Tag: nuclear weapons

‘The Dumbest Terrorist In the World’?

Businessweek has a story quoting a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, Michael Wildes, speculating that Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, made so many mistakes (leaving his house keys in the car, not knowing about the vehicle identification number, making calls from his cellphone, getting filmed, buying the car himself) that he may be the “dumbest terrorist in the world.” But Wildes can’t accept the idea that an al Qaeda type terrorist would be so incompetent and suggests that Shahzad was “purposefully hapless” to generate intelligence about the police reaction for the edification of his buddies back in Pakistan.

Give me a break. This incompetence is hardly unprecedented. Three years ago Bruce Schneier wrote an article titled “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot,” describing the incompetence of several would-be al Qaeda plots in the United States and castigating commentators for clinging to image of these guys as Bond-style villains that rarely err.  It’s been six or seven years since people, including me, started pointing out that al Qaeda was wildly overrated. Back then, most people used to say that the reason al Qaeda hadn’t managed a major attack here since September 11 was because they were biding their time and wouldn’t settle for conventional bombings after that success. We are always explaining away our enemies’ failure.

The point here is not that all terrorists are incompetent – no one would call Mohammed Atta that – or that we have nothing to worry about. Even if all terrorists were amateurs like Shahzad, vulnerability to terrorism is inescapable. There are too many propane tanks, cars, and would-be terrorists to be perfectly safe from this sort of attack. The same goes for Fort Hood.

The point is that we are fortunate to have such weak enemies. We are told to expect nuclear weapons attacks, but we get faulty car bombs. We should acknowledge that our enemies, while vicious, are scattered and weak. If we paint them as the globe-trotting super-villains that they dream of being, we give them power to terrorize us that they otherwise lack. As I must have said a thousand times now, they are called terrorists for a reason.  They kill as a means to frighten us into giving them something.

The guys in Waziristan who trained Shahzad are probably embarrassed to have failed in the eyes of the world and would be relieved if we concluded that they did so intentionally. Likewise, it must have heartened the al Qaeda group in Yemen when the failed underwear bomber that they sent west set off the frenzied reaction that he did.  Remember that in March, al Qaeda’s American-born spokesperson/groupie Adam Gadahn said this:

Even apparently unsuccessful attacks on Western mass transportation systems can bring major cities to a halt, cost the enemy billions and send his corporations into bankruptcy.

As our enemies realize, the bulk of harm from terrorism comes from our reaction to it.  Whatever role its remnants or fellow-travelers had in this attempt, al Qaeda (or whatever we want to call the loosely affiliated movement of internationally-oriented jihadists) is failing. They have a shrinking foothold in western Pakistan, maybe one in Yemen, and little more. Elsewhere they are hidden and hunted. Their popularity is waning worldwide. Their capability is limited. The predictions made after September 11 of waves of similar or worse attacks were wrong. This threat is persistent but not existential.

This attempt should also remind us of another old point: our best counterterrorism tools are not air strikes or army brigades but intelligence agents, FBI agents, and big city police.  It’s true that because nothing but bomber error stopped this attack, we cannot draw strong conclusions from it about what preventive measures work best. But the aftermath suggests that what is most likely to prevent the next attack is a criminal investigation conducted under normal laws and the intelligence leads it generates. Domestic counterterrorism is largely coincident with ordinary policing. The most important step in catching the would-be bomber here appears to have been getting the vehicle identification number off the engine and rapidly interviewing the person who sold it. Now we are seemingly gathering significant intelligence about bad actors in Pakistan under standard interrogation practices.

These are among the points explored in the volume Chris Preble, Jim Harper and I edited: Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It – now hot off the presses. Contributors include Audrey Kurth Cronin, Paul Pillar, John Mueller, Mia Bloom, and a bunch of other smart people.

We’re discussing the book and counterterrorism policy at Cato on May 24th,  at 4 PM. Register to attend or watch online here.

Will Reductions in the Size of the Nuclear Arsenal Make the U.S. More Vulnerable?

Over at the National Journal’s Security Experts Blog, Paul Starobin asks “Is An Obama ‘No Nukes’ World Likely To Be A Safer One?”:

Is President Obama on the right track with his new commitment to unilaterally scale back America’s threat to use nuclear weapons to deter attacks on the U.S. and its allies? And as world leaders assemble in Washington on April 12 to discuss matters of global nuclear security, is Obama’s cherished goal of ridding the world of nukes ever likely to be a reality? Would a nukes-free world in fact be a safer, more peaceful one? Even if Obama is right that he is not likely to see a nuclear-free world in his lifetime, will a trend toward declining global nuclear arsenals make America more or less safe?

My response:

It was inevitable that Republicans would knock President Obama for being soft on national security, and it is likely to be an issue in this year’s mid-term elections, and in the 2012 campaign. This has been the standard mantra from the GOP playbook for over a generation, and the party’s leaders show no sign of backing away from it. But the Democrats shouldn’t be too worried. They easily turned aside such criticisms in 2006 and 2008 by pointing out that policies promoted by a Republican president, and supported by a Republican Congress – especially the ruinous Iraq war – had significantly undermined U.S. security.

With respect to nuclear weapons, the president and his allies have more than enough ammunition to refute the charges that reductions in the size of the U.S. arsenal make the U.S. more vulnerable to attack. Leaders in Washington and Moscow figured out long ago that a stable, secure and credible deterrent need not include many thousands of nuclear warheads. A Republican president, Richard Nixon, initiated the very first round of reductions in the early 1970s, and another Republican, George H.W. Bush, made even deeper cuts at the end of the Cold War. George W. Bush tacked on additional reductions under the Moscow Treaty signed with Vladimir Putin. The modest cuts envisioned by New START and implied in the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) are consistent with this bipartisan trend.

But what of President Obama’s goal of a world free of nuclear weapons? He concedes that this is unlikely to occur in his lifetime, and that is almost surely the case. He is not the first U.S. leader to pledge to reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy; this is a commitment the United States made under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. What will take the place of nuclear weapons if they were to be abolished? We can glean the answer from the NPR. The United States first shifted to nuclear weapons in the 1950s because they presented a far more cost effective deterrent than conventional military assets. Not surprisingly, the NPR envisions that conventional weapons – namely a forward U.S. troop presence and ballistic missile defenses – will take on greater importance as nuclear weapons recede.

This is a costly proposition at a time when U.S. military spending is already at a post-World War II high. The Obama administration does not dwell on the costs, I suspect, because many Americans are not enamored with extending an indefinite and costly security umbrella over other countries who can – and should be encouraged to – defend themselves. In short, President Obama’s determination to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons will accelerate this costly trend unless he is also willing to revisit the purpose of U.S. military power and our global posture.

Nuclear Posture Review Signals Business as Usual

On balance, the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (PDF) signals more continuity than change. The review wisely clarifies the limited but essential role that nuclear weapons play in safeguarding U.S. national security through deterrence. Unfortunately, it fails to set the stage for dramatic and necessary changes to a bloated and outdated force structure because it reaffirms the U.S. commitment to other countries that imposes a huge burden on our military and on U.S. taxpayers.

The document anticipates that conventional weapons – namely a forward U.S. troop presence and ballistic missile defenses – will take on a greater share of the deterrence burden as the importance of nuclear weapons recede. This is a costly proposition at a time when U.S. military spending is already at a post-World War II high.

Stronger leadership is essential to reining in the entire nuclear weapons enterprise – the warheads and delivery platforms, as well as the laboratories and bureaucracies that support them. A more emphatic “no first use” policy would have assisted in this endeavor. The Obama administration chose instead to split the difference between conservatives who favor an expanded role for nuclear weapons and liberals who anticipate their complete elimination.

The NPR’s middle ground stance on first use has elicited most of the media’s attention, but the role that the U.S. military plays around the world – a role highlighted by the NPR’s repeated reassurances that our allies and partners will be covered by the U.S. security umbrella – deserves even greater scrutiny. Two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States continues to carry the burden for security in Europe and East Asia. The costs of this burden are growing, but the NPR merely sets the stage for the continuation of this worrisome trend.

The FY 2010 Defense Authorization

Yesterday Congress passed the $680 billion FY 2010Defense Authorization Bill, which authorizes the largest such budget since the end of World War II. If, as is all but certain, President Obama signs the legislation, he will have failed to halt the inexorable growth in military spending, and he will signal to American taxpayers that they should expect more of the same. What’s worse, most of this money is not geared to defending America. Rather, it encourages other countries to free-ride on the United States instead of taking prudent steps to defend themselves.

The defense bill represents only part of our military spending. The appropriations bill moving through Congress governing veterans affairs, military construction and other agencies totals $133 billion, while the massive Department of Homeland Security budget weighs in at $42.8 billion. This comprises the visible balance of what Americans spend on our national security, loosely defined. Then there is the approximately $16 billion tucked away in the Energy Department’s budget, money dedicated to the care and maintenance of the country’s huge nuclear arsenal.

All told, every man, woman and child in the United States will spend more than $2,700 on these programs and agencies next year. By way of comparison, the average Japanese spends less than $330; the average German about $520; China’s per capita spending is less than $100.

The massive imbalance between what Americans spend on our military, and what others spend, flows directly from our foreign policy. Several decades ago, Washington opted to be the world’s policeman, and has ever since discouraged other countries from spending more on their own defense. President Obama has tacitly questioned this approach in the past, and has called on other countries to step forward and do more. But his actions will drown out his words.

The president has defended his support for continued bloated military spending, with additional monies going especially to a larger conventional army, as a way to reduce the strains on our troops and their families. This is a noble impulse. But a far better way to relieve the burdens on our overstretched force is to rethink all of our global military commitments, and align our strategy to our means. A new grand strategy, predicated on self-reliance and restraint, would relieve the burdens from the backs of our troops and from taxpayers. That new strategy would compel other countries to finally assume their rightful responsibilities in defending themselves and their respective regions.  

The governing class in Washington has consistently resisted such a change. It is enamored of its ability to manage not just the rest of the country, but indeed the rest of the world, and sees no reason to change. Neither, it would seem, does President Obama. By embracing a military budget explicitly geared toward sustaining the status quo, the president virtually ensures that other countries will not share in the costs of keeping the world relatively prosperous and at peace.

Limited Options in Dealing with Iran

IranThe revelation last week of a second secret Iranian nuclear facility, and Iran’s test firings over the weekend of its short and medium range missiles, bring a new sense of urgency to the long-scheduled talks between Iran and the P-5 + 1 beginning on Thursday in Geneva. Many in Washington hope that a new round of tough sanctions, supported by all of the major powers including Russia and China, might finally convince the Iranians to abandon their nuclear program.

Such hopes are naive.

Even multilateral sanctions have an uneven track record, at best. It is difficult to convince a regime to reverse itself when a very high-profile initiative hangs in the balance, and Iran’s nuclear program clearly qualifies. It is particularly unrealistic given that the many years of economic and diplomatic pressure exerted on Tehran by the U.S. government have only in emboldened the regime and marginalized reformers and democracy advocates, who are cast by the regime as lackeys of the United States and the West.

But whereas sanctions are likely to fail, war with Iran would be even worse. As Secretary Gates admitted on Sunday, air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would merely degrade and perhaps delay, not eliminate, Iran’s program. Such attacks would inevitably result in civilian casualties, allowing Ahmadinejad to rally public support for his weak regime. What’s more, the likelihood of escalation following a military attack – which could take the form of asymmetric attacks in the Persian Gulf region, and terrorism worldwide – is not a risk worth taking.

The Iranian government must be convinced that it does not need nuclear weapons to deter attacks against the regime. It is likely to push for an indigenous nuclear-enrichment program for matters of national pride, as well as national interest.

The Obama administration should therefore offer to end Washington’s diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran, and should end all efforts to overthrow the government in Tehran, in exchange for Iran’s pledge to forswear a nuclear weapons program, and to allow free and unfettered access to international inspectors to ensure that its peaceful nuclear program is not diverted for military purposes.

While such an offer might ultimately be rejected by the Iranians, revealing their intentions, it is a realistic option, superior to both feckless economic pressure and stalemate, or war, with all of its horrible ramifications.

Pakistan: More Aid, More Waste, More Fraud?

Pakistan long has tottered on the edge of being a failed state:  created amidst a bloody partition from India, suffered under ineffective democratic rule and disastrous military rule, destabilized through military suppression of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by dominant West Pakistan, dismembered in a losing war with India, misgoverned by a corrupt and wastrel government, linked to the most extremist Afghan factions during the Soviet occupation, allied with the later Taliban regime, and now destabilized by the war in Afghanistan.  Along the way the regime built nuclear weapons, turned a blind eye to A.Q. Khan’s proliferation market, suppressed democracy, tolerated religious persecution, elected Asif Ali “Mr. Ten Percent” Zardari as president, and wasted billions of dollars in foreign (and especially American) aid.

Still the aid continues to flow.  But even the Obama administration has some concerns about ensuring that history does not repeat itself.  Reports the New York Times:

As the United States prepares to triple its aid package to Pakistan — to a proposed $1.5 billion over the next year — Obama administration officials are debating how much of the assistance should go directly to a government that has been widely accused of corruption, American and Pakistani officials say. A procession of Obama administration economic experts have visited Islamabad, the capital, in recent weeks to try to ensure both that the money will not be wasted by the government and that it will be more effective in winning the good will of a public increasingly hostile to the United States, according to officials involved with the project.

…The overhaul of American assistance, led by the State Department, comes amid increased urgency about an economic crisis that is intensifying social unrest in Pakistan, and about the willingness of the government there to sustain its fight against a raging insurgency in the northwest. It follows an assessment within the Obama administration that the amount of nonmilitary aid to the country in the past few years was inadequate and favored American contractors rather than Pakistani recipients, according to several of the American officials involved.

Rather than pouring more good money after bad, the U.S. should lift tariff barriers on Pakistani goods.  What the Pakistani people need is not more misnamed “foreign aid” funneled through corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies, but jobs.  Trade, not aid, will help create real, productive work, rather than political patronage positions.

Second, Islamabad needs to liberalize its own economy.  As P.T. Bauer presciently first argued decades ago–and as is widely recognized today–the greatest barriers to development in poorer states is internal.  Countries like Pakistan make entrepreneurship, business formation, and job creation well-nigh impossible.  Business success requires political influence.  The result is poverty and, understandably, political and social unrest.  More than a half century experience with foreign “aid” demonstrates that money from abroad at best masks the consequences of underdevelopment.  More often such transfers actually hinder development, by strengthening the very governments and policies which stand in the way of economic growth.

Even military assistance has been misused.  Reported the New York Times two years ago:

After the United States has spent more than $5 billion in a largely failed effort to bolster the Pakistani military effort against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, some American officials now acknowledge that there were too few controls over the money. The strategy to improve the Pakistani military, they said, needs to be completely revamped. In interviews in Islamabad and Washington, Bush administration and military officials said they believed that much of the American money was not making its way to frontline Pakistani units. Money has been diverted to help finance weapons systems designed to counter India, not Al Qaeda or the Taliban, the officials said, adding that the United States has paid tens of millions of dollars in inflated Pakistani reimbursement claims for fuel, ammunition and other costs.

Writing blank checks to regimes like that in Pakistan is counterproductive in the long term.  Extremists pose a threat less because they offer an attractive alternative and more because people are fed up with decades of misrule by the existing authorities.  Alas, U.S. “aid” not only buttresses those authorities, but ties America to them, transferring their unpopularity to Washington.  The administration needs do better than simply toss more money at the same people while hoping that they will do better this time.