Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Honduras’ President Is Removed from Office

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya is just the latest democratically elected Latin American leader to violate his country’s constitution in order to achieve his political goals. Both he and the practice of democracy in Honduras are now paying the price.

The removal from office of Zelaya on Sunday by the armed forces is the result of his continuous attempts to promote a referendum that would allow for his reelection, a move that had been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal and condemned by the Honduran Congress and the attorney general. Unfortunately, the Honduran constitution does not provide an effective civilian mechanism for removing a president from office after repeated violations of the law, such as impeachment in the U.S. Constitution. Nonetheless, the armed forces acted under the order of the country’s Supreme Court, and the presidency has been promptly bestowed on the civilian figure – the president of Congress – specified by the constitution.

Restoration of stable democracy in Honduras could benefit from two things: one, the Electoral Tribunal and Congress calling for general elections earlier than they are scheduled in November; and two, an international condemnation of moves by strongarm figures like Zelaya to undermine democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Fixing Detention

The Obama administration performed another Friday afternoon Guantanamo news dump last week, indicating that it will probably maintain administrative military detention of combatants under a forthcoming executive order.

This is unnecessary executive unilateralism. As Benjamin Wittes and Jack Goldsmith point out in today’s Washington Post, this is a debate that ought to be held in Congress.

This would not be a tough push for Obama. The Obama administration already amended its claim of authority in a filing with the District Court for the District of Columbia, the judicial body sorting through the detainees remaining at Gitmo. Convincing Congress to ratify this decision should not be hard; the differences between the Bush administration’s “enemy combatant” criteria and what the Obama administration defines as “substantially supporting” Al Qaeda and the Taliban are minute. As I wrote in a previous post on detention definitions and decisions, the actions proscribed under these two standards and the activities constituting the “direct participation in hostilities” standard used in the case of Salim Hamdan are nearly identical.

The only positive news about the pending announcement is that the creation of a national security court specializing in detention decisions is probably not in the cards. As I have said before, national security court proposals play the propaganda game the way terrorists want to and often revive the prospect of domestic preventive detention of terror suspects, to include American citizens who would otherwise be charged with a substantive crime for domestic acts. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief opposing this practice in the Padilla case.

Question Regarding Obama’s Signals Toward Latin America

How come President Obama can find time to call and congratulate Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa on his reelection (someone who has said that he prefers “a thousand times” to be a friend of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez than to be an ally of the United States) but can’t find time to meet with, or at least issue a statement supporting, Cuban dissidents at the White House as his predecessors did?

Ultimate Dodge: America Plans to Reduce Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan… And???

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded special operations forces in Iraq and this month became the commander of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, said he wants to avoid more civilian deaths.

Concern over civilian casualties makes sense in counterinsurgency, since the local population is the strategic center of gravity. I’ll concede that the infusion of 21,000 more troops — which Obama approved within his first 100 days in office — may lead to a reduction in violence in the medium-term. But the elephant in the Pentagon is that the intractable cross-border insurgency will likely outlive the presence of international troops. Honestly, Afghanistan is not a winnable war by any stretch of the imagination.

Certainly in Logar province, where the Taliban have set up a parallel judiciary, I can understand why McChrystal wants to step into voids not filled by the central government. But time and again, Afghans across the political spectrum — including President Hamid Karzai, Finance Minister Anwarulhaq Ahadisaid, Afghan security personnel, and even Afghanistan’s ambassador to Washington — blame the United States for allowing corruption in the Afghan government and repeatedly deny responsibility for their government’s own incompetence. Preventing militants from collecting taxes, enforcing order, and providing basic services means more than simply building up “indigenous capacity” — rather, we, the United States of America, according to those who advocate an indefinite military presence, must spend money we don’t have to be Afghanistan’s perpetual crutch.

McChrystal says he hopes to see an improvement on the ground in another 18 to 24 months. I hope Congress and the president hold him to his word, because if it were up to the military, we would remain in Central Asia for another 12 to 15 years. To win Afghan hearts and minds, America not only has to compete with the Taliban’s shadow government, but also with an amalgamation of mullahs and warlords who have usurped the power of indigenous tribal chiefs in the country’s restive southern and eastern provinces, particularly in Kandahar, the heart of “Taliban country.” Such a strategy is the epitome of social engineering.

Afghanistan’s 33 million people hail from more than 20 diverse cultures, including Uzbek, Tajik, Baloch, Turkman, Pashai, Nuristani, and others. Many of these ethnic groups have different tribal policies. Most Afghans are Sunni, but some, like the Hazara, are Shia. But the Taliban insurgency that we — not the Afghans — are combating, is dominated by the “rulers of the country,” its largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. In actuality,  ”Pashtun” refers to the more than 50 tribes within the Pashtun people, (including Ghilzai, Durrani, Wazirs, Afridis, and dozens more) concentrated in southern and eastern Afghanistan and along the border in northwest Pakistan. Each Pashtun tribe is divided into various sub-tribes or clans (there are estimated to be 30 clans in the Mehsud tribe alone). Each clan is then divided into sections that split into extended families.

The United States has begun devoting more resources to learning the nuance of various tribes to better understand what groups can be “peeled off” from militants. But better understanding would not necessarily yield the outcomes we want. Afghanistan’s cultural make-up is incredibly complex. And it appears the United States and NATO are backing one side of a civil war.

Durrani Pashtuns [Popalzai, Barakzai (Mohammadzai), Sadozai, Alikazai, and other clans] have been Afghanistan’s traditional political elite. Many Ghilzai Pashtuns in the country’s east (Hotak, Tokhi, Nasr, and Taraki), unlike their Durrani counterparts, tend to be rural, less educated, and were the main foot soldiers of the Taliban. The Afghan government (which we back) alienates some historically marginalized Durrani clans, such as those in the Panjpai Valley and some in Kandahar province (Alizai, Ahmadzai, Noorzai, and Ishaqzai), just as much as some Ghilzai clans in the east, which today only have token representation in the Afghan government.

This war is an unfathomable mess. Afghanistan could fall apart once we withdraw, whether we do so tomorrow or 20 years afterward. We should cut our losses now.

Misinformation from Heritage

The Heritage Foundation has a chart up on its blog, showing defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product and declaring that “Obama plan cuts defense spending to pre-9/11 levels.”

This is a standard rhetorical device for defense hawks (see the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Mitt Romney and lots of others) so it’s worth pointing out that it’s misleading. The unfortunate truth is that Obama is increasing non-war defense spending this year and seems likely to increase it at least by inflation in the near future.

It’s true that defense spending will probably decline as a percentage of GDP, assuming the economy recovers. But that’s because GDP grows. Ours is more than six times bigger than it was in 1950.  Meanwhile, we spend more on defense in real, inflation adjusted terms, than we did then, at the height of the Cold War. The denoninator has grown faster than the numerator. 

By saying that defense spending needs to grow with GDP to be “level,” you are arguing for an annual increase in defense spending without saying so directly. That’s the point, of course.

To be straight with readers, charts that show defense spending as a percentage of GDP should either show GDP growth over time or include a line that shows defense spending in real terms. Otherwise they fail to demonstrate that the decline in defense spending as a percentage of GDP is a consequence of growing GDP, not lower spending.

Here’s a chart from the Congressional Budget Office’s report, “The Long Term Implications of the Current Defense Plans,” that does this.

The assumption in analysis like Heritage’s is that defense spending should be a function of economic growth, not enemies and strategies for defending against them.  It’s easy to point out that this is strategically and fiscally foolish. And it’s worth noting, as I have on many occasions, that we face a benign threat environment and can cut defense spending massively as a result.

But there is something weirder going on here that warrants mention.  Arguing that wealth creation should drive defense spending is to attempt to divorce the military from its strategic rationale. That’s an implicit acknowledgement that defense spending is not for safety.  High military spending in this worldview is either an end in itself or a partisan or cultural tool.  That’s not much of a revelation, I guess.

Schneier and Friends on Fixing Airport Security

Security guru Bruce Schneier comes down on the strictly pragmatic side in this essay called “Fixing Airport Security.” Because of terrorism fears, he says, TSA checkpoints are “here to stay.” The rules should be made more transparent. He also argues for an amendment to some constitutional doctrines:

The Constitution provides us, both Americans and visitors to America, with strong protections against invasive police searches. Two exceptions come into play at airport security checkpoints. The first is “implied consent,” which means that you cannot refuse to be searched; your consent is implied when you purchased your ticket. And the second is “plain view,” which means that if the TSA officer happens to see something unrelated to airport security while screening you, he is allowed to act on that. Both of these principles are well established and make sense, but it’s their combination that turns airport security checkpoints into police-state-like checkpoints.

The comments turn up an important recent Fourth Amendment decision circumscribing TSA searches. In a case called United States v. Fofana, the district court for the southern district of Ohio held that a search of passenger bags going beyond what was necessary to detect articles dangerous to air transportation violated the Fourth Amendment. “[T]he need for heightened security does not render every conceivable checkpoint search procedure constitutionally reasonable,” wrote the court.

Application of this rule throughout the country would not end the “police-state-like checkpoint,” but at least rummaging of our things for non-air-travel-security would be restrained.

I prefer principle over pragmatism and would get rid of TSA.

F-22 and the Big Picture

f22_inflightTravis Sharp of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has a good update on the Nukes of Hazard blog about the current congressional politics of the F-22, the Air Force’s favorite air-to-air fighter.

Secretary Gates and the Obama administration, you’ll recall, want to stop buying F-22s. Soon we’ll have bought 187 at $350 million a pop, depending on how you count. With few air forces out there that can rival ours, DoD, sensibly, would rather spend its billions elsewhere.

Congress isn’t so sure. The House Armed Services Committee narrowly voted to include $369 million in the FY 2010 defense authorization bill to keep the F-22 production line open. An amendment to strip that money from the bill didn’t make it out of the Rules Committee.  The Senate probably won’t include the funding in their version. The appropriators haven’t acted yet, but are generally pro-F-22 in both houses. So this will remain a live issue for a while, with resolution probably coming in conference. Meanwhile,  the White House just threatened to veto the defense bill if F-22 money is in it.

The fighter mafia that dominates (dominated?) the Air Force wants more F-22s but has been silenced by Gates, who stuck a non-fighter on the top of the service to tow the company line. Fighter generals on the way to retirement, however, can speak their mind and show Congress where the Air Force’s heart is.

The logic behind keeping the line open is simple. Politically, defense production lines are hungry mouths to feed, a concentrated set of interests that compel their representatives to favor continued procurement or export licenses. Advocates of defense programs understand that political demand will dissipate when the line closes. So when their program is in political trouble, they punt, and ask for just enough money to keep it open, trying to live to play another day.

We should stop buying the F-22. But I worry that doves consume their political energy arguing about the merits of particular defense programs, while mostly ignoring the bloated defense budget and the excessive commitments it underwrites. The F-22 is just a symptom of the larger malady. With all sorts of new spending commitments and a recession, this is a relatively good time to make the case against our hegemonic military posture and its extraordinary cost, fiscal and otherwise. That’s a way to kill the F-22, and more.