not less? (For their part, the barbarian murderers of Foley and Sotloff stated that their actions were intended to avenge prior US airstrikes on ISIS.) One could argue that trying to destroy ISIS is worth raising the risk they will target US territory, but shouldn’t the marginal impact of its likelihood of an attack on us here at least show up on the ledger?

Or take the recent statements of our politicians. President Obama famously remarked that he didn’t have a strategy for what to do about ISIS, even though his administration was already bombing them. On Meet the Press, Obama added his voice to those claiming there’s been no “immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL.” Rather, according to Obama, “ISIL poses a broader threat because of its territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria.”

Secretary of State Kerry offered some thoughts on ISIS last week, in which he made clear the administration’s desired end-state: “destroy ISIL”:

these guys are not 10 feet tall. They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks. They’re not as organized as everybody thinks. And we have the technology, we have the know-how. What we need is obviously the willpower to make certain that we are steady and stay at this.

There is no contain policy for ISIL. They’re an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring, quasi state within a regular army. And leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us…

Two points here. First, if ISIS is in fact as Kerry describes it—a group that isn’t 10 feet tall, a group that isn’t as disciplined or organized as everybody thinks, and a group that is really a quasi state with grandiose objectives—then why isn’t containment a viable option? Grandiose objectives are hard to obtain even for actors who are disciplined and well-organized, even those that are 10 feet tall. So why isn’t ISIS—which Kerry says isn’t so powerful but has ambitious objectives—likely to burn out like so many of its predecessor groups have?