Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

No Surveillance Reform in Defense Policy Bill

As I predicted 72 hours ago, the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will not be a vehicle for reforming National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance authorities under Sec. 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA). The twist is that while the House Rules Committee did disallow an amendment to prevent “back door” warrantless searches of the stored communications of Americans (the full NDAA amendment list is available here), the author of all three surveillance reform amendments to the bill, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) withdrew the other two before a Rules Committee vote. Lieu’s office offered the author the following statement on the decision:

Mr. Lieu has always been a strong advocate for protecting our civil liberties and our privacy. He introduced these NDAA amendments (which have been offered previously by other Members) to prevent warrantless searches of Americans’ data under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Warrantless searches are just one of many problems with the law, which is set to expire at the end of this year. The House Judiciary Committee is currently negotiating a package that reauthorizes the necessary foreign surveillance authorities while adding sweeping reforms to protect Americans’ civil liberties. We were asked to withdraw our amendments this week to allow those reform discussions to continue in good faith, and we obliged because we are optimistic about achieving our goals. The amendment decision in no way changes the fact that a broad, bipartisan coalition of Member’s will fight any attempt to reauthorize Section 702 without serious reform.

So where does that leave FAA reform prospects? That will depend in no small measure on how determined reformers are to push the House GOP leadership on the question. As I write these lines, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI) are working on competing FAA bills; while I expect the Conyers bill to offer more sweeping reform proposals, Goodlatte will no doubt not allow the Conyers bill to get a vote in committee. All of this means that unless at least 5-6 GOP House Judiciary members make it clear to Goodlatte that any FAA Sec. 702 reform bill brought up in committee must be amendable, what passes out of that committee and goes to the House floor for a vote may be just as anemic a reform measure as the 2015 USA Freedom Act

Questioning THAAD’s Successful Test against an IRBM

Yesterday the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announced a successful test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system against an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) target. This is a significant milestone for the THAAD system, which was recently deployed to South Korea to defend southern cities and the port of Busan against missile attack by North Korea. Even though this particular test was planned months ago, its timing is especially important given North Korea’s successful test of the Hwasong-12 IRBM in May 2017.

Despite the successful test, it would be dangerous and premature for U.S. policymakers to read too much into THAAD’s capabilities. Initial information about the test suggests that it did not reflect a wartime use of an IRBM by North Korea. Moreover, the test could have negative implications for U.S.-China strategic stability.

Based on the statement released by the MDA and video of the test, the test seems to have been relatively easy for THAAD. For example, at the moment the warhead is intercepted it does not seem close to any other objects. This makes it relatively easy for THAAD’s infrared sensor to locate the warhead and slam into it. However, it would be much harder for the sensor to locate the warhead if the target missile broke up in flight and cluttered the sensor. It is not clear whether the target missile used in the most recent test broke up in flight, but based on past tests it seems unlikely. This makes for successful testing, but it does not reflect real-world scenarios.

Hegemonic Blackmail: Allied Pressure and U.S. Intervention

Discussions of military intervention often focus on the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is entirely understandable: the war in Iraq was a catastrophic foreign policy choice that is still reshaping the political landscape of the Middle East today.

Yet the Iraq war is unusual in many ways. There was no existing civil war or humanitarian crisis, a factor which has driven many of America’s other post-Cold War interventions in Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo and Libya. The United States also undertook the invasion of Iraq largely alone and against the wishes of other countries; unable to gain support from the majority of its NATO allies, the Iraq invasion relied on the so-called “coalition of the willing,” a small ad-hoc group of countries persuaded by the Bush administration.

In my newly published article in the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, I attempt to move past the Iraq War case to examine the broader range of U.S. military interventions. I look at the two recent civil war cases where intervention was possible – Syria and Libya during the Arab spring – to explore the role played by allies and security partners in decision-making about whether to intervene.  

Logic suggests that smaller states do have a strong incentive to seek the help of a major power ally like the United States for their interventions. As I note in the article:

“Put more simply, small states can benefit substantially from the intervention of a major power ally, particularly if they lack the capacity or manpower to carry out an effective campaign alone. African Union peacekeeping forces, for example, typically lack military assets required for their missions; training, logistical support and equipment are often provided by the United States to overcome this deficiency (Williams 2011)…. pressure from allies to join an intervention is likely to be highest when A is larger (i.e., relatively more capable in military terms) than B, and has the potential to tip the balance toward B’s intervention objectives.”

On North Korea, Diplomacy Is the Sensible Option

The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development has been almost exclusively an emphasis on military confrontation. The latest eruption of escalatory actions and rhetoric is in keeping with the norm.

Following Pyongyang’s successful testing of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) this week, Trump referenced “some pretty severe things that we are thinking about” in response. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. forces in South Korean, warned ominously that “it would be a grave mistake for anyone” to doubt our willingness to use military force in response to North Korean “provocation.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement that we will use “our considerable military forces…if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction.” Finally, U.S. and South Korean forces “fired a barrage of guided-missiles into the ocean” off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, as a show of force.

Many Americans believe the hardline approach to North Korea is wise because peaceful negotiations, in Eli Lake’s words, have been used by Pyongyang “to buy time and extract concessions from the West.” Diplomacy doesn’t work on the intransigent North Korea, we’re told.

But that conflicts with the historical record. According to Stanford University’s Siegfried S. Hecker, the record from the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations shows that “Pyongyang was willing to slow its drive for nuclear weapons” but “only when it believed the fundamental relationship with the United States was improving, but not when the regime was threatened.”

This is a crucial point. For decades, Washington’s general approach has involved economic sanctions, military encirclement, and regular threats of preventive war. In this environment, and without good faith overtures from Washington, North Korea is going to continue to insist on having the ability to deter invasion or attack by the United States or its allies.

The Consensus in Favor of BRAC

Today a broad coalition of more than 40 different scholars from over 30 different think tanks and academic institutions have issued a letter calling on the relevant House and Senate committees to grant the Pentagon authority to reduce excess military infrastructure. Simply, we need another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round. The full letter can be found here.

All of the signatories, myself included, signed as individuals, not as representatives of their respective institutions. But the breadth and depth of the coalition reflected in their affiliations, from the Center for American Progress and Peace Action to Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks, shows just how much support exists for a process that has helped the military to deal with its excess overhead in five rounds beginning in the late 1980s through the mid-2000s, and that could do so fairly again.

The letter stresses points that I have made elsewhere (e.g. here, here and here). The Pentagon has repeatedly requested authority to close unneeded or underutilized bases. It estimates its capacity exceeds its needs by over 20 percent, and that is true even if the U.S. military remains at its current size, or grows modestly. The Obama administration asked Congress to approve BRAC, as has the Trump administration.

The objections to BRAC focus too narrowly on the economic harms that can come to communities affected by a base closure, without seeing the opportunities created when underutilized property is made available to redevelopment. There is pain. No one disputes that. But it is possible for communities to recover from a base closure, some have done so very quickly, and most emerge with a stronger, more diversified economic base after a military base is closed.

We conclude:

BRAC has proven to be a fair and efficient process for making the difficult but necessary decisions related to the configuration of our military’s infrastructure. In the absence of a BRAC, defense communities are hurting. Although members of Congress have blocked base closures with the intent of helping these communities, they are actually making the problem worse. The time to act is now. Congress should grant our military the authority to eliminate waste, and ensure that vital defense resources flow to where they are most needed.

Read the full letter.

Placating the Gulf States Distorts Middle East Policy

A lengthy New York Times article over the weekend touches on a contradiction in the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Even as the United States cooperates in a de facto tactical alliance with Iran against ISIS, we’re engaged in a longer-term strategy against Iranian influence in the Middle East. U.S. and Iranian-backed forces have even clashed in battlefield skirmishes in recent weeks.

Picking a fight with an implicit ally is problematic for many reasons. Perhaps most worryingly, such clashes risk sucking U.S. forces deeper into Syria’s civil war.

The article quotes Lebanese scholar Kamel Wazne’s argument that the Trump administration, with encouragement from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, is “turning up the heat against Iran,” and eager to prevent it from establishing “’Shiite crescent’ of influence from Iran to Lebanon” when the Islamic State is defeated. This stance, we’re told, “puts the United States at loggerheads with the pro-government alliance in Syria.”

The stated concern is that Shiite-controlled territory provides a land route for supplying Iranian allies and proxies. But, according to Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas Heras, writing in The Atlantic, “moving large amounts of weaponry across a 1,000-mile stretch of difficult territory in Iraq and Syria isn’t exactly an ideal logistics plan. Plus, Iran already has the ability to fly supplies into Damascus, and, from there, move them to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

One suspects what is really driving the U.S. approach here is fealty to existing alliances. Some of this boils down to a kind of compulsive status quo bias. The Sunni Arab Gulf states have been U.S. partners for many years, despite evidence that they act in ways that undermine U.S. interests. With oil sales, lobbying largesse, flattery, and avoidance of direct challenges to top U.S. priorities, they dissuade policymakers from reevaluating that posture.

But there is a more practical rationale. The Sunni Arab Gulf states host U.S. military bases and enable American power projection in the Middle East. If relationships sour, we could lose that access. In the minds of U.S. policymakers, that would damage American leadership and influence. Washington therefore tends to side with the Gulf states.

The problem with having huge overseas military bases, however, is that we tend to use them. Permanently maintaining tens of thousands of U.S. troops throughout the Gulf region can enhance the temptation for policymakers to intervene for bad reasons. As should be clear from the past 25 years of habitual interventionism in the Middle East, “power projection” can be more a liability than an asset.

Trade-Offs in the Middle East

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump delighted in waving to packed crowds while the Rolling Stones’ “You can’t always get what you want” played.  At the time, the song seemed like a repudiation of the Republican elites who had failed to support his campaign. Today, as his Middle East policy careens off the rails, it’s a concept the President himself should learn to grasp.

Mere hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that tensions between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other regional states were negatively impacting the fight against ISIS and calling for all sides to defuse tensions, the President contradicted him, publicly castigating Qatar for terrorist financing, and backing the Saudis in their campaign against Doha. In this, as in other things, Trump appears not to understand the trade-offs inherent in his own Middle East policies.

Certainly, the rift between Qatar and other Gulf states predates Donald Trump. Tensions have been high for years, particularly during the Arab Spring, when the Gulf states often backed different sides in the political struggles and wars that convulsed the region. As I described in a Cato Policy Analysis in 2014:

“As early as June 2012, media sources reported that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were arming anti-regime rebels [in Syria] with both light and heavy weapons… The vast quantities of money and arms they have provided during the past three years have driven competition among Syria’s rebel groups. This competition has increased the conflict’s duration and has reduced the likelihood that the rebels will eventually triumph.”