Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Cooper vs. the Services

Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) has a fairly radical proposal for reforming defense acquisition in Politico.

Cooper wants to put the military services’ acquisition staffs under the direct control of the Secretary of Defense. The idea is to liberate the staffs from the parochial perspectives that cause various pathologies in acquisition programs.

The oped implicitly blames large and consistent cost overruns in weapons programs on the services’ interests, which manifest in excessive requirements for platforms. For example, the Air Force’s religious attachment to the over-designed and thus wildly expensive F-22 has its origin in a peculiar self-image, one that sees the establishment of air superiority for strategic bombing as the Air Force’s main mission. You can tell a similar story about another contender in the Pentagon’s biggest white elephant sweepstakes: the Marine’s amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.

Cooper is rejecting the more popular view that the trouble in acquisition is the lack of independent cost estimates and other failures in the contracting process. That technocratic view underlies the acquisition bill that just became law. Cooper is saying that the trouble is more what we want than how we buy it, and what we want is a consequence of the services’ power. To deal with that, you must either change the services’ conception of their interests (and note that such efforts are arguably underway, especially in the Air Force) or take power from them. He’s pushing for the latter.

The weakness in the oped is a failure to explain how moving the military’s acquisition personnel to OSD would change the incentives that cause officers to do their service’s bidding. They would still work for a service, after all, and face its promotion board. A more radical proposal would be to hand more power over acquisition to the civilians in OSD and remove redundant positions from the services.

Cooper also takes (another) shot at constant service shares – the tradition, dating to the Kennedy Administration, where the Army, Navy and Air Force all get consistent shares of the budget each year. That tradition stifles interservice competition and therefore innovation. Giving the lion’s share of defense spending to the ground forces would be a sensible outgrowth of our current defense strategy, which is manpower-intensive. The Navy and Air Force might then be forced to scramble for relevance, causing them to initiate many of the reforms to their procurement programs that Secretary Gates has proposed. (An even better tact would be to cut the defense budget massively but give more of it to the Navy, given that our current strategy encourages dumb wars).

Note that the suggestion to enhance service competition relies on decentralized institutions competing, whereas the main suggestion of the oped is to heighten the centralized authority of the Secretary. Whether these are contradictory ideas is academic, for now, because at least one is not going to happen soon. The service’s would go the mattresses to protect their control of their acquisition programs, and there is a no sign of a political constituency willing to pick that fight.

Denying ‘Terrorists’ the Label

The killing of abortion docter George Tiller is an interesting microcosm of how terrorism works – and how it can be suppressed. I wrote here the other day denying that Tiller’s killer is a terrorist. Refusing to call him a terrorist will deny him strategic gains and reduce violence in the future.

Now the AP reports the killer’s claim from jail that similar violence is planned across the nation. This kind of statement is not likely prediction, but rather an appeal to like-minded people to join him. Like terrorists, he has a strong ideological commitment but almost no way to advance his cause other than by inducing missteps on the part of his opponents.

Letting Dr. Tiller’s killer wear the mantle of terrorism would enthuse people who might be inclined to join his cause and carry out future attacks on abortion providers. The best strategic response is to downplay his claims, refuse to call him a terrorist, and let the criminal process run its course.

House Votes against “Strip-Search” Machines

Yesterday the House adopted an amendment to the Transportation Security Administration Authorization Act that would prohibit the TSA from using Whole Body-Imaging machines for primary screening at airports and require the TSA to give passengers the option of a pat-down search in place of going through a WBI machine, among other things.

You can read the amendment here, and the roll call vote will soon be up here. Use it to decide whether to cheer or jeer your member of Congress.

More on strip-search machines here, here, and here.

Fusion Centers

Most people don’t care about government surveillance – just so long as they are not affected by it.  We want the police to be on lookout for trouble – so some surveillance is necessary for the work they do.  But how much?

After 9/11, state officials said they had difficulty “connecting all the dots.”  Fusion centers are supposed to remedy that problem.  Police departments around the country are creating databases (“fusion centers”) and the objective is to link them together so that the police can spot patterns of behavior so that crimes or terrorist attacks can be thwarted.

The goal seems sensible and worthwhile but as the details emerge on how fusion centers operate, the concept gets controversial fast.  Who will be monitored? What kind of information will be  collected?   And who decides when pieces of information should be discarded or entered into a massive database?  If false information about, say, YOU, goes into the database, will you ever learn about it?  Have an opportunity to erase it or correct it?

Fusion centers are springing up all over the country and they are coordinating the efforts of some 800,000 American law enforcement officers to collect information about anyone deemed suspicious. One problem is that terrorists are not of a monolithic character. Terrorists can be extremely religious or secular; they may be Arab, white, black or any other race; terrorists come from both rich and poor backgrounds; they come from the far right, the far left – and some are simply against society generally. And when criminals are added to the mix, the potential dragnet for this casual government surveillance potentially covers scores of people.

Behaviors that make someone eligible for government monitoring are quite broad. As noted by Bruce Fein in his testimony before Congress in April, citing a July 2008 ACLU report on fusion centers, such suspicious behaviors in one LAPD directive include “using binoculars,” “taking pictures or video footage “with no apparent aesthetic value,” “drawing diagrams,” and “taking notes,” among others.

Former vice-president Cheney might argue that the monitoring is not extensive enough.  He recently said (pdf): “When just a single clue goes unlearned … can bring on a catastrophe – it’s no time for splitting differences.  There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance.”  National security, it seems,  requires that we get everyone into the central database for scrutiny.  We can’t afford any ”gaps” in the surveillance matrix.

I will be moderating a Cato event about fusion centers on Thursday, June 11, at noon.  The panel will include attorney Bruce Fein, the ACLU’s Mike German (who co-authored the report linked above), and Harvey Eisenberg, Chief of the National Security Section in the Maryland Division of the U.S. Attorney’s office. 

America’s Power Problem

Numerous polls show that Americans want to reduce our military presence abroad, allowing our allies and other nations to assume greater responsibility both for their own defense and for enforcing security in their respective regions.

But why haven’t we done so?

In his new book, The Power Problem, Christopher A. Preble contends that the vast military strength of the United States has induced policymakers in Washington to broaden the perception of the “national interest,” and ultimately to commit ourselves to the impossible task of maintaining global order.

Preble holds that the core national interest — preserving American security — is easily defined and largely immutable. In his view, military power is purely instrumental: if it advances U.S. security, then it is fulfilling its essential role.

Preble spoke at Cato about what we views as the proper role of the United States in the world.

Tiananmen Square: 20 Years Later

tsAfter 20 years China has made substantial economic progress, but the ghosts of Tiananmen are restless and will continue to be so until the Goddess of Liberty is restored.

The Chinese Communist Party’s “Human Rights Action Plan” (2009–10) addresses several human rights abuses, but it fails to establish a well-defined boundary between the individual and the state that protects rights to life, liberty, and property.

Until China limits the power of the CCP and allows people to exercise their natural rights, there will be corruption, and the goal of “social harmony” will be elusive. The lesson of Tiananmen is that the principle of nonintervention (wu wei) is superior to the heavy hand of the state as a way to bring about true harmony.

More on the Tiananmen Square massacre below.

Some Early Thoughts on Obama’s Speech

I listened live to the president’s Cairo speech this morning on my ride into work. I know that it will be parsed and dissected. Passages will be taken out of context, and sentences twisted beyond recognition. At times, it sounded like a state of the union address, with a litany of promises intended to appeal to particular interest groups.

That said, I thought the president hit the essential points without overpromising. He did not ignore that which divides the United States from the world at large, and many Muslims in particular, nor was he afraid to address squarely the lies and distortions – including the implication that 9/11 never happened, or was not the product of al Qaeda – that have made the situation worse than it should be. He stressed the common interests that should draw people to support U.S. policies rather than oppose them: these include our opposition to the use of violence against innocents; our support for democracy and self-government; and our hostility toward racial, ethnic or religious intolerance. All good.

Two particular comments jumped out at me (the speech text can be found here):

1. The president clearly stated his goals for the U.S. military presence in Iraq. He pledged to “honor our agreement with Iraq’s democratically-elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July,” “the removal of our combat brigades by next August,” and “to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012.”

This might not seem like much. As noted, it is the established policy of the U.S. government and the Iraqi government under the status of forces agreement. Some recent comments by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, however, implied that U.S. troops might remain in Iraq for a decade. I’m glad that the president cleared up the confusion.

2. President Obama wisely connected U.S. policy in the 21st century to its founding principles from the earliest days to remind his audience – or perhaps to teach them for the very first time – that the United States was not now, nor ever has been, at war with Islam, or with any other religion. George Washington affirmed the importance of religious equality in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. President Obama quoted John Adams, who saw no reason why the United States could not enjoy good relations with Morocco, the first country to recognize the United States. When signing the Treaty of Tripoli, Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.”

But the president also drew on the Founders to convey a broader message. They believed that the new nation should advance human rights and the cause of liberty by its example, not by military force. Some of our recent leaders seem to have forgotten that, and a few pundits have actually scorned the suggestion. The president wisely cast his lot with the earlier generation, quoting Thomas Jefferson who said “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

It is a good quote. I use it in my book, too.