Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Ending Nuclear Overkill

Benjamin Friedman and I have an op-ed in today’s International New York Times  (and the New York Times iPad app, I just checked) which calls for shrinking the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and moving from a triad of delivery systems—bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs)—to a submarine-only monad.

The main focus of the piece is on the strategy that led to the enormous growth of the arsenal in the 1950s and 60s, and the attendant history of the triad. We go into the history to show that the strategy driving our nuclear force posture is outdated and based on inaccurate assumptions. The rationale for the triad is equally dubious given the vast technological gains since ICBMs and SLBMs were first developed and deployed.

But the international system has obviously changed since the days of the Cold War. Potential targets for American nuclear weapons are growing scarcer. New nuclear powers like North Korea struggle to deploy even a handful of delivery vehicles. Targeting China’s few long-range missiles demands intelligence to find them, not sheer numbers of warheads to hit them. And Russia’s plans to modernize its non-nuclear forces suggest that it is not aiming for nuclear parity.

The op-ed draws from our recent white paper, “The End of Overkill?” and will be the subject of an upcoming event on Capitol Hill, for those of you who missed the policy forum at Cato last month. We’ve spoken and written about the paper before, but my hope is that additional exposure will draw attention to an understudied phenomenon: nuclear overkill. Placement in the New York Times certainly should help.

The fiscal situation helps, too. As we explain in the paper and the op-ed, the various military services grabbed a share of the nuclear mission in order to grow their budgets in the 1950s. Even the Army, effectively barred from developing strategic nuclear weapons, managed to get into the nuclear strategy game through “flexible response,” the claim that the presence of large numbers of U.S. troops stationed in Europe enhanced our ability to deter attacks on our allies. Such claims were dubious even then, but few people were inclined to scrutinize them.

By contrast, today’s budget battles are forcing the services to compete with one another, and with themselves (e.g., surface ships vs. submarines in the Navy, or ICBMs vs. fighter aircraft in the Air Force). In that context, as we conclude in the op-ed:

Budget-conscious service chiefs may see nuclear weapons as an attractive target, especially given their irrelevance in recent wars.

Pentagon competition helped create the triad; restored competition could help kill it.

You can read the whole thing here.


A “Bad” Deal Was Always Better than No Deal, and We Should Be Thankful if We Get One

The foreign policy news of the day is the apparent deal being reached in Geneva between Iran and the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1). What’s particularly striking is the pre-spin being offered by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his ideological fellow-travelers in Washington.

To be clear: we do not know the precise terms of the deal being hammered out. The sketchy details that have been leaked make clear that both sides are taking small steps, as would be expected. Iran is not shuttering its nuclear enrichment program, or even freezing enrichment entirely, as the UN Security Council demanded it do in several resolutions. Similarly, the P5+1 is not normalizing economic relations with Iran, rescinding the spider web of sanctions that is strangling Iran.


None of this has stopped Iran hawks from asserting, without evidence, that the deal is a disaster for the world and a coup for Iran. Netanyahu was most succinct, labeling the deal—again, not having seen its terms—to be “the deal of the century” for Iran and a bad deal for the rest of the world.

Similarly, Danielle Pletka at AEI asks some pertinent questions about the exact terms of what was agreed to then declares, without answering them, that the deal is “lousy.” By her own one-sided accounting, what the Iranians will receive is “not clear” but she asserts, in spite of her admissions, that they will give “nothing.”

What’s happened here is that any gettable deal has been framed as “bad,” and the administration, while disagreeing with that framing, has agreed that “a bad deal is worse than no deal.” Netanyahu actually had a pretty solid debating point when he tried to scuttle the early feelers of this diplomatic opening by comparing a prospective deal to the deal brokered with North Korea. The parallels there are not ones that pro-diplomacy doves like very much, for good reason.

So let’s concede: this interim deal is not reliving old glories on the decks of the Missouri. It’s not a complete, irreversible end of the problem posed by Iran’s nuclear program. What hawkish observers fail to understand is that there is no such solution, through diplomacy, military strikes, or otherwise.

Thus the question was never whether this deal could provide Netanyahu’s desiderata: the shipping out of all enriched uranium, the destruction of Fordow and Arak, and an end to Iran’s pursuit of enrichment altogether. Nobody, perhaps even including Netanyahu thought that was possible. Given his various public statements, Netanyahu seemed to think any deal was a bad deal.

So yes, it’s not time to pop champagne corks and forget the world, nor time to throw a tantrum. A prospective interim deal would be a small, but very important, step in the right direction. Given the disaster that would be a war in Iran, we should take this small step and see if it can be built on. As Amos Yadlin, head of the Israel Institute for National Security Studies remarked, “There needs to be a scrutiny of the details before determining whether the ‘holy of holies’ was destroyed today.” One hopes Netanyahu, and hawks in Washington, will come to agree.

U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan: A Delicate, Troublesome Issue

The Taiwan issue, which was a source of repeated tension between Washington and Beijing for decades, has been mercifully quiet for the past five years. Ma Ying-Jeou’s election as Taiwan’s president in 2008 marked the onset of a decidedly more conciliatory approach toward the mainland than the policies his immediate predecessors pursued, and U.S. leaders were relieved to put the contentious matter of the island’s status on the diplomatic back burner. But, as I discuss in a new article in China-U.S. Focus, there are now signs that the period of quiescence may be coming to an end.

Because of domestic political reasons, as well as growing unease about Beijing’s intentions, Ma’s government is pressing the United States to sell an assortment of modern weaponry, including advanced versions of the F-16 fighter. The Obama administration is also under mounting pressure from Taiwan’s friends in Congress to take that step and increase military support for Taipei in other respects. House members inserted an amendment in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act urging President Obama to sell Taipei the F-16 models Ma’s government sought. Reports also circulated in Taiwan that a senior Republican, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, assured Taiwanese officials during a visit to the island earlier this year that the United States would approve the sale of Apache attack helicopters in 2014 and Patriot missiles in 2015.

However, arms sales of any sort to Taipei have long been a major irritant in U.S.-China relations. Chinese leaders have never wavered in their contention that Taiwan is rightfully a part of China, and they view U.S. weapons sales as provocative. Beijing is especially wrathful about transfers of modern weapons with offensive potential. Selling the advanced F-16 models, the Apaches, or the Patriots would likely produce a surge in bilateral tensions. Washington and Beijing are already on poor terms regarding other issues, especially the Obama administration’s unsubtle support for East Asian countries challenging China’s territorial claims in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

U.S. officials need to proceed with considerable caution on the issue of arms sales. Understandably, Washington would like to see Taiwan maintain its de facto independence and remain out of Beijing’s political orbit. But a cordial relationship with China is important to America, both strategically and economically. The last thing this country needs is a renewed crisis in East Asia.

The Iraq Quagmire Beckons Again

While media attention has focused on such matters as the Obama Care roll-out fiasco and the civil war in Syria, developments in Iraq are becoming increasingly ominous. Sectarian violence there has reached levels not seen since the chaotic days of 2006-2007. Some 7,000 people have perished so far in 2013, and the total for October alone was just shy of 1,000. Since Iraq’s population is a mere 25 million, a comparable death toll in the United States would be nearly 13,000 for October and nearly 90,000 for the current calendar year. As I note in a recent article in Gulan, Iraq is now in the throes of a low-intensity, but very real, civil war between Sunni and Shiite factions.

Because the last units of U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq at the end of 2011, this country is not directly involved in the crisis—in marked contrast to the earlier sectarian conflict. We need to keep it that way.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, is maneuvering to draw the United States into the renewed fighting, asking the Obama administration to increase military assistance to Baghdad—including supplying his government with Apache attack helicopters for offensives against “Sunni militants.”

That term is a code for “Al Qaeda,” but we need to recognize that Maliki has every incentive to portray his aid request in that fashion, even though the nature of Iraq’s turmoil is far more complex than a mere struggle against terrorism. The conflict in Iraq is an internal power struggle between Maliki’s Shiite-led government and disgruntled Sunni factions, some of whom supported Saddam Hussein. Even more important, it is part of a Sunni-Shiite power struggle throughout the Middle East. Not only is that sectarian division a major factor in the ongoing civil war next door in Syria, but it is showing up in such places as Bahrain and Yemen as well.

U.S. leaders need to keep the United States on the sidelines of an increasingly nasty sectarian conflict. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems receptive to Baghdad’s siren call. Providing Maliki’s regime with extensive military aid may make Washington’s policy in the region even more incoherent than it is now. A prominent U.S. objective has been to weaken Iran, the principal Shiite power in the Middle East. That goal is a major reason for Washington’s hostility toward Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and the willingness to assist rebel forces seeking to oust him. Assad is a key ally of Tehran.   But Maliki also has been extremely cooperative with Iran as well, and both Assad and Maliki head Shiite-controlled governments.

If Washington steps up military assistance to Maliki, we will be in the bizarre position of simultaneously aiding Sunni-led militants in Syria while helping the Iraq government suppress Sunni-led militants in that country. That is a reasonably good operational definition of an incoherent foreign policy.

The United States has nothing to gain by becoming entangled in the emotional, bloody Sunni-Shiite power struggle in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.  The Iraq quagmire is beckoning again, but this time we should have the wisdom to resist that invitation. Losing more than 4,400 American lives and wasting nearly a trillion dollars in taxpayer money the first time around was more than enough of a tragedy.

Americans’ Liberty Matters More than Washington’s Credibility

For two weeks most Americans didn’t notice that the federal government had closed.  Other nations complained that the shutdown undercut America’s position as a great power, but Americans must debate fundamental issues despite the criticism of foreign governments.

Some analysts worried that the partisan budget deadlock would ruin America’s international reputation.  For instance, Sina Toossi of Foreign Policy in Focus argued:  “It is clear that politicking in Washington is reaching the point where consequential damage is being done to the broader and longer term national interests of the United States.”

Secretary of State John Kerry joined the America-bashing.  He warned that if the partial shutdown was “prolonged or repeated,” people might question America’s ability to “stay the course” and whether the U.S. can “be counted on.” 

The shutdown may have been a foolish political tactic, but such hand-wringing was silly.  For all of the drang und sturm in Washington, people elsewhere barely noticed.  American politicians looked stupid, but that’s nothing new.  International policies, treaties, and alliances remained unchanged.

Moreover, as I pointed out in my latest Forbes online column:

Even more important, nothing changed outside of government.  The U.S. economy remained the world’s largest and most productive.  American entrepreneurs continued to circle the globe looking for business opportunities.  U.S. culture continued to hold sway most everywhere people travel and electromagnetic waves reach.  American people continued to visit other nations as tourists, athletes, missionaries, educators, and humanitarians.  The world didn’t wait on the U.S. since the American people didn’t wait on their government.

President Obama did cancel a trip to Asia.  Aleksius Jemadu of Indonesia’s Pelita Harapan University opined that the “Obama administration has to convince again partners in Asia that the United States is really serious about the plan to focus on Asia.”  Shihoko Goto of the Woodrow Wilson International Center similarly contended that even a friend like Japan is “beginning to regard Washington’s political impasse as the beginning of the end of U.S. influence in the region.” 

Yet Washington’s Asia policy remained the same.  U.S. military forces continued to provide what amounts to defense welfare to prosperous and populous allies throughout the Asia-Pacific.  (Unfortunately!) 

Of course, the president missed some meetings.  But most of the work at international gatherings is done by staff, and none of the president’s planned trips were particularly important.  The Secretaries of State and Commerce—officials more influential than the heads of state and government of most other nations—attended the largest gathering.  Moreover, political leaders the world over routinely forgo foreign travel in response to domestic political crises. 

Still, Secretary Kerry was worried:  “The question no longer is whether our politics stops at the water’s edge, but whether our politics stops us from providing the leadership that the world needs.”

Yet a world so utterly dependent on the U.S. is not good for the U.S., let alone the rest of the world.  In fact, American and foreign leaders alike hype Washington’s importance for their own ends.  U.S. officials enjoy their supposed indispensability and bask in lavish attention accorded by other states.  Foreign governments enjoy foisting their most difficult problems on America while benefiting from all manner of financial and military subsidies. 

American Security Project’s August Cole complained that “America is losing its ability to lead globally on the strength of its actions and ideas, to support a vibrant free-market system, to nurture a responsive democratic political system and to uphold a social contract that honors economic and social progress.” 

The nation’s vibrant free-market system and responsive democratic system are under serious threat, but not from the recent political battle.  The danger comes from ever more expansive government. 

For instance, Washington’s take over of American health care is bending the cost curve up.  By inflating health insurance expenses government is threatening economic growth and job creation.  By raising government costs the Obama program is weakening federal finances.  Finally, by imposing unpopular legislation amid a cascade of lies—such as that everyone could keep their own insurance if they wanted—the administration is undercutting American democracy.

While the shutdown was counterproductive, only political vigilance and concerted action can preserve a vibrant market economy and responsive political democracy.  That battle must be fought even if other nations look askance at the result.  What other think matters far less than preserving liberty at home.

The NSA Fig Leaf Act of 2013

Just in time for Halloween, the Senate Intelligence Committee has produced fig-leaf legislation that entrenches indiscriminate collection of Americans’ phone and Internet records, but dressed it up in the costume of a surveillance reform bill designed to ban such collection. The “FISA Improvements Act” does contain some mild but generally positive transparency measures—somewhat ironically, given that the bill itself was marked up in secret. But the main provision deals with the NSA’s controversial bulk phone records program. According to the extraordinarily misleading press release, the law:

Prohibits the collection of bulk communication records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act except under specific procedures and restrictions set forth in the bill

This is almost precisely backwards. In fact, the bill for the first time explicitly authorizes, and therefore entrenches in statute, the bulk collection of communications records, subject to more or less the same rules already imposed by the FISA Court. It endorses, rather than prohibits, what the NSA is already doing. Moreover, it imposes those restrictions only with respect to bulk collection of communications records—which is dangerous, because it signals to the FISA Court that Congress implicitly endorses the use of Section 215 to collect other records in bulk without comparable restrictions. (The key phrase “acquisition in bulk,” incidentally, does not appear to be given any concrete definition.) 

Perhaps most troubling, the bill contains a section stipulating that bulk orders for communcations records may not acquire the contents of any communications. That sounds good, right? The problem is, under canons of judicial interpretation, a narrow and explicit prohibition on getting content under bulk orders for communications records could easily be read to imply that content can be acquired via non-bulk orders, or even via bulk orders for other types of records. At present, it is not clear whether the statute allows for the acquisition of contents under 215, but there are strong arguments it does not—though, of course, I’d argue the Constitution would forbid this even if the statute didn’t. Under this law, though, a clever Justice Department lawyer could plausibly argue that a prohibition on content collection under one very specific type of 215 order would be senseless and redundant unless Congress intended for content to be accessible under 215 orders generally—and Courts generally have to interpret the law in a way that avoids making any provision redundant.

This is not at all a hypothetical concern. In 2006, Congress amended Section 215 to add special “protections” for educational and medical records. What Congress didn’t know is that, because those records are already protected under other federal laws, and 215 contained no language explicitly overriding those statutes, the Justice Department had determined that 215 simply could not be used to access those types of records—an interpretation that was reversed after the “protections” were added. Congress, in other words, inadvertently expanded the scope of 215 while trying to limit it—a fact that was discovered only later, when a report by the Inspector General revealed the unintended consequences of the amendment.

This bill bears out the prediction Sen. Ron Wyden made in his keynote speech at our recent NSA conference:

[W]e know in the months ahead we will be up against a “business-as-usual brigade” – made up of influential members of the government’s intelligence leadership, their allies in thinktanks and academia, retired government officials, and sympathetic legislators. Their game plan? Try mightily to fog up the surveillance debate and convince the Congress and the public that the real problem here is not overly intrusive, constitutionally flawed domestic surveillance, but sensationalistic media reporting. Their end game is ensuring that any surveillance reforms are only skin-deep.

The business-as-usual brigade have resigned themselves to the inevitability of some kind of NSA reform—but they’re clearly hoping some cosmetic changes, falsely billed as a “prohibition” on bulk collection, along with a few mild transparency tweaks, will preempt any more substantive reform. It’s an ingenious costume, but most assuredly more trick than treat.

We’re Shocked at the Actions of the Agency We Rigorously Oversee!

Rigorous Oversight by All Three Branches!That tune you hear is the sound of an ice cream truck arriving in Hades: Following vigorous denials that President Obama knew anything about U.S. eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel or other allied leaders, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-NSA), has issued a blistering statement calling for a comprehensive review of intelligence programs:

Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers. The president should be required to approve any collection of this sort. 

It is my understanding that President Obama was not aware Chancellor Merkel’s communications were being collected since 2002. That is a big problem. 

The White House has informed me that collection on our allies will not continue, which I support. But as far as I’m concerned, Congress needs to know exactly what our intelligence community is doing. To that end, the committee will initiate a major review into all intelligence collection programs.

As many have noted, it’s a little odd that surveillance of a foreign leader is more disturbing to Feinstein than bulk collection of her own constituents’ information. In part, Feinstein simply seems displeased that she wasn’t apprised of the surveillance—reminding us that perhaps the only really unforgivable intelligence sin is failing to show proper respect to a committee chair.

It’s also a recognition of the serious problems posed by international blowback against NSA’s overreach. American intelligence agencies have long benefitted enormously from the fact that foreign Internet traffic—even between two foreign countries—flows through the United States, and that American Internet services and Web hosts are extremely popular with foreign users and companies. Now, Brazil and other countries are mulling legislation that would require data be stored in their own jurisdictions, along with limitiations on intelligence sharing. 

Beyond the economic harms this would impose—one recent study estimates the potential losses to American cloud computing firms at up to $35 billion over three years—it’s clearly contrary to the interests of the intelligence community itself to lose that access. It’s another reminder that the flourishing global Internet depends, to a great extent, on trust—and we may be starting to see the long-term consqeuences of undermining that trust.

Above all, though, it reminds us again that frequent claims that NSA’s activities are subject to “rigorous oversight by all three branches of government” really just mean that the Intelligence Committees get a fairly limited and rosy view of whatever programs the intelligence community sees fit to brief them on.

The global surveillance apparatus is so vast and complex that Congress, the FISA Court, and even the NSA itself cannot really hope to comprehend the entire system. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper once told Congress, “There’s only one entity in the universe that has visibility on all [Special Access Programs]: That’s God.” Which, presumably, makes the Almighty a security risk: Recent reports allege that NSA has been wiretapping the pope as well.