Since this week is George W. Bush retrospective week, it's worth pondering some of the possible counterfactuals of that administration. For example, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld played a pretty important role in the foreign policy clusterf**ks that dominated the first six years of that administration. You'd think that an alternative SecDef would have mattered.
It's worth considering the plausible counterfactual, however. Remember that Rumsfeld wasn't Bush's first choice for the job. Initially, Bush interviewed Senator Dan Coats of Indiana. According to Karl Rove, however, "after a couple of face-to-face meetings, the president-elect was concerned whether Coats had the management skill and toughness to do the job." So maybe a counterfactual of Secretary of Defense Coats would have led to a worse outcome!
I bring this up because I watched Dan Coats on ABC's This Week, and it was ... quite a performance. If we go to the transcript, here's his first intervention, on whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be Mirandized:
COATS: I think we should stay with enemy combatant until we find out for sure whether or not there was a link to foreign terrorist organizations.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Even though he's a citizen?
COATS: Even though he's a citizen. There have been exceptions to this before with the public safety issue of course on Miranda rights. But also the fact that he's traveled back to his hometown which is a Muslim area, could have been radicalized back there.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That was his brother though.
Now you have to hand it to Senator Coats here -- inside of ten seconds, he makes a dubious statement about the law and a factually incorrect statement. It wasn't like these were obscure facts, either, like the capital of Chechnya or something. So, great prep work, Senator Coats' staff!
This is just a prelude, however, to Coats' most noteworthy intervention:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator, what do you do though if no connection to a specific group is found? Instead we just find that these young men were inspired by al Qaeda, but not directed. That's almost impossible to find.
COATS: Well it is. And that's the reality of the world we're now living in. Because we not only face terrorism from abroad, that is, planned and coordinated. We face these lone wolves or these others or whoever gathers together that has a vengeance or a demented mind or who has been kind of radicalized through over the internet or through a mosque or whatever. We're going to continue to have to understand that is a threat to America also.
That's why we all need to be engaged in not only looking out for this type of thing, but helping identify and see, whether these loners, is there a kid in the classroom that's just --
RADDATZ: He wasn't a loner. He wasn't a loner (emphasis added).
Now in fairness to Senator Coats, it does seem as though the Tsarnaevs were lone wolves without any direct connection to overseas terrorist networks. Still, he got his brothers mixed up again -- as Martha Raddatz points out, there's no evidence that the younger Tsarnaev was a loner.
But let's skip the preliminaries and get to the more basic point. Is Dan Coats suggesting that high schools profile which kids are loners and put them onto a "possible terrorist watch list"? I'm picturing this kind of exercise at a typical high school:
PRINCIPAL: So, what about Jeremy?
TEACHER #1: Well, his grades are pretty good, but he does seem to stare out of the window a lot. And I keep having to yell at him to remove his sunglasses and earbuds in math class.
PRINCIPAL: Hmmm ... does he socialize with the other students?
PRINCIPAL: We can't take any chances after Boston. Put him on the watchlist. Oh, and it's totally Marjorie.
TEACHER #2: SAY WHAT??!! It's obviously Cersei!!
As someone with first-hand experience of loneliness in high school, I'd wager that this kind of exercise would be the dumbest f**king idea in the history of counterterrorism. This sort of half-assed thinking would multiply the amount of alienation and disaffectedness among America's teens.
Now, this isn't the first time Dan Coats has sounded like a dumbass on a morning show. So perhaps, as a public service, someone should suggest that the next time a television show asks him to be on the air to talk homeland security, he go sit in the corner and read up on Type I and Type II errors -- here's a good Cliffs Notes version for the Senator.
Am I missing anything?
Here's a fun little exercise. Let's say that the vice-president of a political consulting firm went on MSNBC or Fox News with the argument that no matter what the U.S. government said, Osama bin Laden wasn't actually buried at sea. No, this wouldn't be a claim that Osama had returned as a zombie. The VP would simply argue that based on past standard operating procedures and the desire of some agencies in the USG to gather forensic evidence, it would seem likely that they would want the body. In all likelihood the cable anchor would then ask if there was any direct evidence to back up this assertion. The VP would either say no, dodge the question, or imply some third-hand knowledge, and that would be that.
Here's my question: would this cable news hit generate anything in the way of news headlines?
I ask this because the Drudge Report has headlined: "WIKILEAKED: BIN LADEN BODY NOT BURIED AT SEA" This sounds pretty definitive. But if you look at the actual Stratfor emails that Wikileaks provides on the matter, you get little but speculations and assertions from Stratfor CEO George Friedman and VP Fred Burton. From Friedman:
Eichmann was seen alive for many months on trial before being sentenced to death and executed. No one wanted a monument to him so they cremated him. But i dont know anyone who claimed he wasnt eicjhman (sic). No comparison with suddenly burying him at sea without any chance to view him which i doubt happened.
And from Burton:
We would want to photograph, DNA, fingerprint, etc.
His body is a crime scene and I don't see the FBI nor DOJ letting that happen....
Body is Dover bound, should be here by now.
That's it. No sourcing, nothing else. Friedman is speculating, while Burton makes a somewhat stronger assertion without much empirical foundation. The only reason this is on the front page of Drudge -- and the only reason reporters are running with it -- is that the Stratfor e-mails were private and not intended for public consumption. And if it's private, then it must be pretty good!
Or not. Look, reporters and analysts should pore over these email contents and see if there is anything of value. But they also need to follow up with outside experts in their reporting to distinguish between what's said in the emails and what's actually true. Because, to repeat a point I made a few years ago: "just because someone says something in a Wikileaks memo doesn't make it so." Indeed, it is precisely this sort of BS pseudo-analysis that makes me distrust the quality of Stratfor's analysis in the first place.
I know that Daniel Klaidman's Newsweek cover story on the Navy SEALs is supposed to make me feel all warm and safe because of the uber-competence of SEAL Team Six and President Obama's comfort with using them adroitly:
This is a Special Ops moment. The Navy SEALs, in particular, have never appeared so heroic and effective. They killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year, and just last month rescued two aid workers held hostage in Somalia. At a time when many Americans think their government is incompetent, the SEALs are public employees who often get the job done. They’re a morale booster, and they know it.
The thing is, one of Klaidman's more detailed anecdotes actually gives me great pause about the decision-making process within the Obama administration about the use of force:
The CIA and military had been hunting Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan for years. He was a suspect in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and had been directly implicated in other deadly terrorist attacks in East Africa, including a suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Mombasa. He was an important link between al Qaeda and its Somalia-based affiliate, and a potential wealth of information on how the jihadist networks operate. Killing him would have been a significant victory, but capturing him alive could have been even better.
After months of patiently watching him, American intelligence officers suddenly learned that Nabhan was preparing to travel along a remote desert road in southern Somalia....
McRaven told the group that Nabhan’s convoy would soon be setting out from the capital, Mogadishu, on its way to a meeting of Islamic militants in the coastal town of Baraawe. The square-jawed Texan and former Navy SEAL crisply laid out the “Concepts of Operation” that had been developed in anticipation of this moment. Several options were spelled out, along with the military hardware that would be required for each, as well as collateral-damage estimates:
The military could fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from a warship off the Somali coast. This was the least dangerous option in terms of U.S. casualties but not the most precise. (Missiles have gone astray, hitting civilians, and even when they strike their target, they don’t always take it out.) Such missile strikes had been a hallmark of the Bush administration. For all of its “dead or alive” rhetoric, the Bush White House was generally cautious when it came to antiterrorist operations in anarchic areas like Somalia. The second option was a helicopter-borne assault on Nabhan’s convoy. There was less chance of error there: small attack helicopters would allow the commandos to “look the target in the eye and make sure it was the right guy,” according to one military planner. The final option was a “snatch and grab,” a daring attempt to take Nabhan alive. From a purely tactical standpoint, this was the most attractive alternative. Intelligence from high-value targets was the coin of the realm in the terror wars. But it was also the riskiest option.
Unstated but hanging heavily over the group that evening was the memory of another attempted capture in Somalia. Many on the call had been in key national-security posts in October 1993 during the ill-fated attempt to capture a Somali warlord that became known as “Black Hawk Down,” after a book of the same name. That debacle left 18 dead Army Rangers on the streets of Mogadishu, and inspired al Qaeda leaders to think they could defeat the American superpower. As Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, said during the meeting: “Somalia, helicopters, capture. I just don’t like the sound of this.”
As everyone left the meeting late that evening, it was clear that the only viable plan was the lethal one (emphasis added).
The mission was a success, and I'm sure that there's more to this decision than is in Klaidman's story. That said, based on the story, this decison-making process seems flawed. The deciding factor appears to have been that the more aggressive option had echoes of the 1993 Black Hawk Down fiasco. Because the situations seemed analagous ("Somalia, helicopters") the worst-case outcome -- a botched raid -- also seemed likely.
Here's the thing though -- as analogies go, this one seems somewhat ill-suited. The most obvious difference was that this raid wasn't going to take place in a city but a remote desert road. It was extremely difficult and bloody for U.S. forces to battle their adversaries in the urban anarchy of Mogadishu. In the open, with no civilians to use as shields, I would think JSOC has the advantage. Even if the snatch-and-grab option was the riskiest option, it does not seem as risky as U.S. efforts to rescue the downed Black Hawk crew back in 1993. In this instance, the worst-case scenario would have been some JSOC soldiers killed -- but given the terrain, the lack of civilians and cover, and the likely firepower advantage held by the Americans, a Black Hawk Down II outcome sounds unlikely.
Despite these differences, analogical reasong triumphed. The mission succeeded in taking out Nabhan, but it sounds like the slightly riskier option would have yielded greater rewards.
Let me stress, yet again, that I'm not an expert on special ops. I'd welcome commenters explaining to me why I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. Still, based on this story, the guiding factor in this case appears to have been a poor analogy. I hope this is the exception and not the rule for the current administration.
Am I missing anything?
Reports are flying around the interwebs that the last Gaddafy holdout of Sirte has fallen, and that Gaddafi has been killed -- Blake Hounshell has the grisly photo here. A few scattered thoughts on this:
1) This photo comes on top of numerous reports that Gaddafi was captured or wounded or whatnot. Given past NTC statements and reversals, I'd like to see further confirmaion. In the meantime, as I stated on Twitter this AM, I think we can clarify it this way: Gaddafi has been captured, Qaddafi has been killed, and Khadafy is still at large.*
Readers are invited to suggest the fates of other spellings of the Libyan dictator's name in the comments.
2) Assuming that Gaddafi really is dead, Adam Serwer tweets that how this came to pass "makes a huge difference." Well.... maybe. I suspect it won't matter all that much in Libya -- and to be cold-blooded about it, there are ways in which the spectacle of a capture and trial might have been more problematic. I'm not even sure that Gaddafi's fate affects the new Libyan regime's image and reputation overseas.
The more serious effect might be in how this kind of outcome affects the behavior of other autocrats. As Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans observe in Leaders and International Conflict, the private incentives of leaders profoundly affect their use of force. Simply put, when leaders have expectations of a violent demise if they lose power, they have a more powerful incentive to use force to stay in power. So, congrats to Libya, but this is simply going to harden the hearts of Bashir Assad and others out there determined to stay in power through any means necessary -- including instigating cross-border conflicts.
3) At the risk of seeming like a grump, I'd prefer a situation in which the best news in world politics is something other than "[INSERT SCUMBAG'S NAME HERE] is dead!!" Because for the past six months, these kind of deaths have been the high points.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not sorry bin Laden or Al-Awlaki or Gaddafi have departed the scene. This probably is addition by subtraction. I'd just like it if there were other sources of addition.
What do you think?
*I should probably stop tweeting right now and end on a high note.
As a group, foreign policy analysts and international relations theorists tend to focus on how large, impersonal factors affect the contours of world politics. We're like this for two reasons: a) Large-scale factors -- like, say, demographics -- really are pretty important; and b) We get allergic reactions to media narratives that stress the ways in which one person or one decision made all the difference.
Because of this trait, an event like bin Laden's death has lead to an orgy of blog posts and essays pointing out that not much has changed. Charli Carpenter's first response was to ccharacterize it as "a single operation in a vast and endless war, that apparently will have no impact on our foreign policy." Daveed Gartenstein-Ross recounts the myriad ways in which Al Qaeda still matters in a post-Osama world. Neither Nate Silver nor David Weigel thinks that the effect on Barack Obama's political popularity will be that great. Ben Smith points out that conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this, just like they have a field day with everything else.
So, let me go against my instinct to agree with all of the above points and suggest why bin Laden's demise really is, in the words of the VPOTUS -- a big f***ing deal:
1) Pakistan. You can slice this any way you want, the brute fact is that bin Laden was living in the Pakistani equivalent of Annapolis -- a posh resort town that happens to house a lot of Pakistani retired generals, not to mention their main miltary academy. This doesn't look good for Pakistan, as their continued silence suggests. As he promised in his campaign, Obama violated Pakistan's sovereignty, sent in special forces, took out bin Laden, and did it all without consulting the Pakistanis about it. So not only does the Pakistani leadership look incompetent, they also look impotent.
I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that anything that destabilizes Pakistan is a BFD -- and the way this played out destabilizes the country.
2) The United States just re-shaped the narrative. International relations scholars assume that most actors in world politics care about some combination of power, wealth and prestige. The U.S. killing of bin Laden strengthens American prestige and weakens Al Qaeda's. According to reports, Bin Laden used
his wife a woman as a human shield to protect himself during the firefight, which will tarnish his legacy, even to AQ operatives. Perceptions matter, and this symbolic victory for the United States will affect perceptions of American power.
Of course, all it takes for for the debt ceiling not to be raised and this'll disappear, but still...
3) The United States has increased its bargaining leverage in the Af-Pak region. As both Matthew Yglesias and Ross Douthat suggest, the death of bin Laden is one of those symbolic moments during which U.S. policy in the region might be re-evaluated. There are reasons to believe that this blow is actually going to sting for Al Qaeda.
It's at this moment when a president might have more credibility in bargaining with either Afghanistan or Pakistan. A large-scare withdrawal is now politically feasible in ways that it wasn't 24 hours ago -- and anti-war members of Congress are already getting frisky about it. They also have the American public on their side.
If the administration is smart, they will use this pressure to withdraw to start actually withdrawing, or at least pressure Afghan and Pakistani officials into acting in a somewhaqt more cooperative manner.
4) Al Qaeda won't be able to exploit the Arab Spring. Al Qaeda had already whiffed badly in handling the Arab unrerst of 2011, and bin Laden's popularity in the region had been falling as of late. That said, think of bin Laden (in this way and only this way) as like Sarah Palin -- someone who had declining poll numbers but a still-very-rabid base of support. It's not obvious that this support will transfer to any other jihadist.
Al Qaeda's remnants and affiliates might be able to operationally exploit the regimes changes in the region -- but they've lost whatever slim reeed they had at a political presence.
5) It's a social science bonanza!!! Terrorism experts should be positively giddy about this development. Bin Laden's death is a great "natural experiment" to see whether Al Qaeda is as decentralized and resilient as some experts claim. The AP reports that, "U.S. forces searched the compound and flew away with documents, hard drives and DVDs that could provide valuable intelligence about al-Qaida." I, for one, hope that bin Laden's location in Abbotabad means that he was more of a central node than analysts expected.
Readers are welcomed to proffer their own explanations for why this is a big f***ing deal in the comments.
I was going to title this post, "Osama bin Laden, R.I.P." but the thing is , I really don't want him to rest in peace.
He's definitely dead, however. I'll write a longer blog post about the implications of this tomorrow, but for now, commenters should post their own thoughts about this in the comments. For now, three quick points:
1) If what Obama said is correct, then I'm genuinely impressed at the fact that operational security was so well preserved;
2) Everything I've read about Al qaeda suggests that bin Laden's role on the operational side was pretty limited, but this is still, to use the words of Vice President Joseph Biden, a big f***ing deal.
3) Peter Bergen said on CNN that bin Laden's death is "the end of the War on Terror." Do you think he's right? I'd like to think so, but my worry is that the politics of this gives some politicians a very strong incentive to ratchet up this threat. So... is it really over?
What do you think?
Hey, remember Al Qaeda? I wonder if the group responsible for that extra-special pat-down* I got at Logan earlier this week is still capable of serious power projection.
Peter Bergen in Vanity Fair provides one answer:
[I]t is not the West that faces an existential threat, but al Qaeda. About two months after 9/11, bin Laden boasted to a group of supporters, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse." The weak horse turned out to be bin Laden's own. During the past decade, misguided actions taken in the name of the War on Terror -- notably the invasion of Iraq, the bungled war in Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed approach to the treatment of prisoners -- have bought bin Laden and his allies some time. These actions have won a certain amount of sympathy among Muslims for the Islamist cause. But they have not changed the underlying reality: al Qaeda and groups that share its ideology are on the wrong side of history…
Before 9/11, the group had acted freely in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda conducted its own foreign policy independent from the Taliban, taking the form, beginning in 1998, of multiple strikes on American government, military, and civilian targets. Before 9/11, al Qaeda was an organization of global reach. The 9/11 attack itself played out around the world, with planning meetings in Malaysia, operatives taking flight lessons in the United States, coordination by plot leaders based in Hamburg, and money transfers from Dubai -- activities overseen by al Qaeda's senior command from secure bases in Afghanistan. Almost all of this infrastructure was smashed after 9/11.
One of bin Laden's key goals is to bring about regime change in the Middle East and to replace the House of Saud and the Mubarak family of Egypt with Taliban-style rule. He believes that the way to accomplish this is to attack the "far enemy" (the United States and its Western allies), then watch as America recoils and the U.S.-backed Muslim regimes regarded as the "near enemy" collapse. The attacks on Washington and New York resulted in the direct opposite of his hopes. After 9/11, American troops occupied two Muslim countries and established new bases in several others. Relations between the United States and the authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes became stronger than ever, based on a shared goal of defeating violent Islamists…
[C]itizens in the West must come to understand -- and their leaders must drive the point home -- that although terrorist attacks, including attacks by al Qaeda, will continue to happen, the real damage is done by the panic and lashing out that follows. This is the reaction that al Qaeda craves -- and it is why terrorism works. It's easy to understand the emergence of a culture of paranoia coupled with rhetoric of vengeance. Prudence, calmness, and patience seem almost pusillanimous by comparison. But they work. Rare is the threat that can be defeated in large measure simply by deciding that we will not unduly fear it. Terrorism is one such threat (emphasis added).
Above all, we need to keep al Qaeda in perspective, remembering that its assets are few, and shrinking. After 9/11, bin Laden employed the imagery of a strong horse and a weak horse, but the reality of his situation was better described by Sitting Bull. The Sioux leader, at the Little Bighorn, is said to have observed: We have won a great battle but lost a great war.
Well, even if the U.S. and Arab governments are more closely allied now, surely Al Qaeda has more sympathizers on the Arab street, yes? Oh, wait, what's this Pew poll saying here?
While views of Hamas and Hezbollah are mixed, al Qaeda -- as well as its leader, Osama bin Laden -- receives overwhelmingly negative ratings in nearly all countries where the question was asked. More than nine-in-ten (94 percent) Muslims in Lebanon express negative opinions of al Qaeda, as do majorities of Muslims in Turkey (74 percent), Egypt (72 percent), Jordan (62 percent) and Indonesia (56 percent). Only in Nigeria do Muslims express positive views of al Qaeda; 49 percent have a favorable view and just 34 percent have an unfavorable view of bin Laden's organization.
Hmm… well, I'm sure that U.S. government officials aren't this equanimous about the threat posed by Al Qaeda. Oh, hey, look, Wired's Spencer Ackerman has a write-up of this speech by the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC):
"We aim for perfection," Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies yesterday, but "perfection will not be achieved." That's perilous for a senior counterterrorism official to say, since, like terrorism, it's easily demagogued. Leiter repeatedly stated that there's no excuse for terrorism; that any successful attack is a tragedy; and that he'd welcome due oversight and criticism of his efforts if a terrorist pulls something off, just in case his admission seemed self-serving.
But in order not to make terrorists seem "ten feet tall" -- in other words, inadvertently support their narrative that they're world-historical forces on par with the U.S. -- it might be time to publicly de-emphasize terrorism in the public discourse. "Sometimes we ought to just talk about this a lot less," Leiter said....
Ultimately, Leiter said, it'll be the "quiet, confident resilience" of Americans after a terrorist attack that will "illustrate ultimately the futility of terrorism." That doesn't mean not to hit back: Leiter quickly added that "we will hold those accountable [and] we will be ready to respond to those attacks." But it does mean recognizing, he said, that "we help define the success of an attack by our reaction to that attack."
I know that assessing the capabilities of terrorist networks is sometimes a no-win exercise, but isn't it about time to acknowledge that Al Qaeda is no longer in the first tier of national security threats? And that maybe, just maybe, really expensive incursions related to Al Qaeda should be reassessed?
Am I missing anything?
[So how extra-special was that pat-down? -- ed. I was hurt that the TSA guy didn't tell me his first name afterwards. Seriously, I'm stunned that the porn industry has yet to exploit this new scenario for "intimate contact."]
Stephen Colbert's Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's attempt to rally fear in the hearts of Americans through its foiled toner cartridge gambit continues to reverberate in homeland security circles. Clearly, there are still a few bugs in the system. That said, here are my quick takeaways:
1) Al Qaeda failed… again. Seriously, if al Qaeda is ostensibly the New York Yankees of terrorism, the Steinbrenners would have fired the GM and coach years ago.
2) As this New York Times round-up suggests, al Qaeda has had to adopt new tactics because its preferred tactics have been thwarted:
[It was] a rare attack aimed at the air cargo system -- one of the foundations of the global economy -- rather than the passenger system, which has received the most attention from governments working to avoid a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Times story goes on to bemoan the failure to ratchet up security in the cargo system, which is a fair point. An implicit conclusion to draw from this switch in tactics, however, is that al Qaeda-affiliated groups are being frustrated on the passenger front.
3) Will Juan Williams now be fearful every time he sees a toner cartridge, even though most toner cartridges are not evil?
4) A common mantra about combating terrorism is that homeland security officials have to aim for a 1.000 batting average, while terrorists just need to get lucky once. I wonder if this is really true, however. Each time a new type of attack is thwarted, government officials learn a great deal about new tactics and methods, and a treasure trove of intelligence can be quickly generated. Failed attacks are likely to discourage some al Qaeda sympathizers, leading to more informants.
No, al Qaeda doesn't need a perfect track record, but failure after failure does carry strategic and operational costs.
5) The Saudi counterintelligence effort is getting an awful lot of good press.
Am I missing anything?
Tom Brokaw has acquired sufficient gravitas such that, when he clears his throat in a meaningful way, he gets his own New York Times op-ed essay.
This morning, Brokaw cleared his throat about why the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan in Iraq aren't being talked about during this election campaign season.
[W]hy aren’t the wars and their human and economic consequences front and center in this campaign, right up there with jobs and taxes?
The answer is very likely that the vast majority of Americans wake up every day worrying, with good reason, about their economic security, but they can opt out of the call to arms. Unless they are enlisted in the armed services -- or have a family member who has stepped forward -- nothing much is asked of them in the war effort.
The all-volunteer uniformed services now represent less than 1 percent of the American population, but they’re carrying 100 percent of the battle…
No decision is more important than committing a nation to war. It is, as politicians like to say, about our blood and treasure. Surely blood and treasure are worthy of more attention than they’ve been getting in this campaign.
It's true that Iraq was a much bigger issue during the 2002 and 2006 midterms. Is Brokaw right that the lack of a draft is deflecting the issue? Sort of.
Brokaw has half a point in saying that the all-volunteer force blunts the incentive to have a public debate on this Very Important Topic. There's a better reason to explain the silence, however: There's not much daylight between the two parties on this issue.
In 2008, the Bush administration began the drawdown phase in Iraq. In 2009, the Obama administration anted up for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. Neither war is popular with the U.S. electorate.
Given these political facts, why would either party bring up these conflicts? Democrats can't rail against wars being prosecuted by a Democratic president. Not even nutjob ultra-conservative hacks can credibly claim that Obama has been a "Kenyan anti-colonialist" on the military front. Democrats can't really run on a "see, we told you that Obama isn't a war wimp!" message either. The GOP has little incentive to call for doubling down in these conflicts and can't really pivot towards a "pro-peace" position either. [I suspect the Islamophobia issue is cropping up on the GOP campaign trail because it's a stalking horse for "getting tough" with the United States' enemies. Even here, however, it's not like Democrats have created all that much daylight between them and the party of opposition.]
If neither party has an incentive to bring up these wars during the campaign, the only way it becomes an issue is if a powerful interest group and/or social movement raises it. Here's here the all-volunteer force comes into play. Perhaps some returning veterans want to bring up the war as an issue for policy debate -- but the returning veterans do not appear to be alienated en masse. There is also no U.S. equivalent of the Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia -- not that the Russian version was all that effective. All one finds on this terrain are the Cindy Sheehans of the world, and her credibility has been eroding as of late.
Brokaw is right that matters of blood and treasure should be debated. But a debate requires politicians to have divergent views to debate about -- and right now, that doesn't exist between the major parties.
Over at Wired, Spencer Ackerman assesses how low al Qaeda has fallen:
Nine years ago, al Qaeda crashed a plane into the Pentagon and came dangerously close to taking out the White House. Now it wants to hit places like Cosi and Potbelly during the lunch rush in the hope of taking out "a few government employees," writes an extremist using the name Yahya Ibrahim, who also wrote for the launch issue.
That’s not the only idea Inspire floats for al Qaeda wannabes. Got a pickup truck? Why not create the "ultimate mowing machine" by welding steel blades to the grill and driving up on crowded sidewalks to "mow down the enemies of Allah?"
But it’s "paramount" to target government workers, Ibrahim boasts, "and the location would also give the operation additional media attention," according to our friend James Gordon Meek of the New York Daily News. In other words, killing a lot of people all at once is less important than letting Americans -- and government workers in particular -- know they aren’t safe in their capitol city.
Two thoughts. First, this will be an interesting test of homeland security priorities. If al Qaeda is relying on disaffected Americans to do their dirty work for them on U.S. soil, then we will soon see just how many AQ sympathizers there really are in the United States. If nothing happens on this front before the midterms, however, then I'm going to conclude that al Qaeda's latest tactics are a big flop.
Second, even if AQ's latest gambit succeeds in fomenting one or two attacks, this is really and truly small beer. Al Qaeda is now following the narrative arc of VH1's Behind the Music franchise:
ANNOUNCER: Al Qaeda had burst onto the global scene with an array of pyrotechnic successes. After the 9/11 attacks, they seemed unstoppable. Even after losing their base in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora seemed the stuff of legend. It looked like the supergroup created by a construction magnate from Saudi Arabia and a surgeon from Egypt would never fade away.
As the years passed, however, al Qaeda found it difficult to top their greatest hits. For a few years they coasted on prior successes, along with minor hits in Bali, Madrid, London, and parts of the Middle East. By 2009, however, their lack of success was becoming noticeable.
FORMER AQ MEMBER: Oh, yeah, it drove Osama crazy. He'd keep saying, "we need to top 9/11." It started to drive al-Zawahiri nuts. Why do you think he made that stupid "house Negro" tape?
ANNOUNCER: By 2010, al Qaeda was a shell of their former selves, and in a strange reversal of fortune, relied on their groupies to help them out.
TERRORIST ANALYST: You knew they were desperate when they started calling on their tribute bands to perform for them. "Bomb this for us, shoot that for us." That's the last act of a desperate group.
FORMER AQ SYMPATHIZER: That English-language Inspire magazine was the last straw for me. I mean, seriously, it was clear that they had sold out by then. I only think about their earlier work when I think of them now. Seriously, did Tucker Carlson design that thing?
ANNOUNCER: By late 2010, the Mexican drug cartels were all the rage. Al Qaeda's time… had come and gone.
Hopefully, there will be no third act in which al Qaeda bounces back with a comeback hit only to fall prey to a shame spiral.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Over at Shadow Government, Mary Habeck argues that al Qaeda's capabilities are on the rise, as evidenced by the recent effort to launch a trans-European Mumbai-style bombing. This is akin to a CNN headline I just saw: "Europe plot reveals al Qaeda adapting."
I would have assumed that these analyses argue that recent events demonstrate al Qaeda's abilities to find ways to overcome current counter-terrorism tactics.
But then I read the actual CNN story:
With al Qaeda struggling to replicate attacks on the scale of the devastation witnessed on September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, security experts believe the Mumbai attack, which gained worldwide publicity, may provide the template for its future operations.
"This new plot is perhaps an indication that al Qaeda is trying to change its strategy," said CNN's Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson. "The high-profile attacks that it has always liked using explosives are clearly getting harder and harder to perpetrate.
"The cells are being spotted and it's harder to keep undercover when you're making bombs. Even buying the material to make bombs is getting harder, so many analysts believe al Qaeda would be unable to mount a 9/11-style attack in the current climate.
"Therefore Mumbai would have been viewed as successful by the al Qaeda leadership as it killed a large number of people. This type of attack is just as deadly but harder to stop."
In the last year, a number of plots targeting the West have been foiled, including the failed Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner; the failed car bomb attempt in New York City's Times Square and an alleged plan to attack shopping malls in Manchester, England over one holiday weekend in 2009.
This strikes me as defining adaptation down. Technically, events suggest that al Qaeda is adapting, which is a bad thing from the perspective of everyone preferring, you know, civilization. But the nut of this analysis is that al Qaeda's preferred tactics are being thwarted, and that they therefore have no choice but to switch tactics. This switch might lead to a greater likelihood of actual attacks, but their lethality seems lower. [But the CNN story suggests that this kind of attack is "just as deadly" as a 9/11-type attack?!- -ed. Yeah, that's wrong. The Mumbai attacks led to 173 deaths and 308 wounded. These are appalling numbers, but they are not as appalling as the loss of life on 9/11].
I remember a few things about the day of the September 11th attacks. I remember being at Heathrow and wondering why they weren't announcing the gate for my flight. I remember being puzzled why I couldn't complete a transatlantic call when my flight appeared to be delayed. I remember my wife telling me what happened. I remember cursing the fact that I was marooned on another continent on one of the few days when my chosen specialty might have been of some practical use for my wife. And I remember, at some point, telling her, "it could have been worse."
Because it could have been. United 93 could have hit its intended target instead of having the passengers and crew overwhelm the terrorists. Al Qaeda could have had a second wave of attacks planned. With some imagnation, al Qaeda could have killed a lot more people on that day.
The other thing I remember in reaction to that day was when it was OK to be funny again. Many pop culture historians will likely point to the first Saturday Night Live episode featuring Rudy Giuliani -- except that wasn't funny. Slightly more hip pop culture historians might point to the monologues of either David Letterman or Jon Stewart -- except they weren't funny either.
No, the first thing that made me laugh after the terrorist attacks -- and sustained my hope for America -- was The Onion's first post-9/11 issue, from the headline "HOLY F&#KING S*&T" on the front to the television schedule in the back (On NBC at 10: "America's Time Of Trial: Who F**king Wants Some? You? Do You? How 'Bout You?"). Consider just the following list of headlines:
Rest Of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection For New York
Massive Attack On Pentagon Page 14 News
And finally, the headline that has defined U.S. foreign policy debates for the past nine years:
Any country with the capacity for that much self-lacerating humor will be OK in the long run. So I mean this with all sincerity: that issue of The Onion made me proud to be an American.
Well, that and this Jack Shafer column on why Ground Zero is not hallowed ground.
You wouldn't know it from the blog, but for the past week I have been astonishingly productive. I've written long-overdue papers, copy-edited long-overdue page proofs, prepped long-overdue syllabi, refereed long-overdue manuscripts... you get the drift.
Why the burst of productivity? Well, one reason is that I've been avoiding the two Big Questions haunting the foreign policy blogosphere for the past week or so:
2) The whole mosque-in-lower-Manhattan imbroglio.
Sooooooo.... now that I've fully caught up in my day job, I guess it's time to wade in. Let's start with
the hallowed ground of the former Burlington Coat Factory Ground Zero Mosque Cordoba House Park51. I have only two (printable) thoughts on the matter, so let's get them out of the way:
1) Of course the mosque should be built. There is no, repeat, no ground for government at any level to prevent the construction of this structure on private property. The political and moral arguments against this mosque appear to require those making the arguments to fall back on the moral equivalency between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The other objections I've heard/seen on this issue have been either inane or curiously uninformed about the geography about Manhattan (note to smart conservatives: now would be an excellent moment to point out that there is some rough equivalency to these Ground Zero Mosque criticisms and arguments against opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling).
2) I'm getting really sick of "the terrorists will win" line of criticism being levied against those wishing to prevent construction of the mosque. Over the past few days, I've seen bipartisan criticism of the mosque criticism along the lines of, "this line of argumentation is the best way to help Al Qaeda." Exhibit A of this is Mark Halperin's plea to the GOP to drop this issue:
[W]]hat is happening now — the misinformation about the center and its supporters; the open declarations of war on Islam on talk radio, the Internet and other forums; the painful divisions propelled by all the overheated rhetoric — is not worth whatever political gain your party might achieve....
[A] national political fight conducted on the terms we have seen in the past few days will lead to a chain reaction at home and abroad that will have one winner — the very extreme and violent jihadists we all can claim as our true enemy.
You know, I remember oh so many years ago the constant use of "if you say X, or criticize policy Y, or challenge official Z, then the terrorists win" kind of discourse. It was horses**t then, and it's horses**t now. I'll be damned if I'm going to see debate in the United States circumscribed because of fears of how Al Qaeda will react. [But it's an inane debate!--ed. Really? More inane than death panels? Ha!!]
The truth is that Al Qaeda has been seriously weakened, and that the effect of this kind of debate on the attitude of possible AQ sympathizers is marginal. It is important for presidents and other responsible policy officials to
expose Newt Gingrich's vapidity articulate a clear message, but airheads commentators like Sarah Palin should be encouraged to bloviate articulate their side of the debate freely and fully.
To his credit, this is a distinction that Michael Gerson gets in his Washington Post column today:
Though columnists are loath to admit it, there is a difference between being a commentator and being president. Pundits have every right to raise questions about the construction of an Islamic center near Ground Zero. Where is the funding coming from? What are the motives of its supporters? Is the symbolism insensitive?
But the view from the Oval Office differs from the view from a keyboard. A president does not merely have opinions; he has duties to the Constitution and to the citizens he serves -- including millions of Muslim citizens. His primary concern is not the sifting of sensitivities but the protection of the American people and the vindication of their rights.
By this standard, Obama had no choice but the general path he took. No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens. It would be an unprecedented act of sectarianism, alienating an entire faith tradition from the American experiment. If a church or synagogue can be built on a commercial street in Lower Manhattan, declaring a mosque off-limits would officially equate Islam with violence and terrorism. No president would consider making such a statement. And those commentators who urge the president to do so fundamentally misunderstand the presidency itself.
An inclusive rhetoric toward Islam is sometimes dismissed as mere political correctness. Having spent some time crafting such rhetoric for a president, I can attest that it is actually a matter of national interest. It is appropriate -- in my view, required -- for a president to draw a clear line between "us" and "them" in the global conflict with Muslim militants.
Should Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Abe Foxman et al be criticized for making ill-informed, incoherent, and idiotic arguments? Sure, and as loudly as possible, please. But quit bringing Al Qaeda into it. Silencing debate on national security grounds is so very 2002.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Answer: they both pretty much put me to sleep.
Call me shallow, call me jaded, call me cynical, but there's not that much there there in either effort. Day 1 of the Top Secret story was the most informative of the bunch, no doubt -- but even that story was frustratingly short on detail. Day 2 and Day 3 were worse, in that they didn't tell me anything I already know. Day 2 of Top Secret America told me that outsourcing to private contractors is bad, bad, bad, and very expensive. Day 3 was kind of like your local news teasers: "Are NSA employees living RIGHT NEXT DOOR TO YOU?!" If you live in the vicinity of BWI, it turns out the answer is, "yes, but it's not a big deal." Again... yawn.
If Top Secret America actually prompts hearings/reform efforts, then yay, dead tree journalism. Otherwise, the reveal was far less than the hype.
As for Wikileaks, Blake Hounshell and Andrew Exum sum up my feelings on the matter. So it turns out that the war in Afghanistan is not going well and Pakistan is playing a double game? Well, knock me down with a feather!!
In essence, neither story provides much in the way of new information -- they merely serve as news pegs through which intractable policy issues can be debated anew. If those debates prove fruitful, that's great -- but during a summer in which I've seen the Stupidest Topics Ever become cable show fodder, I ain't getting my hopes up.
This might be my own subfield prejudice at work. Every once in a while someone from security studies tells me that international political economy is really, really boring and that they can't understand how I could find it interesting. I think today is one of those days in which I would tell them the same thing.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, anything?
I suspect everyone inside the Beltway will be discussing the first part of the Washington Post's "Top Secret America" series on the intelligence and homeland security apparatus that has mushroomed since the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, the 5,400 word opening salvo by Dana Priest and William Arkin doesn't pull any punches in its lead:
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.
These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.
The investigation's other findings include:
* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.
* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year - a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.
Priest and Arkin are top-notch reporters and analysts, and a lot of the material in this report is pretty damning. It's well worth the read.
I have one small quibble, however, which is with the "redundancy and waste" argument about multiple agencies doing the same work. This is a standard argument in favor of rationalization, and it's not always wrong. It should be noted, however, that some redundancy is actually a good thing, particularly on an issue like counter-terrorism.
Say a single bureaucracy is tasked with intelligence gathering about threat X. Let's say this bureaucracy represents the best of the best of the best -- the A-Team. The A-Team does it's job and catches 95% of the emergent threats from X. That's still 5% that is missed.
Now say you have another independent bureaucracy with a similar remit. This agency is staffed by different people with their own set of blind spots. Let's even stipulate that we're talking about the B-team here, and they'll only catch 80% of the emergent threats from X.
If thesr two bureaucracies are working independently -- and this is an important if -- then the odds that a threat would go unobserved by both bureaucracies is .05*.2 = .01 = 1%. So, by adding another bureaucracy, even a less competent one, the chances of an undetected threat getting through are cut from 5% to 1%. That ain't nothing.
Now, there are a lot of assumptions that need to hold for this effect to hold. Priest and Arkin suggest that some of these assumptions don't hold (many inteligence analysts relying on the same information). They also note the rise of segemented information, however, which leads me to think that some redundancy might be a good thing.
Admittedly, a world of 1,271 agencies tackling this question is probably one of redundancy run amok. I'm just saying that a little redundancy is a very good thing.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Over the weekend, CIA chief Leon Panetta had a chat with This Week's Jake Tapper, and provided the following assessment of Al Qaeda' capabilities:
TAPPER: How many Al Qaida do you think are in Afghanistan?
PANETTA: I think the estimate on the number of Al Qaida is actually relatively small. I think at most, we're looking at maybe 60 to 100, maybe less. It's in that vicinity. There's no question that the main location of Al Qaida is in tribal areas of Pakistan....
PANETTA: I think what's happened is that the more we put pressure on the Al Qaida leadership in the tribal areas in Pakistan -- and I would say that as a result of our operations, that the Taliban leadership is probably at its weakest point since 9/11 and their escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Having said that, they clearly are continuing to plan, continuing to try to attack this country, and they are using other ways to do it.
TAPPER: Al Qaida you're talking about.
PANETTA: That's correct. They are continuing to do that, and they're using other ways to do it, which are in some ways more difficult to try to track. One is the individual who has no record of terrorism. That was true for the Detroit bomber in some ways. It was true for others.
They're using somebody who doesn't have a record in terrorism, it's tougher to track them. If they're using people who are already here, who are in hiding and suddenly decide to come out and do an attack, that's another potential threat that they're engaged in. The third is the individual who decides to self-radicalize. Hasan did that in the Fort Hood shootings. Those are the kinds of threats that we see and we're getting intelligence that shows that's the kind of stream of threats that we face, much more difficult to track. At the same time, I think we're doing a good job of moving against those threats. We've stopped some attacks, we continue to work the intelligence in all of these areas. But that area, those kinds of threats represent I think the most serious threat to the United States right now. (emphasis added)
Seriously? 60-100 guys? That's it? As Philip Giraldi points out, this kind of assessment raises some Very Important Questions, like: "If CIA Director Leon Panetta is correct and al-Qaeda has been reduced to a tiny remnant why are we spending nearly a trillion dollars a year on defense, intelligence, and homeland security?"
It's a fair question -- shouldn't these guys be able to deal with 60-100 guys?
The easy answers here are A) path dependence; and B) concerns about U.S. reputation. There's a harder answer here, however, that is buried within Panetta's comments, as well as those of just about every other counter-terrorism expert. Let's call it the Counter-Terrorism Mantra, which consists of the following:
1) Al Qaeda is nowhere near as powerful as it was a decade ago
2) Al Qaeda is now really unpopular among Muslims worldwide
3) Because of their desperate straits, Al Qaeda is encouraging anyone and everyone to try attacking the United States
4) One of these homegrown, disgruntled sorts might
not be a moron be smart and lucky enough to succeed.
I understand why the Counter-Terrorism Mantra is used -- because the political costs of underestimating Al Qaeda's capabilities are far greater than overestimating their capabilities. That said, this kind of mantra leads to Very Stupid and Costly policies.
The fact is, Al Qaeda's abilities to execute Grand Guignol-kind of attacks appears to be nil. There have been plenty of opportunities over the past five years for AQ to launch the kind of attack that would put fear into the heart of the West -- the USA-England World Cup match, most recently -- and there's been nothing. Even if Captain Underpants or the Times Square bomber had succeeded, the carnage would have been on a far lower scale than the 9/11 attacks.
Isn't it time that some rational cost-benefit analysis was applied to counter-terrorism policies? In a world where "The [defense budget] gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time," isn't it time for political leaders to argue in favor of resource retrenchment, even if it increases the probability of a successful attack just a smidgen?
I can ask this question, because I can be dismissed as an out-of-touch, elities, zombie-loving, pointy-headed academic who knows nothing about counter-terrorism. What I'd like to see is a few bona-fide counterterrorism experts have the stones to ask a similar question.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Yesterday I received a lot of queries about this Bret Stephens op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
Pop quiz—What does more to galvanize radical anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world: (a) Israeli settlements on the West Bank; or (b) a Lady Gaga music video?
If your answer is (b) it means you probably have a grasp of the historical roots of modern jihadism. If, however, you answered (a), then congratulations: You are perfectly in synch with the new Beltway conventional wisdom....
There may well be good reasons for Israel to dismantle [the settlements], assuming that such an act is met with reciprocal and credible Palestinian commitments to suppress terrorism and religious incitement, and accept Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state. But to imagine that the settlements account for even a fraction of the rage that has inhabited the radical Muslim mind since the days of [Sayyid] Qutb is fantasy: The settlements are merely the latest politically convenient cover behind which lies a universe of hatred. If the administration's aim is to appease our enemies, it will get more mileage out of banning Lady Gaga than by applying the screws on Israel. It should go without saying that it ought to do neither.
Your humble blogger has long defended the vital role that pop tarts could play in U.S. foreign policy, so you think I'd have a long-winded response. Fortunately, I'm lazy, so a couple of other bloggers have tackled this question.
As Andrew Exum points out, Middle Eastern, Hezbollah-supporting pop tarts like Hayfa Wehbe can throw down with Lady Gaga any day of the week when it comes to provocative music videos. In fact, we will now take a 10-second station identification so every reader can visualize that precise throwdown:
[You're reading Daniel W. Drezner at ForeignPolicy.com -- your source for global politics, economics, and salacious pop culture!!--ed.]
Daniel Larison suggests that Stephens is suffering from a wee bit of present-ism:
That must be why America was beset by jihadist attacks since at least 1948. Oh, wait, this never happened? How strange. That might mean that the decadence-as-cause-of-terrorism argument grossly exaggerates the importance of such cultural factors in explaining jihadist violence as a way of distracting us from remediable political grievances. In fact, attacks on Americans and American installations began after we inserted ourselves into the region’s conflicts and began establishing a military presence there. Hegemonists can obsess over the writings of Qutb all they want, but it will not change the reality that anti-American jihadist violence did not occur until the misguided 1982-83 intervention in Lebanon. U.S. and Israeli military operations and policies of occupation provoke much broader, more intense resentment among Muslims than any general dissatisfaction with the decadence of Western culture and its deleterious effects on their own societies. The suicide bomber in Khost was radicalized by the treatment of Gaza, not the performances of Lady Gaga. It might suit a certain type of Westerner to associate fanaticism, political violence and strict moralism, but on the whole this is a misunderstanding and a distraction from the real causes of the problem.
The recent Moscow subway bombings are instructive on this point. The bombings are outrageous atrocities for which there is no excuse or justification, but one would have to be a blind fool to say that Chechen grievances, which outside jihadists have been exploiting for the last decade, are based in morally offensive Russian pop culture. It is acceptable for hegemonists to acknowledge this when Russia is the target of terrorist attacks, but when it comes to acknowledging U.S. and allied policies as important contributing factors we are treated instead to these sweeping cultural arguments and close readings of Sayyid Qutb.
And, finally, Cato's Justin Logan goes for the kill shot:
Stephens veers back toward falsifiability by writing that “the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West” is that we’re too sexed-up. This is, of course, not accurate. Bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa, after all, was not titled “Declaration of War against the Americans with their Supple Buttocks and Protuberant Breasts.” Instead, it was called “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.” Or you can take a look at the second fatwa, released in 1998. The three big claims made against us in there were
- Our presence in Saudi Arabia and support for the Saudi government, which he hates;
- Our sanctions regime against Iraq and its alleged effects on Iraqi civilians; and
- Our support for Israel.
There’s a lot you can do with this information, up to and including supposing that bin Laden would not be satisfied even if these three conditions were somehow removed. You can also read the actual fatwas and conclude that the Israel stuff was far from the centerpiece of the argument and seemed sort of tacked on at the end for good measure. I actually think both these arguments are good ones. But actually thinking about what’s in those texts should cause you to ask why, of all the grievances he could have lodged, including our reverence for Josephine Baker, did he pick those three issues?
One last thought. Let's ignore what these other bloggers have said for a moment. Let's temporarily accept Stephens' assumption that Muslims in the Middle East are equally exercised about Israel/Palestine and the decadence of U.S. popular culture. If that's true, from a policy perspective, which issue should the United States prioritize?
If you think about this in terms of American national interests, it's not a close call. Pushing Israel/Palestine forward requires leaning a bit harder on an ally that is actually vulnerable to U.S. pressure. Censoring U.S. popular culture would require massive domestic costs. If you were offering the president advice among these policy options, which one would you say yields the greatest gain for the least cost to the United States?
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
Three Five quick thoughts on the Moscow subway bombing:
1) Who gets the blame? As Clifford Levy points out in the NYT, "Mr. Putin built his reputation in part on his success at suppressing terrorism, so the attacks could be considered a challenge to his stature." On the other hand, one could see Putin trying to shift the blame onto Russian president Dmitri Medvedev or Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov as a way to thwart future rivals. On the other hand, a lot of Russians are already unhappy with the government, and diversionary tactics might not work this time.
2) Is there an international dimension? Russia's neighbors in the Caucasus and Central Asia, along with the United States and China, are praying right now that the suicide bombers were entirely domestic in origin and execution. If there was an international link, one could easily envision nightmare scenarios about Russia's international response.
3) How screwed is the North Caucasus? They were already pretty screwed because of the Putin administration's attempts to crack down on secessionist groups in the region. I seriously doubt that this attack is going to cause Russian leaders to rethink their strategy. If anything, a doubling-down approach is the likely outcome.
4) Hey, Europe might be relevant again!! The New York Times' Steve Erlanger reported on the latest Brussels Forum meeting, at which European security and foreign policy officials kept saying, "we're relevant!!" Given that the highest-ranking U.S. attendee was an Assistant Secretary of State, I'm pretty sure that U.S. officials didn't think that dog would hunt ex ante. A Russia ready to lash out, however, is guaranteed to force more transatlantic consultations.
5) Obama's counter-terrorism policies don't look so bad in comparison. This is unfair -- the process matters just as much as the outcome, and it might be that the Obama administration is just luckier than the Medvedev/Putin administration. Still, the comparison will be made (though Michelle Malkin attempts to link the attacks to Obama's weaknesses on counterterrorism).
Longtime readers might have noticed that I did not blog about the Captain Underpants Bomber from Christmas Day 2009. Why not? Well,
two three reasons:
Peter Beinart, Marc Lynch and Fareed Zakaria have already said 90% of what I wanted to say. My only additional observation is one I'm reluctant to bring to the attention of terrorists, but the professor in me can't resist.
It's striking how Al Qaeda and its emanations have demonstrated zero creativity in their past decade of attempts to strike the United States. It's all about airplanes, airplanes, airplanes -- even though their ability to use the planes themselves as large bombs has been effectively neutralized.
Any Hollywood hack could devise far more inventive acts of terrorism -- which is why I think we need to treat those hacks the same way we treat nuclear scientists. Don't ever let Michael Bay shoot on location in Yemen (I confess to being on the fence about Megan Fox and/or Shia Labeouf).
Beyond that, everyone just relax a bit.
[Drat!!--ed. C'mon, pay up. I was sure you couldn't connect Captain Underpants to Megan Fox!!--ed. And that's why I get the big blog bucks, my imaginary friend.]
Over at Duck of Minerva, Charli Carpenter has some interesting blog posts on recent trends in civilian casualties of interstate wars. These casualties are traditionally divided into two categories. The more prominent category is the intentional targeting of civilians by militaries -- what we now call "war crimes." The other category is the unintentional killing of civilians in the course of routine military operations -- what is often referred to as "collateral damage."
Carpenter is asking the question, "what percentage of total civilian deaths are 'collateral damage' and is this percentage trending up or down over time?" Her first, very preliminary cut at an answer -- remember, this is a blog post, not the American Political Science Review -- is rather surprising:
This analysis suggests that collateral damage rather than war crimes now constitute the majority of civilian deaths in international wars worldwide, and that the total number of collateral damage deaths is 20 times higher than at the turn of the last century.
The ratio of collateral damage victims to war crimes victims has dramatically increased since the end of the Cold War. According to Downes' dataset, between 1823 and 1900, unintentional deaths constituted 17% of all deaths in war. Since 1990, that number has risen to 59%....
In other words, the majority of civilian deaths since 1990s have not been war crimes but have been perfectly legal "accidental" killings. Of course this could partly be a result of a decrease in direct targeting of civilians over time, which would be a good thing.
But collateral damage is not only increasing as a percentage of all civilian deaths. The number of collateral damage victims is also increasing over time in absolute terms. Between 1823 and 1900, 84 civilians per year on average were the victims of collateral damage. Since 1990, the number is 1688 per year - a twenty-fold increase (emphases in original).
This finding, if it holds up, is surprising for two reasons. First, the number of interstate wars has been trending downward for the last thirty years -- so an increase in the absolute numbers of civilian collateral damage would not be expected. Second, this bump in collateral damage also took place during a revolution in precision-guided munitions -- which, in theory, was supposed to reduce the likelihood of collateral damage.
One could argue that the good news portion of this is that the intentional killing of civilians is trending downward. And I'd like the security studies readers to go over Carpenter's approach to see if it holds up.
Over at Democracy Arsenal, former speechwriter Heather Hurlburt offers her reading of the foreign policy tea leaves in Obama's inaugural address. It's worth checking out.
My take away point (which matches Kevin Drum's) is the contrast between Obama's approach to
states that disagree with American foreign policy rogue states and to terrorist groups. Here's what he said about the latter:
[F]or those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken -- you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
As both Heather and noted foreign policy wonk Jon Stewart point out, that part sounds familiar.
As to the former, the message was somewhat different:
To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
Now, this is a different tone. With terrorists, Obama shows no signs of compromise. With states, however, the tone of the speech shifts to one of sadness couched with an offer of reconciliation. It is decidedly not confrontational, nor does it suggest any kind of aggressive American action.
Whether these governments will accept such a tentative olive branch -- or at least agree to let bygones be bygones -- remains an open question. Though I have no doubt my commenters can provide provisional answers.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.