Whack-A-Mole and Priorities

It seems like the newest hot spot in Terrorist Whack-A-Mole: Global Edition is Yemen. I’m pretty confident there aren’t a lot of observers in the United States who know much about it, as evidenced by the strange framing of this article in the New York Times on the diplomatic challenges of working with the country.

SANA, Yemen — The United States is quickly ramping up its aid to Yemen, which Washington sees as a revived new front against Al Qaeda. But one of the most delicate tasks will be managing the relationship with the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has filled his government with numerous members of his family and who wants to ensure that his son Ahmed succeeds him, Yemeni officials, analysts and Western diplomats say.

Well, certainly that’s not helpful, but we don’t get to the real rub until several paragraphs later.

Mr. Saleh presents the Obama administration with a problem that is all too familiar in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is amenable to American support, but his ineffective and corrupt bureaucracy has limited reach. And his willingness to battle Al Qaeda, which he does not view as his main enemy, is questionable.

Much of Yemen is in turmoil. Government forces on Monday killed two militants suspected of being with Al Qaeda. There is another round of rebellion in the north and a growing secessionist movement in the south. In important provinces where key oil resources are and where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is strong, government troops and the police largely remain in their barracks or in the central cities. Order outside the cities is kept by tribal chiefs, with their own complicated loyalties.

In other words, our objective interests in Yemen do not align well with those of Yemen. This, much more than Ali Abudal Saleh’s penchant for promoting family members, dims prospects for fruitful cooperation. While it’s likely the U.S. can entice Yemen to more vigorously pursue Al Qaeda within it’s own borders by significantly boosting aid, it’s not really clear what this gets us in the long term when you consider that one of Al Qaeda’s motivating principles is fighting corrupt governments that are supported by the United States. Finally, it’s not like there aren’t any number of other failed states to which Al Qaeda can head to hatch their next crotch bomber.

I’m not suggesting that we should simply ignore our interest in Yemen, but it does highlight the difficulties inherit to a highly activist foreign policy. If the United States seeks to project its power all across the globe, we will have to understand that the trade offs, both in terms of resentment bred abroad and in the actual cost of these undertakings, which divert resources from domestic priorities to arguably minimal concrete gain. Think about health care. Studies show that 45,000 Americans die annually owing to lack of health insurance, yet there’s considerable disagreement about the value of a universal health bill that would cost $87.1 billion per year and actually lower the deficit. Now consider that that in 2010, we will spend literally 10 times that figure funding the Department of Defense — not to mention even more time and money towards TSA — to what demonstrated value, exactly? The crotch bomber doesn’t hold a candle to the suffering and death caused by our health care crisis.

$2700 Per Year

Now, everybody knows that the U.S. spends an incredible amount of money on defense. One way of looking at this comparing spending next to other major world players.

Pretty staggering. But another way of looking at spending is how much the average American contributes to this budget. This, via Chris Preble at Cato:

The [recently passed $680 billion] defense bill represents only part of our military spending. The appropriations bill moving through Congress governing veterans affairs, military construction and other agencies totals $133 billion, while the massive Department of Homeland Security budget weighs in at $42.8 billion. This comprises the visible balance of what Americans spend on our national security, loosely defined. Then there is the approximately $16 billion tucked away in the Energy Department’s budget, money dedicated to the care and maintenance of the country’s huge nuclear arsenal.

All told, every man, woman and child in the United States will spend more than $2,700 on these programs and agencies next year. By way of comparison, the average Japanese spends less than $330; the average German about $520; China’s per capita spending is less than $100.

In addition to cost-benefit analysis critiques, it’s worth just letting this number sink in a bit. That dwarfs the individual cost of Medicare ($1,083), Medicaid ($620), or Social Security ($1,813). Something tells me Americans would be a bit less enthusiastic about foreign misadventure and outward force projection if they knew how much it cost them.

Mission Creep

Professor Stephen Walt:

Let’s not forget how we got [to reforming prisons in Afghanistan]: about eight years ago a small group of anti-American criminals hijacked four airplanes and flew three of them into buildings in the United States. The ringleaders of the plot were in Afghanistan, and the Afghan government (at that time under Taliban control) refused to give them up. So the United States invaded to overthrow the Taliban and capture the al Qaeda leadership. Unfortunately, we failed to get the latter, and we bungled the subsequent reconstruction effort by going into Iraq, thereby enabling the Taliban to make a comeback. So now we’re escalating there once more, in a potentially open-ended effort to build a functioning and legitimate Afghan state. And now that means fixing their prison system too. How does one say “mission creep” in Pashto?

I was at dinner with some my folks the other night and making the point that whole endeavor in Afghanistan stands be self-defeating. That is, since terrorism’s raison d’etre is mostly combating U.S. Policy, it’s hard to see — at least in a very general sense — how doubling-down on more U.S. hard-power abroad is really going to ammeliorate things. That said, Afghanistan is a bit different: al Qaeda’s Afghanistan presence resulted from a friendly Taliban, not a U.S. presence in Afghanistan per se, but similarly, you have to look no further than Iraq to find an example of how increasing U.S. power in the area led to the creation of more terrorist groups to fight U.S. soldiers.

I think with narrowly definied, achievable objectives (what happened to eliminating safe havens?) the risk of creating a long term backlash isn’t very high (at least not as high as it would be with full-scale occupation a la Iraq). Likewise, the odds of fomenting resistance increase the longer you stay and the more you begin to resemble an occupying force. In this regard, mission creep is a real danger.

Just Talking Things Out, Man

This was what my last terrorist negotation was like.

Amazingly, this is exactly was what my last terrorist negotation was like.

Stephen Walt has an interesting post ennumariting the the “Top 10 Taboo Topics on Contemporary Foreign Policy Discourse.” Some of them really aren’t taboo per se — as Walt describes himself, they’re simply “conventional wisdom” that simply goes unchallenged. Nevertheless, this one probably falls in the former category.

#10: Thou Shalt Not Favor Negotiating with “Terrorists.” U.S. leaders often say that we will not negotiate with terrorists, and we refuse to have direct dealings with groups like Hamas (among others).  Accordingly, anyone who openly calls for talking directly with these groups is taking a professional risk.  Of course, the truth is that many countries—including the United States–have negotiated with terrorist organizations in the past, and a number of former terrorists (e.g., Yasser Arafat, Gerry Adams, Yitzhak Shamir, etc.) have been welcomed to the White House.  For that matter, the United States has even supported “terrorist” organizations when it was thought to be in our interest to do so.  Yet the whole issue about whether we ought to talk to such groups remains something of a taboo, which means that potentially fruitful initiatives don’t get the consideration they deserve.

This is obviously something to which people are warming. Indeed, much of the success of the “Surge” was predicated on literally paying allies of AQI to switch sides, and a similar tactic has been floated with respect to the Taliban. Even still, I think this is an issue where more open discussion could enhance the level of politically vialable policy options.

Like the concept of “negotiating with terrorists,” it seems people are beginning to move away from the “Terrorists Are All Violent Nihilists Like The Joker In The Dark Knight” theory of terrorist motivation. Still, a lot of people — especially on the right — believe that terrorism against the United States and our allies is predicated on some unhinged hatred of social freedoms. In fact, terrorism is largely animated by policy — Osama bin Laden has famously admitted as much. And because we do have agency over the policies we implement, it stands to reason that there are concrete security gains to be realized by negotiating with terrorists. What’s more, since terrorism is politically motivated, it further stands to reason that establishing precedent for nonviolent conflict resolution will lead to lower levels of terrorism.

Contrast this with the conventional wisdom on negotiation which presumes that by giving in to demands, we will incentivize terrorism as a means of resolving political conflict. But the fact is that terrorism is not like blackmail. If, for example — and note, I don’t suggest this course of action — the United States were to remove itself entirely from the Persian Gulf, stop interfering in Middle Eastern politics, and cease providing aid to Israel, I think Osama Bin Laden would encounter a difficult time recruiting terrorists to fight an enemy that caused no trouble.  The political forces driving terrorism are politically motivated; discontinue the policies in question, and you’ll probably end the terrorism those policies engender.

Anyway, as aforementioned, I don’t advocate simply acquiescing to the demands of every single terrorist. But we also shouldn’t rule the possibility out. Instead, each situation should have its costs benefits weighed individually. Clearly, it’s the opinion of policy makers in the United States that constant worldwide deployment of military forces during peacetimes provides a benefit that outweights the political strife associated with it. Likewise for many other policies. However, discourse on national security shouldn’t preclude the possibility that enhanced outcomes might be reached through negotation.

Global Terrorist Whack-A-Mole

While I’ve been somewhat sympathetic to the Obama Administration’s desire to limit “safe havens” — particularly through the use of Predator drones — for terrorists abroad, I think this article in the New York Times today evinces some of the folly of this particular strategy.

WASHINGTON — American officials say they are seeing the first evidence that dozens of fighters with Al Qaeda, and a small handful of the terrorist group’s leaders, are moving to Somalia and Yemen from their principal haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In communications that are being watched carefully at the Pentagon, the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency, the terrorist groups in all three locations are now communicating more frequently, and apparently trying to coordinate their actions, the officials said.

Obviously, terrorists on the run are terrorists who are less likely to hatch a plot successfully against the United States, but as I was reading the article on the train this morning, I thought sarcastically to myself (it was hilarious), “well here come the drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia.” But then reading further in the article, I learned there’s some indication that’s exactly what the Administration intends to do.

But the emergence of new havens, from which Al Qaeda and its affiliates could plot new attacks, raises difficult questions for the United States on how to combat the growing threat, and creates the possibility that increased missile strikes are in the offing in Yemen and Somalia.

Now, in fairness, the report doesn’t credit an official with raising this specific possibility, but it would seem fairly random to include speculation with no basis in truth whatsoever. In any event, it’s hard to see this strategy bearing fruit in the long term. That is, the world as a truly enormous place, and a fair number of terrorists are going to be able to elude capture if they so desire and I’m not so sure whether it’s worth the cost to be playing global whack-a-mole. After all, the 9/11 attacks were planned in Germany and carried out in the United States, not incubated in “safe havens” and launched from abroad. Of course, there’s obviously value in disrupting organizational and infrastructural systems, but I’m not sure how clear the value is when you consider that this is precisely the reason terrorists operate in cells.

Anyway, it seems to me there’s a definite tipping point where the cost and time spent chasing terrorists around the globe fails to match the benefit. I’m not sure when exactly that is, but I’d guess actions that might further destabalize places like Somalia are a good place to start looking. Ultimately, the fight against terrorists will be won politically.

Israel: Blame Iran for Israel’s Settlements

I’m not quite sure why this piece outlining Israeli foreign policy is labeled “News Analysis ” — there’s a lot of original reporting in the piece — but I can tell you the policy viewpoints elucidated therein are mind-bogglingly wrongheaded, and I dare say, border on stupid.

“People try to simplify the situation with these formulas: land for peace, two-state solution,” Mr. Lieberman told the newspaper. “It’s a lot more complicated.” He added that the real reason for the deadlock “is not occupation, not settlements and not settlers.” Nor, he said, is it the Palestinians. The biggest obstacle, he said, is “the Iranians.”

He, like the entire Israeli leadership, argues that since Iran sponsors Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, both of which reject Israel’s existence and seek its destruction, the key to the Palestinian solution is to defang Iran and stop it from acquiring the means to build a nuclear weapon.

There’s really a lot to grapple with here, but it’s utterly remarkable that “the entire Israeli leadership” would not stop to ask themselves why it is that Iran is capable of sponsoring Hezbollah and Hamas. The answer, of course, would be anger caused by Israeli occupation, settlements, the settlers. It’s not as though Iran is just disseminating munitions willy-nilly for various groups to use out of bordem. Hezbollah and Hamas use the weapons and money because they have political grievances. If you eliminate the political grievances — and the two state solution is widely considered the best way of muting said discontent — you eliminate the need for these groups to rely on Iran in the first place. It’s a win-win: create better relations with your neighbors and isolate Iran in the process.

What’s more, even if you decide to pursue this strategy of blaming the Iranians for Israel’s illegal settlement activity, it’s not at all clear how you might actually “defang Iran and stop it from acquiring the means to build a nuclear weapon.” In the first place — how do you accomplish this defanging? Take Iran to the vet? Are they proposing invading and forcibly disarming Iran? As for a the nuclear threat, Iran already doesn’t have a nuclear weapon and still manages to create a fair number of headaches for Israel. This again demonstrates the importance of addressing the political grievances of the Palestinians. Without fixing these situations, Iran will always have proxies to torment Israel, whether they have a nuclear arsenal or not. And that’s even before we consider the utter implausibility of Iran using a nuclear weapon offensively, which is itself absurd. Finally, loudly blustering about the need to “defang” Iran will only encourage Iran to continue arming itself and expediting its nuclear program so as to best defend itself against those who wish to defang them.

I’m really at a loss for how incomprehensibly nonsensical this policy is. I really hope Obama can talk some sense into Netanyahu.

Obama Shoots For Changing Failed Cuba Policy

So perhaps handshake-gate has passed over, as this piece in the New York Times on the Obama Administration’s plans to engage Cuba in informal talks and also begin what they hope to be an “open relationship” seems to have mostly blown over. A few points.

Mr. Obama has faced mounting pressure from Latin America and from his supporters in this country to do more to reverse the United States’ 47-year-old trade embargo against the Castro dictatorship. Cuba has become the litmus test by which many Latin American nations measure the United States’ commitment to improving relations with the region.

Indeed. The embargo against Cuba has done little but immeserate Cuban citizens over 4 decades, and yet, a Castro is still in power and the country is still communist. And just because a lot of people still have a tendency to revile at the even the passing mention of communism, it’s worth pointing out the Cold War has been over for roughly 20 years. Why some politicians envision this embargo as anything other than a misguided, if not vindictive, policy is beyond me. I’m not even sure who the constituency for this sort of demagoguery is. Which brings me to my next point.

The official said any overtures toward Cuba would be made cautiously, allowing Mr. Obama to walk a fine line between those who want to end the embargo and those who see any engagement with Cuba as making concessions to a dictatorship. The official said that the administration also wanted to be careful to make it clear that its openness to engagement with Cuba did not mean the United States would turn a blind eye to the Cuban government’s poor record on human rights.

I agree that Obama shouldn’t let walking back a moronic Cuba policy jeopardize his domestic agenda, but let’s be clear about this: the political danger stems not from Republicans, who seem to have adopted a policy of almost complete and total obstructionism. Pursuing a sensible Cuba policy will do more to provoke the ire of New Jersey Senator and Democrat Bob Menendez, who despite being otherwise reasonable, thinks the responsible course vis-a-vis Cuba entails ensuring the continued poverty of Cubans and allowing Raul Castro to correctly point out that the United States contributes directly to the indigence of Cuba’s population.

Nuclear Musings

Apropos of my earlier post, Steve Walt provides some good background on the tendency to ascribe wildly irrational motivations to Iran’s foreign policy, and in particular, their nuclear program. Also, nice use of the up-front trickeration to play with your expectations. Always makes for a compelling read!

Also, I wanted to use this opportunity to add to my last post on Iranian nuclear aspirations, that the least hysterical, and in my view best rationale for stemming an Iranian attempt to develop nuclear weapons is simply situating it in the broader strategic aims of non-proliferation. A world that fosters a “keeping up withe Joneses” approach to nuclear weapons is one that is increasingly dangerous. Iran happens to be a rather high-profile case — the impact on Middle Eastern balance of power would be far more profound than say, the effects of a potential Swedish nuclear program on Scandinavian power dynamics — but the logic is basically the same.

Changing The Substance Changes The Tone

You may have seen in the New York Times yesterday that the Obama Administration is openly considering dropping the precondition that Iran suspend nuclear enrichment in order to facilitate talks aimed at coaxing Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment. You might also recall that this was a relatively high-profile national security issue during the campaign, with John McCain supporting the precondition (or more — the bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran) approach that had failed the Bush Administration, and Obama espousing the open, direct negotiations tact. Well, in what will hopefully stymie right wing hysteria, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded favorably:

TEHRAN — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran said Wednesday that he was preparing a new proposal to resolve disputes with the West over Iran’s nuclear program, opening the door to talks with the United States, the official I.R.N.A. news agency reported.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said during a speech in the southeastern city of Kerman that Iran was still in the process of preparing the new package and it would be presented when it was ready, I.R.N.A. reported. He also said that Iran was willing to hold talks with the United States as long they were based on respect. “They have said they want to resolve issues through diplomatic channels and we say that this is excellent,” he was quoted as saying. “Our people favor logic, dialogue and constructive cooperation based on respect, justice and rights of nations.”

I’ll probably have more comment later, but this is definitely a positive development.

Category Errors

Ross Douthat points approvingly to Mickey Kaus, who says this:

There aren’t many respected foreign policy machers who were right on the Iraq war (no) and on the surge (yes).

This breed of criticism has been popular among conservatives who champion the success of the surge, but it evinces perfectly the category error endemic to a lot of conservative thought on the topic. That is, the surge was a tactical consideration of the War in Iraq, whereas the invasion was in the first place a strategic decision, and as such can’t be compared by the same criteria. For example, many Democrats — and Barack Obama, notably — opposed the surge because it escalated involvement in a flawed strategy. Whether not that surge was successful of it’s own right, it sunk billions more into a misguided neoconservative project that has enhanced Iranian influence in the Middle East and considerably worsened America’s standing, not to mention the thousands of American lives lost and the untold casualties and hardships suffered by Iraqis. You can’t just disentangle the “surge” from the “War” as though they were discrete decisions that enjoyed their own sets of facts and circumstances.

Imagine two basketball teams are playing, and one of those teams is losing badly at half time. The losing team’s coach decides his team needs to be shooting more off the screen, which his team goes on to do, trimming the point margin, but ultimately losing simply because they were ill suited to compete against the team they were playing. If you were Mickey Kaus, you’d suggest unproductively that there weren’t too many basketball machers who were right on The Outcome of the Game (no) and on taking more shots off screens (yes). While this may be true, it’s utterly pointless to criticize those who argued taking more shots off the screen wouldn’t win the game because they underestimated the degree to which it would lower the margin of loss.