Tag: national security

Ukraine, Trump, and Javelin Missiles

Yesterday the New York Times reported that in early April Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, ordered his chief federal prosecutor to halt four anticorruption investigations involving Ukrainians connected to Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman and a central figure in Robert Mueller’s investigations here in the United States.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Ukraine announced on April 30 that it had received 210 Javelin antitank missiles, purchased from the United States to bolster its fight against Russian proxies in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Though the State Department initially approved the sale in December and Pentagon gave its blessing in March, Trump himself was reluctant to arm Ukraine given the potential effect on the U.S. relationship with Russia.

The burning question is whether anyone in the Trump administration suggested this course of action to Ukraine. Ukraine, of course, is free to pursue whatever policies it deems necessary to defend itself from encroachments by Russia. But to use arms sales to interfere with the Mueller investigation would represent obstruction of justice on a truly epic scale.

To be sure, Ukraine already had plenty of motivation to help the Trump administration. If Ukraine shuttered the investigations to curry Trump’s favor, it was only one of several efforts designed to garner American support. Concerned that Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin would translate into anti-Ukraine policies, Ukraine has gone out of its way to butter up Trump since he took office. Ukraine has promised U.S. construction firms contracts for future infrastructure projects in Donbass, brokered a $80 million coal deal with the U.S., signed a $1 billion deal with GE Transportation for new locomotives, and hired former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour to help Ukraine lobby the Trump administration.

But even if this has nothing to do with the Mueller investigation, the sale of Javelin missiles to Ukraine reflects both poor judgment on the part of the Trump administration and a longstanding neglect of the potential negative consequences of American arms sales.

Arming Ukraine makes little strategic sense. A couple hundred antitank missiles will not alter the military balance between Ukraine and Russia in Donbas in any meaningful way. Russia can quickly move additional forces and equipment to the region at will. The bigger danger is that arming Ukraine will in fact prompt Russia to do just that, thereby risking an intensification of the conflict and potentially leading to more casualties than the 10,000 already suffered. It is clear, in fact, that this is exactly how Russia sees things. In December after the State Department approved the sale, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, “The United States is, in fact, encouraging the resumption of large-scale bloodshed in Donbass, where the situation is already on the edge due to continuing shelling from the Kiev-controlled side…Washington, in fact, becomes an accomplice in the killing of people.”

Arming Ukraine also raises the political stakes and risks turning Ukraine into a test of the president’s foreign policy effectiveness, increasing the likelihood of the United States getting entangled more deeply in the conflict. It seems clear that encouraging greater U.S. involvement is a key element of Ukraine’s strategy. Major General Volodymyr Havrylov, Ukraine’s defense attaché to the U.S., told a reporter that the missiles were “a political symbol that allows others to understand that Ukrainian security is important to the U.S.” The risk of entanglement is not trivial given the presence of powerful advocates for doing more in the U.S. Congress. Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved of the sale back in December, telling the press that “This decision was supported by Congress in legislation that became law three years ago and reflects our country’s longstanding commitment to Ukraine in the face of ongoing Russian aggression.”

More broadly, the dangers generated by U.S. arms sales go well beyond Ukraine. Ukraine is just one of many risky customers to whom the United States has sold advanced weapons over the past fifteen years. In pursuit of short-term foreign policy influence and economic gains, the United States has turned a blind eye to what happens after the deals are done. Among the list of questionable clients are countries like Saudi Arabia, which has used American weapons in its disastrous intervention in Yemen; Iraq, whose army managed to provide the Islamic State with three army divisions’ worth of American tanks, armored vehicles, and infantry weapons; and Nigeria, whose human rights record, internal conflicts, and overall state fragility call into serious question whether it will use its latest purchase of Super Tucano attack aircraft in a responsible manner.

Time will tell if the smoke surrounding the sale of Javelin missiles to Ukraine stems from collusion to obstruct the Mueller investigation or simply misguided foreign policy making. Either way, arming Ukraine reflects a reckless approach to the use of arms sales that the Trump administration seems all too eager to embrace.

National Security: A Gateway Drug to Protectionism

Writing in The Hill last week, retired Brigadier General John Adams declared global overcapacity in the aluminum sector to be a national security threat and urged President Trump to “impose meaningful relief” for domestic industry. With Trump widely expected to make a decision in the coming months—or perhaps even sooner—on whether to impose new restrictions on aluminum imports as part of a Section 232 investigation initiated last year, it’s the type of argument we are likely to see more of in the weeks ahead. While no one should doubt the sincerity of Adams’ concern for U.S. national security, his description of the industry’s travails and claim that its salvation lies in the raising of import barriers is deserving of closer scrutiny.

Stating that aluminum prices have “come under pressure” since 2009, Adams notes that this correlates with both the addition of 17 million metric tons of new capacity by state-owned smelters and a 60 percent reduction in U.S. primary aluminum (produced directly from mined ore) capacity along with the loss of over 4,000 jobs. Perhaps more alarmingly, he points out that the lone U.S. smelter capable of producing “high-purity, American-made aluminum” used in a variety of defense platforms is currently operating “at only 40 percent capacity and under great economic pressure to compete with Chinese dumping.”

In case the implied narrative of imports driving U.S. job losses wasn’t already obvious Adams later makes it plain:

Illegally-subsidized foreign aluminum is distorting global pricing and flooding American marketplaces, driving down domestic prices, depleting production, and forcing manufacturing facilities across the nation to close their doors. Relief is needed and needed soon to ensure that this historic and vital American industry can stay afloat. Relief against China alone won’t revitalize the industry.

…Imagine a world where we are 100 percent dependent on China, the United Arab Emirates and Russia to equip our armed forces and build critical infrastructure. We need broad and effective relief to protect thousands of American jobs and ensure that the U.S. primary aluminum industry will continue to play a vital role in U.S. national security.

This seemingly grim picture is at best incomplete, beginning with the fact that any decline in the price of aluminum is a boon to the many U.S. industries—ranging from beer cans to cars to airplanes—for which the commodity is an important production input. Talk of rising capacity among state-owned firms and prices under pressure, meanwhile, suggests a notable decline in the historical price of this commodity, but that is at odds with the historical data. For over two years aluminum has seen a steady upward trend in price, and it can only be considered cheap relative to the commodities super-cycle of the last decade.

 historical aluminum price

If the price of aluminum is not particularly cheap by historical standards, what then explains the decline in U.S. production capacity and loss of jobs? It helps to first understand that a key variable in the production cost of aluminum is electricity (aluminum smelters account for roughly 3.5 percent of global electric power consumption) and that aluminum smelters are frequently placed in close proximity to cheap sources of power such as hydroelectric. Electricity prices in the United States, however, are more expensive than those which can be found elsewhere, prompting a search by U.S. firms for lower cost locales in order to remain competitive. Simply put, much of the industry has left for greener, or rather cheaper, pastures as noted by The New York Times:

Alcoa, formerly the Aluminum Company of America, and another American company, Century Aluminum, have opened factories like this in Iceland, and closed factories in the United States, for a simple reason: Electricity is much cheaper here. This year, tiny Iceland is on pace to make more aluminum than the United States. So are its fellow hydropower superpowers, Canada and Norway.

Indeed, beyond Iceland Alcoa owns an additional three smelters in Quebec. It should be stressed that this is hardly an example of a “race to the bottom,” with Canada and Iceland known neither for their cheap labor or lax environmental policies.

Trump’s New National Security: Literally and Seriously Awful

National security strategies are strange beasts. Their glittering generalities and kitchen sink approach to detailing threats, interests, and priorities can make it difficult to know how literally, or seriously, to take them. All strategies reflect on the importance of American leadership and bask in the warmth of American values. And thanks to the growing bipartisan consensus around primacy since the end of the Cold War all strategies have more or less looked the same. Each one promises a stronger and safer America with help from our trusted allies. Given this, most Americans would be hard pressed to tell one national security strategy from the next.

Sadly, Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy contains not only the worst elements from the past, namely the pursuit of primacy and a commitment to an endless war on terrorism, but also charts new territory by embracing a new nationalism that unnecessarily elevates immigration to a national security threat and retreats from the post-World War II commitment to free trade.

Though Trump’s penchant for military solutions has always been obvious, the extent to which his new security strategy embraces primacy is disappointing. As a candidate, Trump railed against the war in Iraq and nation building abroad. The national security strategy, however, calls for the United States to “compete with all tools of national power to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power.” The strategy also calls for an expanded – and unending – war on terrorism. In short, Trump intends to commit the United States not only to a globe-straddling military presence and to counterproductive and unending military intervention, but also to risking conflict with nations like China over regional issues that mean very little for American national security. 

Unsurprisingly, given the turn to primacy, Trump’s strategy also calls for “rebuilding” America’s military, despite the fact that the United States already possesses the world’s most powerful military, spends more on defense than the next seven nations combined, and enjoys an alliance system that far outstrips those of Russia or China. In the end, any boost in defense spending will only add to the national debt while doing little for American security.

Thoughts on U.S.-Russia Relations from the National Security Strategy

Like most Americans, I did not receive an advance copy of President Trump’s National Security Strategy. I saw it when it was released by the White House, a few hours before the president’s speech. I wanted to actually read it, or, failing that, to find certain terms, and go back and read the entire document after the president’s speech.

News stories are stressing that great power competition is back. The text of the NSS provides considerable support for that conclusion: Russia appears 15 times; China is mentioned 23 times.

I was most interested in what the president said about Russia in his speech, and how, if at all, that differed from the text of the strategy issued under his name. Before Donald Trump’s election, there was a reasonable argument to be made that the United States should improve its relationship with Russia. During the course of the 2016 election campaign, Trump often claimed that there were areas where the two countries could and should work together. In his speech today, he called attention to information provided to the Russians that allegedly helped thwart a terror attack that, the president said, might have killed thousands.

But hope for improved U.S.-Russia relations has been set back by the credible evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election. President Trump reportedly, and understandably, hates this story and wants it to go away, as it appears to undermine the legitimacy of his election. But the story has hamstrung how the president talks about Russia, and how his administration has handled U.S.-Russia relations. It has made any actual rapprochement with Russia essentially unthinkable.

The NSS reflects that reality – not candidate Donald Trump’s aspirations.

For example:

Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners. Russia views the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU) as threats. Russia is investing in new military capabilities, including nuclear systems that remain the most significant existential threat to the United States, and in destabilizing cyber capabilities. ­Through modernized forms of subversive tactics, Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world. The combination of Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing. (pp. 25-26)

[…]

Although the menace of Soviet communism is gone, new threats test our will. Russia is using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe, undermine transatlantic unity, and weaken European institutions and governments. With its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, Russia demonstrated its willingness to violate the sovereignty of states in the region. Russia continues to intimidate its neighbors with threatening behavior, such as nuclear posturing and the forward deployment of offensive capabilities. (p. 47)

I also was curious to see how the NSS handled the specific question of Russian interference in politics, generally, and its use of social media, in particular. Does the document, in any way, give credence to the argument that there is something to this story, and that it shouldn’t just be swept under the rug?

Short answer: yes.

Russia uses information operations as part of its offensive cyber efforts to influence public opinion across the globe. Its influence campaigns blend covert intelligence operations and false online personas with state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.” (p. 35)

The NSS claims that the way to combat such influence operations is through a better informed public.

A democracy is only as resilient as its people. An informed and engaged citizenry is the fundamental requirement for a free and resilient nation. For generations, our society has protected free press, free speech, and free thought. Today, actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies. Adversaries target media, political processes, financial networks, and personal data. The American public and private sectors must recognize this and work together to defend our way of life. No external threat can be allowed to shake our shared commitment to our values, undermine our system of government, or divide our Nation. (p. 14)

I would like to believe that the White House actually believes what the document says. Then again, President Trump has engaged in a relentless battle against the U.S. media, at times seeming to question the value of free speech and free press.

Meanwhile, the Russians aren’t the only ones spreading blatantly false stories that undermine Americans’ confidence. There is no evidence, for example, that the Russians were behind the Maryland man who claimed to have discovered “’Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes in [an] Ohio warehouse.” I am not aware of Russians alleging that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were running a child sex operation in the basement of a Northwest DC pizzeria, but members of the Trump campaign regularly promoted the views of those who did; Michael Flynn Jr had a direct hand in spreading the story. His father, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, had a history of promoting baseless conspiracy theories, and yet Donald Trump chose him to be his National Security Adviser. The president himself recently spread anti-Muslim messages from a fringe group in the United Kingdom, prompting a public rebuke from British Prime Minister Theresa May. His struggles with basic facts are legendary (in a bad way).

Such behavior doesn’t give me much confidence that the president is as committed to building a resilient country that values individual liberty and individual dignity as his NSS claims. For starters, the president could consult the source of dubious stories before hitting the RT button.

Introducing the American Fear Index

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.

- Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays

Do you have the strong sense that the United States has become a more anxious and fearful place during the Trump era? If so, you are certainly not alone. Recent news stories reveal all sorts of concerns including the fate of the Dreamershealthcare, North Korea, and even America’s democratic norms and institutions.

But exactly how worried are we today compared to other times?

As it turns out, the answer is: quite a bit more worried.

In this blog post I introduce a simple measure called the American Fear Index. The index is an attempt to improve our understanding of fear and its role in American politics by tracking the level of fear in our public discourse about the nation, the world, and the challenges we face.

Terrorism and the New Domino Theory

Several weeks ago the Defense Department revealed it is seriously considering drone strikes against Islamist terrorists in the Philippines, which would make it the eighth country the United States has bombed in the war on terror. Certainly the terrorists—who have operated in various forms there for over a hundred years—are a threat to Filipinos. They are not, however, a threat to the United States. Why, then, would the United States start bombing?

The answer may lie in the misguided theory driving American thinking about terrorism.

During the Cold War, America’s political leaders subscribed to the domino theory. The theory, whose name comes from a 1954 speech by President Eisenhower, held that if one country fell to communism, then its neighbors would fall next, toppling like dominoes. This fear encouraged U.S. officials to worry about the emergence of communism even in places of little strategic importance.

History reveals that the domino theory was a poor guide to international relations, but its power during the Cold War was real. The United States intervened repeatedly in the Third World, toppling governments and fueling civil conflicts, in order to prevent the spread of communism. Most importantly, the domino theory provided the primary justification for the Vietnam War, which cost the United States almost 60,000 lives and also strained the fabric of American society. Tragically, the irrelevance of the loss of the Vietnam War for American security was not enough to vanquish the domino theory. It continued to motivate American intervention in Central America and elsewhere until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The 9/11 attacks in turn spawned what we might call the pandemic theory. According to this theory, terrorism spreads as the terrorism “contagion” jumps from person to person, oblivious to distance or national borders. Thanks to its viral spread, which can occur via interpersonal contact or online through propaganda and chat rooms, terrorism anywhere in the world is a threat to reach the U.S eventually. As with infectious diseases, even a small outbreak of terrorism in a faraway land can be used to justify extreme responses. The best time to eradicate a disease, after all, is before it gets a foothold and infects a large number of people.

The pandemic theory looks compelling at first glance. But like many popular theories, it is dangerously inaccurate. 

Was the Rise of ISIS Inevitable?

In the latest issue of Survival, Hal Brands and Peter Feaver address an important debate in American foreign policy circles. Was the rise of ISIS inevitable, or was it the result of misguided U.S. policies? Most agree it is the latter, but the dispute gets fraught on the question of whether it was U.S. military interventionism or inaction that deserves the blame. Some say it was the invasion of Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS. Others insist it was Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011.

Brands and Feaver use counterfactual analysis to assess whether different U.S. policy decisions at four “inflection points” could have nipped the rise of ISIS in the bud. The first of these points was the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The other three occurred during the Obama administration and include the decision not to press Iraq to allow the United States to leave behind a significant number of U.S. troops, the decision not to intervene aggressively early on in the Syrian civil war, and the decision not to intervene more forcefully to help the government of Iraq defeat ISIS before it took the city of Mosul.

The authors take a middle road, arguing that, “the rise of ISIS was indeed an avertable tragedy,” but that both restraint and activism share the blame. Had U.S. policymakers not invaded Iraq in 2003, or been more aggressive in Iraq and Syria from 2011-2014, they argue, “ISIS might not have emerged at all.”

With suitable analytic humility, however, the authors warn against overconfidence that any of the alternatives would have made a decisive difference to the eventual outcome:

We find, for instance, that limited intervention in Syria in 2011-13 might have had benefits, but it probably would not have shifted the course of the conflict so fundamentally as to head of ISIS’s rise. Likewise, not invading Iraq in 2003 would have left the United States saddled with the costs of continuing to contain that country, whereas striking ISIS militarily in late 2013 or early 2014 might have weakened that organization militarily while exacerbating the political conditions that were fueling its rise. Intervening more heavily in Iraqi politics in 2010 in order to bring about a less sectarian government than that which ultimately emerged, and leaving a stay-behind force in Iraq after 2011, represent a fairly compelling counterfactual in the sense that such policies could have had numerous constructive effects. But even here, choosing a different path from the one actually taken would have meant courting non-trivial costs, liabilities, uncertainties and limitations (p. 10).

We applaud Brands and Feaver, who served in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, respectively, for their attempt to “move away from polemical and polarized assessments focused on assigning blame, and toward more granular, balanced analysis based on a fairer-minded view of what went wrong (p. 10).” At the same time, there is plenty of room for disagreement over their interpretation of the “what ifs” of such a complex historical question.

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