Archives: 12/2006

Neocons Want a Mulligan on Iraq

And, it appears, President Bush may give it to them.  The LA Times reports:

military officials are taking a close look at a proposal advanced by Frederick W. Kagan, a former West Point Military Academy historian, to combine a surge with a quick buildup of the Marines and the Army. That could allow new units to take the place of the brigades sent to Iraq to augment the current force.

“It is essential for the president to couple any recommendation of a significant surge in Iraq with the announcement that he will increase permanently the size of the Army and the Marines,” Kagan said.

Kagan, who plans to release a preliminary report on his proposal Thursday, said he had discussed his ideas with people in the government. Although the military has had trouble meeting recruiting goals, Kagan said Army officials believed they could recruit at least an extra 20,000 soldiers a year. The Army missed its recruiting targets in 2005 but met this year’s goal.

This strategy faces a few obstacles, though.  First:

Only 12% of Americans support a troop increase, whereas 52% prefer a fixed timetable for withdrawal, a Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll has found.

Indeed.  This echoes this recent USA Today/Gallup poll which revealed that 57% of Americans want U.S. troops out of Iraq within one year.  Also, there are deeper problems with the “more troops” strategy:

Kalev Sepp, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School, said that the U.S. had demonstrated that many commanders simply did not understand how to mount effective, long-term counterinsurgency strategies.

Increasing the size of the force, Sepp said, will mean that U.S. forces continue to focus on killing insurgents, not training Iraqis. “That kind of approach is still tied to the idea that attrition, of just killing enough of our opponents, is going to get us to success,” Sepp said.

It’s disheartening in the extreme, almost to the point of being maddening, that President Bush continues to look to the folks who brought you the war in the first place for the way forward.  There are a few problems with the Kagan approach.

This surge of roughly 25,000 additional troops, at this stage in the conflict, is unlikely to even suppress the violence significantly in Baghdad.  Kaganites like to point to U.S. operations in Tal Afar as an analog.  In that instance, a population of (a guesstimated) 150,000 Iraqis was pacified by 3,800 U.S. soldiers, with Iraqi forces in tow.  Kagan protests, in response to those who say the forces don’t exist to replicate this strategy in the rest of Iraq or even Baghdad, that their opposition “rests on vague extrapolations of force ratios in Tal Afar to the entire population of Iraq or of Baghdad.”

But our extrapolations aren’t vague at all–they’re based on all the counterinsurgency literature out there.  Kagan’s plan doesn’t use the normal metrics for stability ops–he changes them completely.  He uses studies that are based on total population, but then decides, without much explanation, that only using the Sunni population for calculation is appropriate in this instance, since “it would be unnecessary and unwise to send coalition forces into Kurdistan or most of the Shiite lands.”

But force requirements in the literature aren’t based on hostile population or some sub-segment of the population, they’re based on total population.  Rarely can counterinsurgencies adequately quantify the number of hostile population.  So we use overall population for a metric.

Take this quintessential Parameters article by James Quinlivan of RAND.  Quinlivan points out that “From the start, practitioners of counterinsurgency have been clear in stating that the number of soldiers required to counter guerrillas has had very little to do with the number of guerrillas.”  You can’t slice the population the way Kagan does and then use the counterinsurgency literature for benchmarks.  It’s goalpost shifting.  Apples and oranges.

Discussing the more useful historical ratio, Quinlivan concludes that “Force ratios larger than ten members of the security forces for every thousand of population are not uncommon in current operations… . Sustaining a stabilizing force at such a force ratio for a city as large as one million … could require a deployment of about a quarter of all regular infantry battalions in the U.S. Army.”  The very study Kagan cites (.pdf) echoes this finding:

International troop levels should be at least 1,000 soldiers per 100,000 inhabitants and international police levels should be at least 150 police officers per 100,000 inhabitants, especially when there is the potential for severe instability.

And just to amplify that, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board released a study (.pdf) in 2004 concluding that “The United States will sometimes have ambitious goals for transforming a society in a conflicted environment. Those goals may well demand 20 troops per 1,000 inhabitants … working for five to eight years.”

Sure enough, if you look at the U.S. troop to Iraqi population in Kagan’s example of Tal Afar, you come up with more than 20 U.S. troops per 1,000 inhabitants.  To get a 20 U.S. troops per 1,000 inhabitants ratio in Baghdad alone (population 6,000,000), you come up with 120,000 troops.  And as Kagan admits in his article, the approach to Tal Afar, which involved building a large sand berm around the city to isolate it, “may not be appropriate for a large city like Baghdad.”  Probably right.

Kagan also skirts the issue of force protection, the primary focus on which has kept U.S. casualties “low” at 3,000.  Kagan admits, without openly pointing to the resulting skyrocket in dead Americans, that “close interaction with the population and even with the enemy is essential.”

This all leaves on the table the problem of whether or not a lot of the troublemakers in Baghdad wouldn’t head for the hinterland when they saw such a force coming.  Senator John McCain, for all his faults, has this right when he worries about playing “Whack-a-Mole” across Iraq.

So then, what about cranking it up to 20/1,000 for all of Iraq?  You’d need 500,000 troops.

In short, Kagan’s plan appears in any light to be a recipe for compounding the disaster of the neocons’ policies in Iraq thus far.  But despite the history of the last four years, neoconservatives still have a tremendous amount of sway with the White House.  Sharing the same a priori commitment to an illusory “victory” in Iraq seems to be a precondition of getting the president’s ear.  It would be good if someone, at some point, would attempt to disabuse him of this idea, and confront him with the cold facts on the ground.  It’s been almost four years.

The upshot, it seems, is that the neocons are going to get a “do over” in Iraq.  And, unfortunately, it looks like the U.S. military is going to pay the price for their Mulligan.

NYT Nails Stern Review

OK, The New York Times per se has not weighed in with harsh criticism, but Prof. Hal Varian of U. Cal. Berkeley, a contributor for the NYT’s excellent “Economic Perspectives” column, weighs in today with a nice summary of the problematic assumptions made by Sir Nicholas Stern in the oft-quoted Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.  For those who don’t recall, Stern argued that it makes sense to spend 1 percent of the world’s GDP to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because the costs associated with those emissions might total anywhere between 5-20% of global GDP some time down the road.

Regular readers here will notice that Prof. Varian’s arguments closely mirror those I made earlier on this page (for the curious, here and here, with a minor correction to the latter here).

So it’s not just me folks …..

Prosecutors Subpoena ACLU

Federal prosecutors are using a grand jury subpoena in an attempt to force the ACLU to return a leaked document, which was apparently classified.

The grand jury is a legal enigma.  For background, read this Cato study


The grand jury is perhaps the most mysterious institution in the American criminal justice system. While most people are generally familiar with the function of the police officer, the prosecutor, the defense lawyer, the judge, and the trial jury, few have any idea about what the grand jury is supposed to do and its day-to-day operation. That ignorance largely explains how some over-reaching prosecutors have been able to pervert the grand jury, whose original purpose was to check prosecutorial power, into an inquisitorial bulldozer that enhances the power of government and now runs roughshod over the constitutional rights of citizens.

Like its more famous relative, the trial jury, the grand jury consists of laypeople who are summoned to the courthouse to fulfill a civic duty. However, the work of the grand jury takes place well before any trial. The primary function of the grand jury is to inquire into the commission of crimes within its jurisdiction and then determine whether an indictment should issue against any particular person. But, in sharp contrast to the trial setting, the jurors hear only one side of the story and there is no judge overseeing the process. With no judge or opposing counsel in the room, grand jurors naturally defer to the prosecutor since he is the most knowledgeable official on the scene. Indeed, the single most important fact to appreciate about the grand jury system is that it is the prosecutor who calls the shots and dominates the entire process.

This ACLU case has the potential for a landmark precedent regarding the scope of the grand jury’s subpoena power.

Health Policy in New Mexico

Last Friday, at the invitation of the Rio Grande Foundation, I spoke to state legislators in New Mexico about Gov. Richardson’s proposal to expand Medicaid.  In brief, I argued that Richardson’s proposal would trap more New Mexicans in low-wage jobs, make private-sector health care more expensive, and purchase little health for the money spent.

The Rio Grande Foundation just posted my powerpoint presentation on their website. (Let me know if it loses something without narration.)

Cheer Up, Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas is celebrating his 90th birthday with a new book and a jeremiad on the state of the world.

“Let’s face it,” he writes to “America’s young people”:

“THE WORLD IS IN A MESS and you are inheriting it. Generation Y, you are on the cusp. You are the group facing many problems: abject poverty, global warming, genocide, Aids, and suicide bombers to name a few. These problems exist, and the world is silent. We have done very little to solve these problems. Now, we leave it to you. You have to fix it because the situation is intolerable.”

I ponder his analysis and recommend Indur Goklany’s book The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet to him at the Guardian’s Comment is free.

Pork and Elections

Representative Henry Bonilla (R-TX) lost his seat in Congress in a runoff election yesterday, thus increasing the number of defeated House GOP incumbents to 22 (Republicans lost a total of 30 House seats, but 8 Democratic pickups were in open seats without an incumbent seeking reelection).

Interestingly, 5 of the 22 defeated Republican incumbents, including Bonilla, were members of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which controls the federal government’s purse strings and is responsible for doling out pork.

The relatively large number of defeated appropriators might be surprising for some inside-the-beltway analysts because the committee is notorious for sending boatloads of pork to the districts of congressmen who serve on the committee or face tough reelection races. 

As The Hill notes:

In the Labor-HHS-Education bill for fiscal year 2007, more than $146 million in hometown projects is reserved for appropriators’ districts, placing roughly 30 percent of the earmarked money in the hands of 15 percent of the House members. If passed as written, the average appropriator’s district would get $2.25 million compared with averages of $1.35 million for the districts of 43 politically vulnerable lawmakers who are not appropriators and $663,000 for districts that are neither competitive nor represented by an appropriator.

It has long been conventional wisdom that these pork projects help to guarantee reelection. But is it possible that the public has soured on the appropriations process?

After all, former Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) is now in jail because of his illegal activities on the Appropriations Committee.  And appropriations-related ethical issues factored heavily into last month’s defeat of Representative Charles Taylor (R-NC), who chaired the Interior Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. 

It’s probably too early to declare that pork projects have changed from a political asset to a liability, but the appropriations process has certainly drawn much more public scrutiny recently.  As a result, the Republicans adjourned the 109th Congress without finishing all of the fiscal 2007 appropriations bills, preferring to instead push the issue off onto the incoming Democratic majority.  And the Democrats have already announced their plans to kick the can further down the road and avoid the fiscal 2007 appropriations process.

For the time being at least, it seems congressmen have lost their taste for pork, but don’t expect this phenomenon to last long.

Saving the Planet One Scientist at a Time

Good article just out in Rolling Stone about a dirt-cheap, sure-fire way to cool the planet if we ever decide the Earth is getting too warm for our liking: atmospheric particles.  Turns out there’s little doubt we could cool the planet substantially for about $100 million a year - less than the price of a good-sized wind farm. 

The author of the piece thinks this is nuts, but it’s unclear to me exactly why.  There’s little doubt that it would work.  There’s little reason to fear secondary, unanticipated consequences.  And it’s a lot cheaper than the alternatives. 

The real objection for many, I think, is that a substantial segment of the enviro community wants to fundamentally remake human civilization and the global economy.  Conventional greenhouse gas emission controls offer up that possiblity.  A half-dozen 747s sprinkling particulates across the arctic skies does not.