Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

A Sullivan Reader on Terrorism Strategy

A provocative post by Andrew Sullivan highlights how the strategy of terrorism is to bleed its victims, and how it might be working. Sullivan quotes a reader at length:

Seven years after 9/11, we are seeing Al Qaeda’s long-term goal being realized: the destabilization and economic collapse of the United States. Even as it’s happening, the people who supported it all along want to continue facilitating our own long-term disintegration by clinging to simplistic concepts of traditional military victory and defeat. In this sense, they are possibly the most myopic, least strategic thinkers in the history of this nation.

It’s exaggeration to say that the United States is destabilized and in economic collapse, and I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that our leaders are that simplistic. But we’re quite a bit worse off economically than we could have been had we responded strategically to terrorism rather than just reacting. And many national leaders still do need to take the strategic logic of terrorism - goading us into overreaction - to heart, and act (or refrain from acting) accordingly.

Munich All over Again (and Again, and Again)

Although it is likely to get lost amidst the brouhaha over the proposed bailout, Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s article ”‘Munich’ Shouldn’t Be Such a Dirty Word,” in the Washington Post’s Sunday Outlook section is worth reading now, and storing away for future reference. (And, in case you missed it, also revisit Justin Logan’s article on the overuse of the Munich analogy.)

Advocates for preventive war and pledges of military support to would-be client states routinely invoke the Hitler/Chamberlain/Munich analogy, and heap scorn upon those who favor negotiations as naive appeasers. When every potential adversary who we might engage, from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hugo Chavez, can be cast as the second coming of Adolf Hitler, what point can there possibly be in talking with such men?

Uber-hawk (and John McCain adviser) Robert Kagan offered the latest exhibit in the prosecution’s case against diplomacy by claiming that Russia’s attack on Georgia was comparable to the “Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia,” even though “the precise details” of the Russian-Georgian clash were not known.

I have long been skeptical of such claims, in part because they are cast about so often, and also because it is so easy to misconstrue historical analogies. Kagan’s certitude notwithstanding, the details do matter, but are usually papered over by those making the case for forceful action. The great diplomatic historian Ernest R. May made this point eloquently in his book Lessons” of the Past, and later with Richard Neustadt in Thinking in Time. With respect to that most-overused analogy, Wheatcroft has provided still more ammunition for those of us willing to dissent when the people around us seem hell-bent on war.

Another $700 Billion

For the second time in six years, the Bush administration has asked Congress for nearly unlimited authority without an independent professional review of the evidence that led the administration to request such authority.

In making the case for the Iraq war resolution, according to Senator John D. Rockefeller, “the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

As it turned out, of course, no “weapons of mass destruction” were ever discovered.

The skeletal proposal for the Troubled Asset Relief Program states that “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency. The Secretary is authorized to take such actions as the Secretary deems necessary to carry out the authorities in this act without regard to any other provision of law regarding public contracts” – again without an independent professional review of the evidence that led the administration to request such extraordinary authority.

In both cases, the administration requested urgent congressional approval of these measures when members of Congress were anxious to go home to run for reelection. And a final irony: the total direct cost of the Iraq war to date has been about $700 billion, the same amount that the administration has requested to buy bad mortgages.

Fear Is a Terrorism Multiplier - Quelling Fear Is Good Counterterrorism

UPI Homeland and National Security Editor Shaun Waterman has a very interesting analysis that reveals the communications dimension of terrorism counterstrategy.

Fear of Terror Worsens Attacks” examines a Department of Homeland Security document pointing out how the “number of people suffering psychologically induced symptoms could far outweigh the number of actual victims in a chemical, biological or nuclear incident.”

Allowing fear to metastasize across the population will do actual damage and could multiply the direct costs of any attack many times over.

The piece quotes yours truly (perhaps biasing me in its favor), but also brings in true communications experts:

“You have to give people a sense of control,” said Paul Slovic of Decision Research, a risk-perception specialist. “Either the sense that their government is in control, is handling it … and/or explicit information (about the possible effects of any attack) which will enable them to take control themselves.”

Though I have been looking for it, I don’t see any evidence that the administration or the Department of Homeland Security have done any real thinking about the strategic communications they should be using now to inoculate against fear. They should have a communications plan prepared, rehearsed, and ready for use in the event of any future attack.

Two years ago, I noted a particularly bad example of official communications, and in the current election I have pointed out the related problem of politicians inadvertently exalting terrorists.

Kudos to Waterman for some excellent reporting on this important dimension of terrorism counterstrategy.

McCain for FCS?

John McCain attacked Barack Obama last week for saying that he would slow development of the Army’s $160 billion modernization program, Future Combat Systems.* That is interesting, because McCain was himself recently against the program. In a budget plan released in July, the McCain campaign said FCS should be “ended.”

Because he brought it up, it’s worth noting one curious facet of McCain’s former opposition to FCS, noted recently by Gordon Adams in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists but no major media: FCS is a Boeing-run program, as were the two other programs that McCain came out against in his July budget plan – Airborne Laser, a type of missile defense, and Globemaster, a cargo plane. These are the only three defense programs that McCain has advocated canceling during the campaign. (Obama has not mentioned any defense programs that he would cancel.) 

All three programs deserve to be ended. But it may be no coincidence that McCain opposes only Boeing programs. He has been feuding with Boeing since the aborted 2002 Air Force refueling tanker lease deal. The short version of that saga (McCain gave his summation on the Senate floor in 2004) is that the Air Force tried to push a deal through Congress where they would lease tankers from Boeing without competition, adding costs for taxpayers. Authority for the deal was in a Defense Appropriations Bill and therefore would have bypassed authorizers like McCain. McCain led the opposition, in the process disgorging documents showing Pentagon and Boeing officials working together on the deal through various chicanery including corruption. McCain won – Air Force Secretary Jim Roche lost his job and Pentagon and Boeing officials were convicted of crimes – but may still be punishing his enemies. Last fall, McCain successfully pressed the Pentagon to change the requirements for the tanker deal in two ways that aided the bid of Boeing’s rival, EADS-Northrop. Some suggest that he did this because of campaign contributions from Northrop and EADS executives and the presence of their lobbyists on his campaign. It seems more likely that McCain was just out to get Boeing.

*Here’s what McCain said about Obama and FCS, according to the Army Times: “He promised them he would, quote, ‘slow our development of Future Combat Systems’. This is not a time to slow our development of Future Combat Systems.”

Maybe McCain is pretending that he thinks Obama’s comment means he is against all future combat systems in the military rather than the program of that name. But that would be a particularly naked lie.  McCain obviously knows what Obama meant; he complained about the program on the Senate Armed Service Committee for years. So I’m being charitable and assuming that he just changed his mind.

A “Tech Czar”? No Thanks.

Congress Daily reports that an Obama administration “would likely create a national technology czar with broad authority to develop policy, elevating high-tech issues to the cabinet level in a major recalibration of the government’s approach to regulating the communications sector.”

No thanks.

Technology, telecommunications, and information policy are important areas, but not everything that is important needs a lot of attention from the government. And as federal priorities go, tech is not even in the same league as national defense and fiscal order - issues that deserve a cabinet-level officer.

Creating a cabinet-level “tech czar” would be an odd joke and it would stand out as a queer sop to some political constituencies. It’s an unserious idea.

If you’re on the fence, consider the results that have come from raising other fields to “cabinet-level” importance. Education ascended to these heights in 1979 with the establishment of the Department of Education under the Carter administration. Nearly 30 years later, education in America is no better for it, and arguably even more awash in bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Yes, technology is important. No, a federal “tech czar” is not a good idea.