Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Gates Lays Down the Gauntlet on the F-22

Defense Secretary Robert Gates isn’t known for his stirring oratory, and his speech to the Economic Club of Chicago is representative of his understated style. But when it comes to the F-22, the SecDef’s ire shows through.

The overarching theme of the speech was the future of the U.S. military, a rather obvious topic. I don’t agree with all that Gates has done, and is preparing to do. I question his fixation on population-centric counterinsurgency and post-conflict reconstruction. I think he could have done more to cut unnecessary weapons systems, although he deserves credit for tackling the low-hanging fruit.

By the same token, much of the criticism leveled against Gates is unfair, and some of it is absurd. Gates demolishes the charge that he has slashed defense spending, by pointing out that the FY2010 budget is $534 billion, $19 billion more than in FY09. “Only in the parallel universe that is Washington, D.C.,” Gates noted, “would that be considered ‘gutting’ defense.”

But he hasn’t shied from making some cuts, and he has taken on some politically popular programs. And the F-22 is at the top of this list. Gates devoted nearly a third of the speech to the F-22, and the bottom line is this:

[I]f we can’t bring ourselves to make this tough but straightforward decision [to terminate the program at 187 aircraft] — reflecting the judgment of two very different presidents, two different secretaries of defense, two chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, and the current Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff, where do we draw the line? And if not now, when? If we can’t get this right — what on earth can we get right? It is time to draw the line on doing Defense business as usual. The President has drawn that line. And that red line is a veto.  And it is real.

No one reading this speech should have any doubts that Gates and President Obama are serious. We’ll know perhaps as soon as Monday — the Senate is supposed to vote on the McCain-Levin amendment to strip funding for the F-22 from the Defense Authorization bill — whether Congress is paying attention.

Obama Is Right to Stare Down Congress Over the F-22

If Congress votes to build even more F-22s in the 2010 Defense Authorization bill, it will be a sad example of parochial interests overriding our nation’s security. The move would defy the wishes of the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Gates, who have wisely called for the program to come to an end.

The Raptor’s whopping price tag—$356 million per aircraft counting costs over the life of the program— and its poor air-to-ground capabilities always undermined the case for building more than the 187 already programmed.

In the past week, Congress has learned more about the F-22’s poor maintenance record, which has driven the operating costs to more than $44,000 per hour of flying, which is well above those of any comparable fighter. And, of course, the plane hasn’t seen action over either Iraq or Afghanistan, and likely never will.

If Obama is serious about getting a handle on the enormous federal budget deficit, confronting Congress over the clear wastefulness of the F-22 is certainly a good place to start.

Rory Stewart on the Deep Confusion Underpinning Our Afghanistan Strategy

Rory Stewart has a terrific piece in the London Review of Books arguing that Beltway foreign-policy thinkers are “minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals” when it comes to Afghanistan:

Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’

These connections are global: in Obama’s words, ‘our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others.’ Or, as a British foreign minister recently rephrased it, ‘our security depends on their development.’ Indeed, at times it seems that all these activities – building a state, defeating the Taliban, defeating al-Qaida and eliminating poverty – are the same activity. The new US army and marine corps counter-insurgency doctrine sounds like a World Bank policy document, replete with commitments to the rule of law, economic development, governance, state-building and human rights. In Obama’s words, ‘security and humanitarian concerns are all part of one project.’

This policy rests on misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state…

Stewart’s prognosis is at once dispiriting and fortifying.  On the one hand, “it is unlikely that we will be able to defeat the Taliban.”  More sharply, “30 years of investment might allow its army, police, civil service and economy to approach the levels of Pakistan.  But Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.”  On the other, “the Taliban are very unlikely to take over Afghanistan as a whole.”  Why not?

It would require far fewer international troops and planes than we have today to make it very difficult for the Taliban to gather a conventional army as they did in 1996 and drive tanks and artillery up the main road to Kabul.

Even if – as seems most unlikely – the Taliban were to take the capital, it is not clear how much of a threat this would pose to US or European national security. Would they repeat their error of providing a safe haven to al-Qaida? And how safe would this safe haven be? They could give al-Qaida land for a camp but how would they defend it against predators or US special forces? And does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?

So what on earth are we doing?  “No politician wants to be perceived to have underestimated, or failed to address, a terrorist threat; or to write off the ‘blood and treasure’ that we have sunk into Afghanistan; or to admit defeat. Americans are particularly unwilling to believe that problems are insoluble; Obama’s motto is not ‘no we can’t;’ soldiers are not trained to admit defeat or to say a mission is impossible.”

Who’s the Isolationist?

There may be no more vicious epithet from neoconservatives these days than “isolationist.”  One would think the term would mean something like xenophobic no-nothings who want to have nothing to do with the rest of the world.  No trade or immigration.  Little or no cultural exchange and political cooperation.  Autarchy all around.

But no.  ”Isolationist” apparently means something quite different.  Never mind your views of the merits of international engagement.  If you don’t want to kill lots of foreigners in lots of foreign wars you are automatically considered to be an isolationist.

President Bill Clinton called Republican legislators “isolationists” for not wanting to insert the U.S. military into the middle of a complex but strategically irrelevant guerrilla conflict in Kosovo.  (He made the same criticism against them for not supporting even more money for foreign aid, which presumably meant the Heritage Foundation was filled with isolationists at the time). 

But the definition is even broader today.  It means not willing to go to war for any country that clamors for a security guarantee irrespective of its relevance to American security.  At least, that appears to be the definition applied by Sally McNamara of Heritage.

On Monday in National Interest online I criticized the argument advanced by Ms. McNamara and others that alliances and military commitments automatically prevent war.  More specifically, the claim is that  if only the U.S. would bring the country of Georgia into NATO – or simply issue a Membership Action Plan, which neither offers a security promise nor guarantees NATO membership – Moscow would never dare take the risk of attacking Georgia.

History suggests this is a dangerous assumption.  Both World Wars I and II featured alliances that were supposed to prevent conflict but which instead acted as transmission belts of war.  One can argue whether or not the alliances were prudent.  One cannot argue that they prevented conflict as so many people thought (and certainly hoped) they would.

Thus, alliances should be viewed as serious organizations.  A promise to defend another nation should be treated as a momentous undertaking.  And the public should be aware of all of the risks of policies advanced by the nation’s leaders.  This should go double when a nuclear-armed power is involved and treble when the geopolitical stakes are trivial for the U.S. while significant for the opposing state.

For suggesting this Ms. McNamara argues that I am both an isolationist and a neo-isolationist.  (I’m not sure of the difference between the two.  Maybe the latter indicates that she realizes I believe in free trade, increased immigration, and international cooperation, which makes for a curious kind of “isolationism.”  Still, advocating a reduction in military commitments and the consequent risk of war, rather than a policy of galloping about the globe tossing security guarantees hither and yon, apparently means I am at least a “neo-isolationist.”)

Even worse, I am accused of “appeasement” for suggesting that being prepared to trade Washington for Tbilisi is a bad bargain.  Ah, the “A” word.  To count the cost and not support every commitment, no matter how distant or irrelevant, is the same as encouraging the next Adolf Hitler.

Please.

It is time for a serious discussion as to why we have alliances today.  If it isn’t to promote American security, let’s be clear about that.  If NATO is an international social club, or a second European Union, or a global Good Housekeeping seal of sorts, then policymakers should level with the American people who are paying the bills.

Even more so, if the alliance is geared to defending everyone else, then let’s admit that too.  Georgia would not be defending America.  Nor will Albania, Croatia, Estonia, and the other geopolitical titans recently inducted into the NATO fraternity.  The security commitment effectively runs one way.

So for what stakes are NATO expansion advocates willing to risk war with nuclear-armed Russia?  To hope that America’s commitment is never called is no substitute for honestly assessing the risks, interests, and trade-offs at stake.

If none of these considerations is relevant – if failing to constantly add new defense welfare clients is the same as “withdrawing from the world” and giving Hitler a green light – is there any stopping point? Presumably no.  If Georgia is to come in, then presumably Ukraine too.  If Ukraine, how about Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia?  Why not Mongolia, Nepal, and Bhutan?  Maybe go a bit further.  Perhaps Sri Lanka? 

But why stop there?  Should not any nation which desires protection from any other nation be entitled to American protection?  After all, to say no would, in Ms. McNamara’s words, offer “a geo-political victory to Moscow” or someone else, whether Beijing, New Delhi, Ankara, or whoever.  Failing to protect weak states – East Timor, Congo, Belize, and more – would demonstrate that we have failed to learn the lesson that “appeasement simply does not work.”

It is easy to conjure up new missions for the U.S. military.  But the most important question is whether these tasks advance the security of America – this nation, its people, and its system of constitutional liberty.  Scattering security guarantees about the globe as if they were party favors – treating them as a costless panacea to the problem of war – makes America less, not more secure. 

And making that argument does not mean one is an “isolationist” advocating “appeasement.”  Unless the Founders were isolationist appeasers as well.

As George Washington observed in his Farewell Address:

Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

His sentiments apply even more today, when America’s adversaries are pitiful and few, and America’s friends are many and dominant.  The U.S. need not – and should not – withdraw from the world.  But Washington should stop making unnecessary and dangerous military commitments.

Continuing Erosion of the Iranian Regime’s Legitimacy

The gravest threat to the survival of the repressive regime in Tehran may be the continuing attacks on its perceived legitimacy.  Part of the factional infighting undoubtedly reflects a simple power struggle.  However, religious principles also appear to be at stake.  A number of Muslim clerics are denouncing the authorities for their misbehavior.

For instance, Iranian cleric and blogger Mohsen Kadivar recently applied several Islamic principles to the Iranian government:

The fourth question concerns attempts by some to cite the protection of the Islamic state to justify suppressing people’s efforts to defend their own rights.

The response is that an Islamic state cannot be protected through violence.

The fifth question is about what Shari’a law says are the signs of suppressive guardianship.

The response is that a leader who fails to respect Shari’a law, promotes violence, and rejects the public’s demands is a clear sign of oppressive guardianship and that leader is oppressive. The recognition of those signs is the responsibility, firstly, of Islamic jurists (experts in religious law) and, secondly, of ordinary people.

His words alone will not topple Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those behind and around him.  But as the regime’s moral foundation further erodes, the long-term possibility of significant changes in Tehran grows.

Americans should cheer for the advance of liberty in Iran.  But the U.S. government, with precious little credibility for promoting democracy in Iran, needs to stay far away.  The last thing Iranian human rights advocates need is for their struggle to become a contest between the Iranian and American governments instead of the Iranian government and Iranian people.

Quadrennial Claptrap

Since the mid-1990s, the Defense Department has been legally required to review its strategy and force structure every four years, producing what’s called the Quadrennial Defense Review.

The result has been a series of vacuous documents that commingle vague, unsubstantiated claims about great historical shifts underway (think Tom Friedman but without the empirical rigor) with threat inflation. There is no evidence that these documents have produced much beyond wasted time and effort.

Naturally, the Department of Homeland Security decided to produce a quadrennial homeland security review, which is underway. Last week, ForeignPolicy.com reported that the State Department will get in on the act with a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.  Apparently grand strategy documents have great allure to policy-makers. So it’s worth reflecting on why the QDR has failed.

I say it’s because strategy is overrated. The idea is that government is a scientific enterprise where smart people get together, figure out the wisest course, and then marshal their bureaucracies to the new objectives. The trouble with this view is that government is political; it is about competing bureaucratic interests or ideologies trying to impose their preferences on each other.  Strategy documents have no inherent power over these forces.

In practice, because the military services participate in the QDR’s production, it is an output of the politics it is supposed to guide, a logroll that justifies existing realities. The services all employ manpower to defend their prerogatives. Consultants get hired. A great fuss occurs. Compromise language carries the day, and the thing winds up vapidly endorsing the existing force structure and programs.

A better way to go would for the Office of the Secretary of Defense to use strategy documents to give its views official heft; one more way to impose their preferences on the rest of the Pentagon. That argues for civilian authorship, not service inclusion. Of course, this method is only as good as OSD’s ideas.

The next QDR is due this year. The document will likely endorse the Secretary Gates’ desire to make the military better suited to counterinsurgency, which is OK, and overstate our ability to succeed in these wars, which is not.

The owner of the document is the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Michelle Flournoy, who previously founded the Center for New American Security, which has, in its brief life, exhibited great enthusiasm for counterinsurgency campaigns or US military-led nation-building.

Flournoy and a co-author just published a kind of preview of the QDR in Proceedings, the Naval Institute’s magazine. The article not encouraging. It cites the disastrous vehicle of Cold War threat inflation, NSC-68, as an example to emulate. Unsurprisingly it buys into the trendy idea that future US wars will be hybrid wars, mixing conventional and unconventional tactics as Hezbollah did in 2006 in Lebanon. It takes the conventional position that the United States has to police global commons (space, cyberspace, airspace and sea lanes), to protect the “international system.” This apparently means that free trade requires US military hegemony, a common claim with a hazy causal logic. The article makes the curious argument that because the commons are a public good, other nations have “powerful incentives” to help the United States police them. I am all for burden sharing, but this misunderstands the meaning of public goods, which are notoriously underprovided. Powerful incentives encourage free-riding, not mutual aide.

Worst of all, the article buys into the idea that the United States needs to fix failed states, which is a recipe for empire.

The good news is that there is time to fix all this. Maybe the Pentagon will embrace restraint. You never know.

“Cyberattack” in Perspective

Two very welcome articles skewer breathless reporting and commentary on the recent cyberattack against U.S. government Web sites, among other things.

In a “Costs of War” column entitled “Chasing Cyberghosts,” intrepid reporter Shaun Waterman turns up the excesses that blew the story out of proportion and easily enticed congressional leaders to overreact.

[M]edia coverage of the attacks almost universally attributed them to North Korea, initially on the basis of anonymous sources in the South Korean intelligence services.

“There’s not a shred of technical evidence it was North Korea,” said [Internet Storm Center director Marcus] Sachs… . [M]any lawmakers, apparently anxious to polish their hawkish credentials, were swift, as Sachs put it, “to pound their fists and demand retaliation.”

The North Koreans “need to be sent a strong message, whether it is a counterattack on cyber, [or] whether it is more international sanctions,” said Republican Rep Peter Hoekstra, a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. “The only thing they will understand is some kind of show of force and strength.”

Security guru Bruce Schneier puts it all in perspective:

This is the face of cyberwar: easily preventable attacks that, even when they succeed, only a few people notice. Even this current incident is turning out to be a sloppily modified five-year-old worm that no modern network should still be vulnerable to.

Securing our networks doesn’t require some secret advanced NSA technology. It’s the boring network security administration stuff we already know how to do: keep your patches up to date, install good anti-malware software, correctly configure your firewalls and intrusion-detection systems, monitor your networks. And while some government and corporate networks do a pretty good job at this, others fail again and again.

I testified on cybersecurity in the House Science Committee late last month. This episode was a perfect illustration of one of my points to the committee: “Threat exaggeration has become boilerplate in the cybersecurity area.”

Waterman’s and Schneier’s pieces are shorter and eminently more readable so I’ll give them a “read-the-whole-thing.” All three of us participated in the Cato’s January conference on counterterrorism strategy.