Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Congress Takes on the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

In yesterday’s Washington Post, a headline proclaimed: “Saudi Arabia is Facing Unprecedented Scrutiny from Congress.” The article focused on a recently defeated Senate bill which sought to express disapproval of a pending $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, though the presence of a genuine debate on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – and the ongoing war in Yemen – is a good sign, Congress has so far been unable to turn this debate into any meaningful action.  

Yesterday’s resolution, proposed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, would have been primarily symbolic. Indeed, support for the bill wasn’t really about impacting Saudi Arabia’s military capacity. As co-sponsor Sen. Al Franken noted, “the very fact that we are voting on it today sends a very important message to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that we are watching your actions closely and that the United States is not going to turn a blind eye to the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children.” This message was intended as much for the White House as for the Saudi government, with supporters arguing that the Obama administration should rethink its logistical support for the war in Yemen.

Unfortunately, opponents of the measure carried the day, and the resolution was defeated 71-26. These senators mostly argued that the importance of supporting regional allies outweighed any problems. Yet in doing so, they sought to avoid debate on the many problems in today’s U.S.-Saudi relationship. In addition to the war in Yemen – which is in many ways directly detrimental to U.S. national security interests, destabilizing that country and allowing for the growth of extremist groups there – Saudi Arabia’s actions across the Middle East, and funding of fundamentalism around the world are often at odds with U.S. interests, even as it works closely with the United States on counterterror issues. As a recent New York Times article noted, in the world of violent jihadist extremism, the Saudis are too often “both the arsonists and the firefighters.”

Did The U.S. Lose 2.4 Million Jobs from China Imports?

A major Wall Street Journal article claims, “A group of economists that includes Messrs. Hanson and Autor estimates that Chinese competition was responsible for 2.4 million jobs lost in the U.S. between 1999 and 2011.”  In a recent interview with the Minneapolis Fed, however, David Autor said, “That 2 million number is something of an upper bound, as we stress.” The central estimate was a 10% job loss which works out to 1.2 million jobs in 2011, rather than 2.4 million.  Since 2011, however, the U.S. added 600,000 manufacturing jobs – while imports from China rose by 21% – so both the job loss estimate and its alleged link to trade (rather than recession) need a second look.

“The China Shock,” by David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson examined the effect of manufactured imports from one country (China) on local U.S. labor markets. That is interesting and useful as far as it goes.  But a microeconomic model designed for local “commuting zones” cannot properly be extended to the entire national economy without employing a macroeconomic model.  

For one thing, the authors look only at one side of trade – imports – and only between two countries.  They ignore rising U.S. exports to China - including soaring U.S. service exports to China.  They are at best discussing one side of bilateral trade. And they fail to consider spillover effects of China’s soaring imports from other countries (such as Australia, Hong Kong and Canada) which were then able to use the extra income to buy more U.S. exports. 

Autor, Dorn and Hanson offer a seemingly rough estimate that “had import competition not grown after 1999” then there would have been 10% more U.S. manufacturing jobs in 2011.  In that hypothetical “if-then” sense, they suggest that “direct import competition [could] amount to 10 percent of the realized job loss” from 1999 to 2011. 

Hacking and the Era of Fragile Secrets

Written with Christopher E. Whyte of George Mason University

What would it mean if a country couldn’t keep any secrets? 

The question may not be as outlandish as it seems. The hacks of the National Security Agency and the Democratic National Committee represent only the most recent signposts in our evolution toward a post-secrecy society. The ability of governments, companies, and individuals to keep information secret has been evaporating in lock step with the evolution of digital technologies. For individuals, of course, this development raises serious questions about government surveillance and people’s right to privacy. But more broadly, the inability for governments to keep secrets foreshadows a potential sea change in international politics.

To be sure, the U.S. government still maintains many secrets, but today it seems accurate to describe them as “fragile secrets.” The NSA hack is not the first breach of American computer networks, of course, but the nature of the hack reveals just how illusory is our ability to keep secrets. The Snowden affair made clear that the best defense isn’t proof against insider threats. The Shadow Brokers hack – against the NSA’s own top hacker group – has now shown that the best defense isn’t proof against outsider threats either. Even if the Shadow Brokers hack is a fabrication and the information was taken from the NSA in other ways – a traditional human intelligence operation, for instance, where a man with a USB drive managed to download some files – it seems clear that we’re in an era of informational vulnerability.

And what is true for the federal government is even more clearly true for private organizations like the Democratic National Committee. The theft and release of the DNC’s email traffic – likely carried out by Russian government hackers – illustrates that it’s not just official government information at risk. Past years have made it clear that civil society organizations – both venerable (political parties, interest groups, etc.) and questionable (the Church of Scientology, for instance, was the target of a range of disruptive attacks in 2008-‘09) – are as often the targets of digital intrusion as are government institutions.

At this point, it seems fair to think that there is no government or politically-relevant information that couldn’t, at some point, find its way into the hands of a hacker. From there, it is just a short hop into the public domain.

South Korea’s Preemptive Decapitation Strike Is a Bad Idea

Last week’s nuclear test by North Korea generated a wealth of commentary and analysis about the future of security on the Korean peninsula. The United States and South Korea quickly responded to the test. On September 13, the United States flew two B-1 bombers over South Korea in a show of force, reminiscent of bomber flights conducted after North Korea’s third nuclear test in March 2013. South Korea’s response didn’t feature any displays of military force, but in many respects it was more dangerous due to its implications for crisis stability.

Two days after the nuclear test, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on the Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation (KMPR) operational concept. According to the news report, “[KMPR] is intended to launch pre-emptive bombing attacks on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the country’s military leadership if signs of their impending use of nuclear weapons are detected or in the event of a war.” The strikes would likely be conducted using conventionally-armed ballistic and cruise missiles. Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies summed up the concept, “[South Korea’s] goal is to kill [Kim] so that he can’t shove his fat little finger on the proverbial button.”

A preemptive decapitation strike against North Korean political leadership is a bad idea for a host of reasons.

First, it will be very difficult for South Korea to know with certainty that a nuclear attack is imminent. Based on the press release accompanying the latest nuclear test, North Korea says it will mount nuclear warheads on Hwasong missile units. All the missiles in the Hwasong family are liquid fueled, meaning they take time to fuel before they can launch, but recent test footage indicates that they can be fired from stretches of highway. This presents a very complicated detection problem for South Korea. Moreover, even if Seoul can detect missiles moving into position, these missiles can be armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads further contributing to detection difficulties.

Second, decapitation strikes are very difficult to pull off. In the opening hours of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States tried to kill Saddam Hussein with cruise missiles and bombs from aircraft to no avail. Furthermore, even if the KMPR plan was implemented successfully and Kim Jong-un was killed before he could order a strike, there is no telling what happens next. Kim could simply devolve launch authority to missile units already in the field, telling them to go through with an attack even if he is killed. Or, without its dictator, the North could descend into chaos as various groups and individuals vie for control. Such a scenario is rife with uncertainty, and if armed conflict with South Korea broke out in the wake of a preemptive decapitation it could be more difficult to bring the conflict to a close.

Terrorism News and the 9/11 Anniversary Effect

Terrorism, I have argued previously, has hijacked much of the American foreign policy debate. Regardless of whether we are discussing Iraq, Iran, Libya, Russia, or nuclear weapons, it seems we are really talking about terrorism. But although it feels like we talk about terrorism nonstop these days, we actually talk about it a lot less than we did right after 9/11.

As Figure One shows, the news media’s attention to terrorism declined steadily through 2012. The Syrian civil war and then the emergence of the Islamic State reversed the trend. But even so there were almost 40% fewer news stories mentioning the words “terror” or “terrorism” in 2015 compared to the peak in 2002. 

 Chart of Terrorism News Trend

Of course, the one time every year when we can guarantee seeing plenty of news about terrorism is around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Figure Two compares the daily average coverage of terrorism each year to the number of stories published on September 11. We can think of the difference between the coverage on 9/11 and the daily average as the “anniversary attention effect.” The biggest anniversary effect came in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, when the major U.S. newspapers printed almost six times more articles mentioning terrorism than the daily average. The smallest anniversary effect came in 2015 when the effect only boosted coverage of terrorism by about a third. Though the trend is a bit noisy, over time it is clear that the anniversary effect is shrinking. From 2002 through 2006, anniversary coverage was an average of 2.37 times higher than the daily average, but over the last five years from 2012–2016 anniversary coverage has averaged just 1.88 times higher.

9/11 Anniversary Effect on Terrorism News

The shrinking anniversary attention effect suggests that the resonance of 9/11 may be waning as the attacks recede into history. Of course, we should not be too hasty to conclude that public fears of terrorism are also fading. As John Mueller has written here (and in greater detail here), Americans have harbored a healthy level of fear of future terrorist attacks ever since 9/11. But given how hyperbolic and utterly divorced from reality much of the terrorism rhetoric has been this election cycle, we can only hope that 9/11 is beginning to lose some of its symbolic power. Though it is important to honor friends and family we have lost to terrorism, we cannot let emotion dictate foreign policy. 

“Consider Some History”

As a battered and weary country peers into the hellmouth of Election 2016, contemplating the “bleak choice between a ‘liar’ and your ‘drunk uncle,’” along come two of (Anglo-) America’s premier public intellectuals with a plan for getting honest, sober policies out of our next president. “We urge the next president to establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers,” Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison write in this month’s Atlantic. Modeled on the Council of Economic Advisers, the CHA would bring together the country’s finest historical minds, backed by a professional staff, to help close the “history deficit” at 1600 Pennsylvania.

It’s one of those buzzworthy notions that seems ingenious on first airing—a presidential “Dream Team of Historians”!—but gets less shiny the closer you examine it. 

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., speaking truth to JFK's power!Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: speaking truth to JFK’s power

“I think there would be more than enough work for a council of applied historians,” says Harvard’s Allison. What kind of work? As Ferguson and Allison envision it, the Council could help presidents avoid unforced historical errors, like the invasion of Iraq. When Bush “chose to topple Saddam Hussein,” they write, “he did not appear to fully appreciate either the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims,” and “he failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of his actions would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East—Iran.”

It’s a fair critique, but neither Ferguson nor Allison is in a great position to make it. It wasn’t what either of them were saying at the time.

During the war fever of 2002-03, Ferguson wasn’t urging the administration to rethink the Iraq adventure, lest they inadvertently empower Iran–he was cheering the disaster on. “By showing them just how easily Saddam’s vicious little tyranny could be overthrown,” he wrote in the Daily Mail (“Empire of the Gun,” June 21, 2003), “Mr. Bush has made it clear to the leaders of Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia that he is in deadly earnest. If their countries continue to sponsor terrorism as all three notoriously do, Saddam’s fate could befall them too. Such saber-rattling evidently works.” Further: “Historians may well look back on 2003 as a turning point in the troubled politics of the Middle East. And they will give much of the credit for that transformation to the courageous and undoubtedly risky strategy adopted by President George Bush.” Just the hard truths Bush needed to hear!

New Support for a European Union Army

While the American news media were preoccupied with Donald Trump’s latest tweet or Hillary’s Clinton’s latest explanation for a scandal that barely passed the straight face test, a more important development took place in Europe that received scant attention.  The prime ministers of both Hungary and the Czech Republic urged the European Union to build its own army.  That is a very significant shift in attitude.  Until now, the European countries had been content to channel security matters through NATO and to focus the EU’s attention on economic issues. 

The insistence on NATO’s primacy also reflected Washington’s wishes, since it guaranteed U.S. control of transatlantic security decisions.  That control came at a high cost, however, since it enabled the European allies to free ride on Washington’s security exertions.

U.S. leaders have repeatedly discouraged independent security initiatives on the part of the European nations.  There was a tremendous opportunity to change policy and off load security burdens with the end of the Cold War.  Perhaps the clearest opportunity was when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in the early 1990s.  When the initial European diplomatic and peacekeeping efforts faltered and, predictably, the allies then sought U.S. “leadership,” the Clinton administration’s response should have been a firm rejection. 

U.S. officials should have told their European counterparts that the turmoil in the Balkans was a regional matter that had little impact on the United States.  And just as we would have no right to expect them to take a leading role in resolving a similar parochial bout of disorder in Central America or the Caribbean, they had no right to expect U.S. military involvement in the Balkans. Such a stance would have pressured the Europeans to address security issues in their region as competent adults instead of hapless dependents.

Instead, Washington continued to play a dominant role in the Balkans through NATO, first with the Bosnia intervention in 1995 and then with the Kosovo intervention in 1999.  Democratic Europe’s security dependence continued unabated.  Indeed, NATO’s prominence and Washington’s risk exposure increased steadily as the alliance expanded first into Central Europe and then into Eastern Europe.  As defense analyst Nikolas K. Gvosdev laments, the U.S. Senate, in a monumental dereliction of its constitutional duty, failed to ask the hard questions that needed to be asked as Washington undertook increasingly far-flung, questionable security obligations.  With a few exceptions, that was also true of the broader foreign policy community.