Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Getting the Opponent to React in Foolish and Self-Defeating Ways Is One of the Primary Goals of Most Terror Campaigns

Stephen Walt has a great blog post up at ForeignPolicy.com.

I particularly appreciate how he recognizes that terrorists seek and profit from overreaction on the part of the victim state:

If our leaders react to every terrorist incident as if it’s a monumental disaster, and if they hype the terrorist threat for political advantage – as George Bush and Dick Cheney did – the public will surely respond by demanding that we throw more resources at the problem than is prudent. Getting the opponent to react in foolish and self-defeating ways is one of the primary goals of most terror campaigns, of course, because these blunders can help the terrorists win victories that they could not achieve otherwise. We did more damage to ourselves when we invaded Iraq than Osama bin Laden accomplished on 9/11, and an open-ended commitment in Central Asia could easily compound that error.

You don’t have to believe that the Bush Administration wrongly sought political advantage - they may have believed the hype or believed that hyping threats was good policy - to recognize that hyping terror threats advances terrorists’ goals and damages our own interests.

Will the Military Industrial Complex Save American Foreign Policy?

Missing from most of the commentary on the Secretary of Defense’s big defense spending speech yesterday is the fact that the program cuts he proposed are largely a result of freezing the topline – keeping defense spending level (once you adjust for inflation) for the next decade.

For nearly a decade the country has really had two defense budgets – one for imagined conventional wars against states like China, another from nation-building, peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. The first budget requires a small ground force and lots of big platforms operated by the Air Force and Navy. The latter requires much larger ground forces, a few niche capabilities like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and less high technology wonders.

The current American love affair with counterinsurgency has resulted in a gradual shift of dollars from the conventional budget to the unconventional one. We are reversing the old idea that the American way of war is to replace labor with capital, or manpower with technology. We are becoming a land power first.  We have been increasing manpower in the Army and Marines – adding 90,000 new troops – and paying them way more (compensation per service member is up by almost half since 1998). Personnel costs are taking more of the budget.  And for more complex reasons, including health care costs, the operations and maintenance part of the budget – essentially the day to day cost of running the military – has also been growing fast when measured per service member.  (For details on these issues, read this testimony by Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service.)

That was bound to squeeze the other big parts of the defense budget – research, development and procurement of new weapons systems. There is too much future cost in the budget for everything to fit without topline growth, so something had to give. Big weapons programs are where the most give is, if you don’t want to cut manpower.

That conflict was delayed while the budget topline grew, but now that it is flat, it erupts. The manpower intensive military that follows from our current policies is eating into the conventional military that delivers manufactoring jobs across the country and the high-technology dreams of our military leaders.

What will be interesting to see is whether this shift encourages those leaders and their friends on the Hill to take up the arguments that people like me have been making for years: that small wars are mostly dumb wars.  Preparation for these wars didn’t much hurt the military industrial complex before, now it does. 

An additional note: Gates’ criticism of the acquisition process was on the mark. Rather than blaming out of control weapons costs on the kind of contracts we write or crafty contractors, as the President seems to, Gates noted correctly that the trouble is the requirements process – what we want, not how we buy it.

National Defense, Keynesianism, or Just Pure Rent-Seeking?

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) is fighting hard to maintain production of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, which happens to be made by Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Ga. But Isakson insists that he’s not fighting for the plane just because it’s made in Georgia. No, he tells NPR, it’s important to recognize that it’s actually made by 90,000 workers in 49 states, and you don’t want to lose those jobs at a time of high unemployment.

In a letter to President Obama, he spelled out his argument, albeit with slightly different numbers:

Over 25,000 Americans work for the 1,000+ suppliers in 44 states that manufacture the F-22. Moreover, it is estimated that another 70,000 additional Americans indirectly owe their jobs to this program. As we face one of the most trying economic times in recent history it is critical to preserve existing high paying, specialized jobs that are critical to our nation’s defense.

To be sure, Isakson does insist that the plane is vital to national security, an argument that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Cato’s Chris Preble challenge. But it doesn’t say much for Republican arguments against President Obama’s wasteful spending when Republican senators argue that we should build a hugely expensive airplane as a jobs program.

David Axelrod Isn’t a Parrot

So why would he talk like one?

On Fox News Sunday this week, Obama Senior Advisor David Axelrod spoke with Chris Wallace about nuclear non-proliferation, saying, among other things:

[President Obama] wants in the next four years to lock up the loose nuclear weapons that are scattered around Eastern Europe, that could fall into the hands of terrorists. And, of course, that is the big threat. That’s why we have to step up the pace. This represents an existential threat and we need to meet it.

Controlling any loose nukes is important, but the chance of them being used by terrorists is exceedingly small, and it is not an existential threat.

For too long, U.S. national leaders have perpetrated the error of speaking about terrorist threats as “existential” when they are not. Talking this way needlessly riles the U.S. public and thrills would-be or wannabe terrorists the world over. When U.S. leaders donate awesomeness to terrorism, the disenfranchised simply have to join a terror group or make empty threats to impact our discourse, policy, and quality of life.

David Axelrod didn’t need the makeweight argument of terrorist access to justify controlling loose nukes.

(Axelrod’s error was made on the road, from a different time zone. To damn him with faint praise, he comes up looking pretty good compared to Newt Gingrich, who issued spectacularly inconsistent positions from the comfort of the Fox News studio: Gingrich first criticized the Obama Administration for avoiding “war on terror” rhetoric, then sought small-government credibility by criticizing Obama’s budget as the largest non-wartime increase in history. There is no such thing as a limited-government war-monger, and Gingrich should not modulate between treating the country as “at war” or “not at war” within a single television appearance.)

TSA Intimidates Political Activist Traveler

Thanks to ever-improving technology, we have a record of what can happen when Americans try to assert their rights against government officials.

The video is a bit ponderous, but when they play the tape of TSA agents interrogating a young political activist who wishes to exercise his right to remain silent, it’s riveting and offensive.

(HT RedState and @JonHenke)

NYCLU: Repeal REAL ID

The New York Civil Liberties Union has issued an impressive report calling for the repeal of the REAL ID Act.

No Freedom Without Privacy: The REAL ID Act’s Assault on Americans’ Everyday Life” is a thorough look at the federal government’s national ID law, which states have refused to implement.

Less than a year ago, when it was clear that no state would be in compliance with the national ID law by the May 2008 deadline, then-DHS secretary Michael Chertoff granted waivers until December of this year, even to states that have statutorily barred themselves from complying. One of those states was South Carolina, whose governor Mark Sanford (R) has been a leading REAL ID opponent. The report cites him favorably for that.

Last year, bills to repeal the national ID law were introduced in both the Senate and House. With President Bush sure to veto, and Secretary Chertoff sure to demagogue a REAL ID repeal, the bills did not move. The political dynamics have changed since then, of course.

“Though the Real ID Act is not a household name,” the report says, “it is a central component of the Bush Administration’s assault on Americans’ liberty and privacy rights, and one that if not repealed now would forever change the fabric of American life.”

In its finite wisdom, the federal government often doubles down on bad policies, but the REAL ID Act is ripe for repeal. The law can’t be fixed, and there is no such thing as an acceptable national ID card.