An Intellectual Counterinsurgency

My friend (and noble peacemaker) Spencer Ackerman points us to Tom Ricks’ take on the Army’s new stability operations manual:

ricks1I wonder if the very title of the manual is incorrect. After all, we didn’t invade Iraq to provide stability, but to force change. Likewise in Afghanistan. And once we were there, we didn’t aim for stability, but to encourage democracy, which (the thought is not original with me) in a region like the Middle East generally undermines stability. I mean, if all we wanted was stability, why not find a strongman and leave?

What we really are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think, is instability operations… Personally, I think the mission of changing the culture of Iraq was nuts – but that was the mission the president assigned the military.

I think a more intellectually honest title for the manual would be “Revolutionary Operations.” Don’t hold your breath.

Ricks is right, but he misses a larger problem.  The argument of the folks who want to develop COIN capabilities has become completely circular.

Take, for example, the worry of Lt. Gen William Caldwell, in unveiling the original release of FM 3-7, that we live in an “era of uncertainty and persistent conflict.” Accordingly, says Caldwell, we need capabilities to produce stability.  Hence, the stability operations field manual.

This elides the fact that if we had to take an impartial look at where the instability is coming from, a hell of a lot of it is emanating from Washington, DC.  Our Rube Goldberg political science theories, based in large part on liberal international relations theory, have led us to knock over governments and pursue radical transformation everywhere from Latin America to Eastern Europe to the mountains of Central Asia, the jungles of Vietnam, and the sands of Iraq.

Then, when confronted with the wreckage of our policy, we convince ourselves that we are gravely threatened by the instability we have created, and must enhance our capabilities to rectify this instability.  Less kindly, it’s like the Tennessee Valley Authority with guns, Humvees and translators.

Look at the new “whole-of-government” counterinsurgency guide, for example.  The issuance of the volume was predicated on the logically-true-but-practically-misleading claim that “in today’s world, state failure can quickly become not merely a misfortune for local communities, but a threat to global security.” (emphasis mine) The COIN manual then quickly proceeds to tell us that any decision to do COIN “should not be taken lightly; historically COIN campaigns have almost always been more costly, more protracted and more difficult than first anticipated.”  Then it quickly becomes a cookbook on how to use the Agriculture, Treasury, and Transportation Departments to transform the way foreigners run their countries.

My colleague Ben Friedman recently remarked that “Both Creighton’s Abrams’ reforms ensuring that the president had to activate the reserves to start a war and the Weinberger-Powell doctrine were sneaky usurpations of authority. They were also realistic efforts to avoid bad wars and on balance good things.”  He’s right.  It would be good if we were devoting a tenth the resources toward stopping the next policy disaster as we are devoting to figuring out how to execute self-destructive policies more effectively.

In short, if, as the leading COIN advocate of the moment tells us, the best way to fight the “war on terrorism” is by engaging in a “global counterinsurgency,” we’re in deep, deep  trouble.  As long as the only people who can stop us are ourselves, I’m afraid we won’t be stopped.

Power, as Karl Deutsch once wrote, is “the ability to talk instead of listen.  In this sense, it is the ability to afford not to learn.”  And we’ve got loads of power.

Obama’s Spending Theory

President Obama focused on budget and economic issues in his press conference last night. One concern raised by reporters was that federal deficits were exploding and that Obama’s big spending plans would seem to make the problem worse.

Obama’s response was essentially that higher spending reduces the debt problem, which would strike most people as paradoxical to say the least:

Here’s what I do know: If we don’t tackle energy, if we don’t improve our education system, if we don’t drive down the costs of health care, if we’re not making serious investments in science and technology and our infrastructure, then we won’t grow [the economy by] 2.6 percent, we won’t grow 2.2 percent. We won’t grow. And so what we’ve said is, let’s make the investments that ensure that we meet our growth targets that put us on a pathway to growth as opposed to a situation in which we’re not making those investments and we still have trillion-dollar deficits.

First note that Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

Government spending on infrastructure, education, science and energy are already at high levels. For example, infrastructure spending today is as high as it was during the 1950s, and higher than it has been in recent decades. If government worked efficiently—as liberals believe it does—then all the highest-valued uses of taxpayer money would already be funded. At the margin, the only place for Obama’s new spending would be on low-value items of less economic importance.

Thus, Obama’s new college subsidies might induce some added young people to attend college, but most of those people are probably pretty marginal students because the high-quality students are already going to college. The marginal students might pick up some added skills, but at the cost of higher tax burdens and less economic output in the years when those folks are out of the workforce. Liberals assume that more spending on any activity they are interested in, whether public or private, is always better, but the real goal of economic policy is to find the optimum because all spending has a cost. (And the optimum level of government spending on most things is pretty darn low, or zero, in my view).

Obama is essentially claiming that even with federal, state and local spending at about one-third of GDP, there are government spending projects left over that are so powerful that “we won’t grow” if they don’t happen.

Serious economists know that that is nonsense. Most government activities have negative effects on growth, not positive effects. Take the largest federal program, Social Security, which will consume about $660 billion in taxpayer money this year. The program is a negative on economic growth because it suppresses personal savings and the taxes to fund it create large distortions. Lots of liberal economists support such transfer programs for non-economic or “social” reasons, but few economists would argue that they expand GDP on net.

This Is Who’s Minding the Store?

There was a revealing colloquy during President Obama’s press conference last night.

I’ve edited it for brevity, leaving in the relevant sections. See if you can pick out the most interesting tidbit. The President called on ABC News’ Jake Tapper:

OBAMA: Jake?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

Right now on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats are writing a budget. And according to press accounts and their own statements, they’re not including the middle-class tax cut that you include in the stimulus, they’re talking about phasing that out, they’re not including the cap-and-trade that you have in your budget, and they’re not including other measures.

I know when you outlined your four priorities over the weekend, a number of these things were not in there. Will you sign a budget if it does not contain a middle-class tax cut, does not contain cap-and- trade?

OBAMA: Well, I’ve emphasized repeatedly what I expect out of this budget. I expect that there’s serious efforts at health care reform and that we are driving down costs for families and businesses, and ultimately for the federal and state governments that are going to be broke if we continue on the current path.

[President highlights other policy priorities]

Now, we never expected, when we printed out our budget, that they would simply Xerox it and vote on it. We assume that it has to go through the legislative process. I have not yet seen the final product coming out of the Senate or the House, and we’re in constant conversations with them.

[more on policy priorities]

Our point in the budget is: Let’s get started now. We can’t wait. And my expectation is that the Energy Committees or other relevant committees in both the House and the Senate are going to be moving forward a strong energy package. It will be authorized. We’ll get it done. And I will sign it.

OK?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) willing to sign a budget that doesn’t have those two provisions?

OBAMA: No, I – what I said was that I haven’t seen yet what provisions are in there. The bottom line is, is that I want to see health care, energy, education, and serious efforts to reduce our budget deficit.

And there are going to be a lot of details that are still being worked out, but I have confidence that we’re going to be able to get a budget done that’s reflective of what needs to happen in order to make sure that America grows.

Hey, Jake? The President doesn’t sign the budget resolution. Here’s one of many budget process primers you can look over.

The Fourth Estate is pretty weak on budget process, which contributes to the poor results that come out of Congress. Since the passage of omnibus legislation completing spending for this fiscal year (2009), WashingtonWatch.com has begun to highlight how the administration and Congress are falling behind schedule for fiscal year 2010. I’ve not seen anything in the mainstream media about the impending collapse of the budget process for the coming fiscal year.

Update: Jake Tapper contacted me about this post to explain that he was using the term “budget” as a shorthand for the reconciliation legislation that Congress often produces in the budget process. It’s clear to me now that Jake Tapper knows the budget process – and that he handles criticism well.

Obama on Pakistan (and Nawaz Sharif)

The New York Times reports this morning that the Obama administration is deciding whether Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif is likely to be a reliable ally or an obstructionist force.

Honestly? This is a man who in 1999 agreed to send a special operations team to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, who later tried to forge peace with India, and recently agreed to mediate a truce between Karzai’s government and the Taliban.

Right now, there’s no solution in Afghanistan unless Pakistan is stabilized. Sure, Sharif is pompous, self-aggrandizing, and as religiously conservative as ever before, but he’s still immensely popular and (reminder to policymakers in Washington) it’s not our job to pick and choose that country’s political winners.

In this turbulent region our strategy should be narrowly tailored to securing our specific objectives (i.e. - narrowing our aim to denying al Qaida the use of sanctuaries, if that’s even still achievable), implementing the few policies likely to achieve those goals (i.e. - cooperating with local leaders and tribal elders along the Pashtun tribal belt straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border), and being flexible with whatever leader holds power in Islamabad (i.e. - not expecting Sharif to toe the line on every conceivable issue).

Women’s Suffrage Abandoned. “Too Unpopular,” says Anthony.

Reversing his earlier support for private school choice in the District of Columbia, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews now calls for the end of the DC Opportunity Scholarship program. Why? “Vouchers help [low income] kids, but not enough of them. The vouchers are too at odds with the general public view of education. They don’t have much of a future.”

So private school choice programs work, but because they are not growing quite fast enough for Mr. Mathews’ taste we should abandon the entire enterprise? Why keep striving for total victory when can seize defeat today!

The thing is, major social changes are usually, what’s the word… oh yes: hard. Susan B. Anthony co-founded the National Women’s Suffrage Association in 1869. She died in 1906 – 14 years, 5 months and five days before passage of the 19th Amendment. If a social reform is right and just, it will inspire reformers who will fight for it every bit as long as it takes.

And even those who decide what social reforms to support based on their popularity should take note that school choice programs are proliferating all over the country. And newer tax credit programs, such as Florida’s, Pennsylvania’s, and Arizona’s, are all growing at a faster rate than older voucher programs like the one in Milwaukee. More than that, the politics of school choice have already begun to change at the state level. While Democrats in Congress had no qualms slipping a shiv into the futures of 1,700 poor kids, more and more of their fellow party members at the state level are deciding to back educational freedom.

EDLs on the Ropes

With the REAL ID Act floundering in state resistance, DHS officials and government contractors have been pinning their hopes on “enhanced drivers licenses” or EDLs. These are state-issued driver’s licenses that the Department of Homeland Security and State Department have agreed to treat as proof of citizenship for purposes of border crossings.

With the flexibility of doing things by fiat, outside of a statutory process, the bureaucracy had gotten some traction with this ID system – most notable for its use of long-range RFID (radio frequency identification tags) to track people.

But news comes today that the Canadian province of Saskatchewan is scrapping its plans to create EDLs for U.S. border crossings, mostly due to cost.

“I was comfortable in the $25 to $50 range, but when I saw those costs (for an enhanced driver’s licence) go above $50 and nearing the cost of getting a passport, the argument for just having a passport became stronger and stronger and I think logically we’ve made the right decision here,” [Crown Corporations Minister Ken] Cheveldayoff said.

With more vocal opposition to RFID-based tracking in EDLs south of the border (that is, here in the states), the U.S. EDL may run into more than just cost concerns. And there is discomfort brewing with federal agencies cooking up an identity system on their own.

For all its faults, at least REAL ID had a statutory mandate. EDLs could end up being anything bureaucrats want them to be, which could be worse than what Congress put together in REAL ID.

Slashed?

The Hill is reporting that Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) “has slashed Obama’s proposed increases in domestic discretionary spending from 12 percent to 6, according to lawmakers who met with Conrad.”

Unemployment is rising, businesses are failing, and folks are truly “slashing” their spending habits.  But in Washington, to “slash” means to increase spending 6% instead of 12%.  I’m sure most hard-working Americans – the poor stiffs whose taxes will pay for this “slash” – wished their budgets were in line for a 6% increase this year.