An article in Monday's New York Times describes how old habits are dying hard among some former Taliban who have come over to the government side in northern Afghanistan. The fighters, who are supposed to be converted under a U.S.-financed program into a village self-defense force separate from the national police, are shaking down the locals to hand over ten percent of their earnings as an “Islamic tax.” This is not sitting well with many Afghans, who smell a step back to the kind of warlordism that led many of them to support the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s.
I would not hold this development against the U.S. military commanders who have pushed for this program. It is a reasonable idea for trying to expand some modicum of government presence in areas where that presence is especially thin, amid a counterinsurgency in which the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan government partner do not have—and will not have, even under any of the more hawkish timetables being discussed—the forces to secure Afghanistan. The lesson from this story is instead that it is one more indication of how thin and blurry is the line between good guys and bad guys in this war, and thus between victory and defeat.
There always has been a misleadingly dichotomous view of victory and defeat in Afghanistan. This view has recently become even more pronounced in response to heightened, appropriate concern over the resources being expended in this war. Those opposing any significant drawdown of forces have tried to tilt the argument in their favor by positing a gradated concept of costs against an all-or-nothing view of benefits. A more extensive pullout of forces beginning this summer would only marginally reduce spending on the war and ease pressure on the national budget, goes the argument, but staying the course at current troop levels can make the difference in whether or not Afghanistan falls apart into terror-ridden chaos. That argument is invalid not only because even the marginal cost is significant and should be considered amid current fiscal circumstances but also because the either-or picture of the consequences is invalid as well. Whatever is the effect—if any—of the course of the Afghan War on terrorist threats to the United States is at least as marginal as the war costs, given all the other more important ingredients in that threat. The picture also is invalid regarding the political and social circumstances within Afghanistan. Whether armed bands in Konduz Province do or do not identify themselves as Taliban while extorting a tithe from the citizens does not spell a difference between victory and defeat in this war.
Several of the characteristics that have been evident in the more than three decades of civil conflict in Afghanistan will continue to shape politics and society there no matter what coalition forces do or do not accomplish in the months ahead. One such characteristic is the fragility and temporary nature of loyalties and alliances. Throughout the war against the Soviets, militias and warlords frequently changed sides without changing their stripes or their habits. That is still happening in the current phase of the war, and it will continue after NATO forces are gone—no matter how long it is before they go. Another enduring characteristic, related to the first one, is that any political order that emerges in Afghanistan is more the result of many bargains struck among disparate, local centers of power than it is the imposition of a central government's rule. Yet another enduring feature of the Afghan landscape is that the Taliban has no monopoly on what we Americans would dislike, and what we might consider the attributes of a loss rather than a win.
The United States is losing an able public servant as Michael E. Leiter steps down after four years as director of the National Counterterrorism Center. The nation owes gratitude to anyone willing to become head of NCTC, who has a mixed role involving both strategy and analysis, reports to two different bosses, and sits in one of the hottest of hot seats during the inevitable recrimination phase that follows any significant terrorist incident. Leiter deserves additional commendation for consistently and skillfully keeping his organization focused on its mission, properly and objectively defined, notwithstanding the political swirls surrounding it. Former CIA director Michael V. Hayden aptly described Leiter as a “well-prepared and apolitical” official who “knows his brief, and he sticks to it.”
That kind of straightforward performance of the counterterrorist mission is not to be taken for granted. The political swirls are frequently threatening to divert or distort the mission, or to load it with political baggage. We got some taste of this with the controversial hearing convened in March by House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-NY), whose approach invited justified criticism that he was equating terrorism with Islamic beliefs. (Mr. King has announced that the next installment in his series of hearings will be this coming Wednesday.)
The United States has a substantial history of politicizing counterterrorism in the sense of taking a firm line toward some flavors of extremism and a soft or even apologetic line toward others, depending on what were the dominant political winds blowing at the time. Philip Jenkins has recounted some of this history, which includes, for example, the changing of the official approach toward violence against abortion clinics. Such violence was not even considered terrorism during the Reagan years of the 1980s; that posture changed during the Clinton years of the 1990s. Similar tendencies have been seen in the approaches toward some Latin American terrorists. Republicans have taken a soft line toward anti-Castro Cubans; Democrats have tended to be softer toward Puerto Rican nationalists. Part of the backdrop to these differential approaches has been electoral politics in states such as Florida and New York.
Now we are seeing echoes of such tendencies in news that the Department of Homeland Security has reduced its capability to analyze domestic terrorism. This move grows out of a kerfuffle a couple of years ago surrounding an intelligence report the department produced on right-wing extremism. Republicans complained that the report was an attack on conservative ideology, including opposition to abortion and immigration. The analytical unit that prepared the report has now been “effectively eviscerated,” according to the Washington Post, and even distribution of some of its previously completed work has been blocked. The consequences have already been felt by those who had been customers of the unit's reports, especially officials in the counterterrorist fusion centers across the county in which local, state, and federal officials share terrorism-related information. Those officials speak of now being inadequately served regarding analysis of home-grown terrorism.
And after the next significant incident involving the kind of terrorism that DHS is not analyzing any more—perhaps something like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, or maybe even an attack less deadly than that—it is certain that some of the subsequent recriminations will be over why government agencies hadn't written more analytic papers on the subject.
John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago was in town this week to talk about his splendid new book Why Leaders Lie. One of his findings is that more lying, and more damage from lying, tends to occur when leaders in democratic states use fearmongering with their own populations than when they lie to foreign governments or foreign publics. So this kind of lying by national leaders is one of the sources of misconception and delusion among the people.
But it is hardly the only source. Another one that Mearsheimer also identifies but is not the main subject of his book is other forms of deception, besides outright lying, by political leaders. This particularly means spinning, or the selective and tendentious use of material without uttering direct falsehoods. The Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War, for example, although it involved some lies, was at least as much a matter of imparting false impressions through spinning. And then beyond what national leaders do is the influence of bloviators and commentators, especially in the broadcast media, who are responsible for propagating much of what is false and delusional in the public mind.
Yet another source of public misconception is identified in the Washington Post's front-page story about Mitt Romney's acceptance of the fact of human-induced climate change despite the unpopularity of that acceptance on the political right. Beliefs, or disbelief, about climate change is typical of many public conceptions or misconceptions in that they are in large part a function of party or ideological identities. The Gallup poll cited in the Post article showed that 62% of Democrats but only 32% of Republicans believe that the effects of global warming have already begun to happen. Similarly, 71% of Democrats but only 36% of Republicans believe that a rise in temperatures is due to pollution from human activities.
Note that these are beliefs regarding the physical facts of what is happening in the earth's atmosphere, not preferences regarding public policy, although there are policies that implicitly can be associated with those beliefs. And unlike factual beliefs that can logically and directly be connected with ideological beliefs associated with one or the other of the parties (such as, for example, beliefs about how people's spending and work habits change in response to changes in tax rates), any substantive connection between ideology and beliefs about warming of the atmosphere is at best tenuous. Clearly the beliefs in this case are largely being formed not as part of a coherent belief system, let alone formed as a result of objective examination of evidence, but instead as a result of political identities or the influence of commentators or leaders associated with those identities. It is almost a tribal phenomenon. People believe things because certain beliefs are associated with the Republican tribe or the Democratic tribe, and because people associate themselves with one or the other of the tribes.
This source of public delusion and misconception is unfortunately self-reinforcing, as the Romney story shows. Although Mr. Romney may welcome some resistance from the right on this one issue as a way of countering his image as a flip-flopper, the fact there is any significant resistance demonstrates how much of a barrier the nation's political divide can be to better public understanding, and how political hot air can impede public knowledge of something as straightforward as atmospheric hot air.
Last year I wrote about how in the diligent and otherwise orderly policy review on Afghanistan that President Obama conducted in the latter half of 2009, the principal point of disorderliness was the insistence by the Department of Defense and the military that there was only one right way to fight the war and thus only one right level of U.S. troops. The president reportedly had to struggle to get more than one option out of the Secretary of Defense and the military and eventually had to construct his own compromise that gave the military something less than what it had insisted on. I noted that the Defense Department's posture was a classic example of standing Clausewitz on his head and making the scope and objective of a war fit military requirements rather than making the military the servant of a politically determined objective.
With an impending presidential decision on how much of a troop withdrawal to begin next month, the same dynamic appears to be at work again. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, notwithstanding his imminent retirement, has been vocal in arguing for as small a withdrawal as possible, with the uniformed military contributing arguments in the same direction. Expect to hear again, as we heard in the earlier policy review, talk on Capitol Hill and elsewhere about how the military knows best about what it takes to accomplish a wartime mission and how therefore much deference ought to be accorded to the military's views.
The military does indeed know that best, and our senior military officers are honorable leaders who do their best to determine the requirements for carrying out what they understand to be their mission, which in this case involves trying to stabilize Afghanistan through a counterinsurgency. But that is not the question before the president. The question has less to do with identifying means to accomplish a given end in Afghanistan than with identifying what the end ought to be. The question involves determining how much can be accomplished at what cost, how much the accomplishment contributes to the national interest, and whether the whole trade-off is in the national interest. The question goes well beyond the military's purview.
One also continues to hear debate about policy toward Afghanistan phrased in dichotomous terms: that such-and-such is at stake and we need to stay the course to achieve that stake rather than fail to achieve it. But that, too, is not really the sort of question before the president. It is more a matter of degree. It is a matter of what amount of additional cost and effort will yield what amount (if any) of benefit, over and above what we would be seeing anyway.
The original reason and still the main rationale of the war involves terrorism. But even before the demise of Osama bin Laden, there were ample reasons to conclude that the ratio of war costs to any increase in Americans' safety from terrorism is unattractively large (and that there might be no increase at all). The reasons have to do with such things as al-Qaeda barely being in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban not being an international terrorist group, territorial control in Afghanistan not being one of the more important factors in determining what threat a terrorist group may pose, and the impossibility of even a sustained counterinsurgency securing all the territory in Afghanistan anyway.
Rationales for the war these days often invoke Pakistan and the stakes the United States has there. But events in Pakistan will shape Pakistan's future far more than events in Afghanistan, where the Pakistanis we are supposedly trying to shore up are still doing business with the Afghan Taliban we are fighting. And in another confusion of ends and means, U.S. dependence on Pakistan as a supply route for the war effort in Afghanistan reduces U.S. leverage on Pakistan to do anything else.
Then there are issues of what kind of Afghan society the United States is to leave behind, and a responsibility not to consign Afghans to barbarism. Here it is especially important to remember that we are dealing with degrees and not absolutes. As disagreeable as the Afghan Taliban are, much of what we may find alien and even repugnant in Afghanistan is not just a matter of the Taliban. A recent reminder of this is a declaration by the country's Council of Religious Scholars, which meets regularly with President Hamid Zarzai to advise him on religious matters, calling for the closing of independent media outlets on grounds of “immorality” (which means such things as coverage of the radicalizing influence of madrassas, or anything having to do with women's rights).
Americans owe gratitude to their senior military leaders, as to the troops who serve under them, for doing their best to prosecute a difficult war. Let us not add to their burden by looking to them to decide matters that are the responsibility of political leaders.
Chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat made remarks at a small but on-the-record gathering at the Brookings Institution Tuesday that deserve more notice than they will get. Erekat not only accepted President Obama's negotiating formula of mutually agreed land swaps based on the 1967 boundary as clearly and unambiguously as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the formula last month. He also said that if Mr. Obama invited the two sides to U.S.-mediated negotiations based on that formula, the Palestinians would immediately accept and begin negotiating, provided that Netanyahu accepted on the same basis. This would mean the Palestinians' setting aside their insistence on a cessation of Israeli settlement construction, even though—as Erekat said he reminded U.S. interlocutors during his current visit—this quintessentially unilateral activity is still highly damaging to the whole concept of negotiating a settlement regarding the occupied territories.
As was noted by others in the room, this Palestinian position ought to be getting headlines, but for some reason it doesn't. Maybe the Palestinians need better publicists. Probably the main reason is the messaging prowess and political muscle of apologists for the Israeli government, who have strong political reason to depict the Palestinian leadership as supposedly resisting a peace settlement, as a way of detracting attention from the reality of Netanyahu's government resisting such a settlement. Against the backdrop of the political muscle displayed in the Congressional reception of Netanyahu, Erekat observed that if he says one thing and Netanyahu says something different, he has little chance of his version being accepted. Whatever the combination of reasons, a sort of urban myth has taken hold among much of the American public to the effect that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected Israeli offers that would have given them what they say they want.
The myth has been applied, for example, to the last serious and detailed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, between the PLO and the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert in 2008. Erekat recalled how both sides brought to that negotiating table positions replete with maps based on the land swap concept. The Israeli side proposed a larger amount of swapped land than the Palestinians did, but it was the sort of gap that, with sufficient decisiveness on both sides, could have been bridged. Those negotiations ended amid Olmert's domestic political problems and the Israeli military invasion of the Gaza Strip, followed by an Israeli election and Netanyahu's coalition becoming the government. And yet the lingering belief is that the negotiations ended with the Palestinians showing their supposed lack of interest in peace by rejecting yet another generous Israeli offer.
Erekat is the epitome of the weary veteran negotiator who asks, “What more can we do?” The PLO recognized the State of Israel, fully and formally, back in 1993. Its leader has repeatedly reaffirmed such other requirements as the Palestinians' security obligations. After repeatedly hearing the complaint that there was not a single interlocutor who could speak for all the Palestinians, the Palestinians endeavored to fix that with the recent accord between Fatah and Hamas, only to have that step condemned instead.
The dismay over having seen the can of a peace settlement kicked down the road for so long is palpable. Erekat observed that if the status quo were to continue this would mean it would not even make sense to continue the Palestinian Authority, which was only supposed to be a transition toward a Palestinian state, and which despite its name doesn't really have authority over its territory; the Israelis do. Pretending that the PA really does have authority doesn't fool the people in the territories. “Palestinians don't have a neon 'stupid' sign on their foreheads,” said Erekat. He was equally biting in accurately describing Netanyahu's posture toward negotiations, which has been to lay down conditions that are incompatible with anything resembling a Palestinian state worthy of the name and then to say, “Come here, boy, and negotiate.”
A wonder in all this is that a Palestinian faith in a two-state solution endures despite all the delay and humiliation. It also is somewhat of a wonder that those identifying with the current Israeli government have managed to lead many people to believe that, against all logic, Palestinians supposedly prefer a state of no agreement, with all of the abuse and disappointment that has entailed for Palestinians, over a peace agreement that would give them what they have long wanted: their own state, living in peace and security alongside Israel. The ball of peace is definitely in the Israelis' court, and Benjamin Netanyahu can hit the ball by accepting President Obama's basis for negotiations.
The greatest hazard yet to come in the political upheaval in Egypt involves a possible dashing of high hopes among the Egyptian public and a resulting souring of Egyptians on the concept of moderate, peaceful, democratic change. A newly released poll sponsored by the International Republican Institute shows just how high and probably unattainable those hopes are, and thus how great is the hazard.
The poll, taken in mid-April, depicts an Egyptian populace that is highly positive about where their revolution has already gone and where it is likely to go. Ninety-five percent of respondents supported the revolution, and about a quarter say they had personally participated in some way. Eighty-nine percent believe things in Egypt are going in the right direction, and the same number believe the revolution will make Egypt better—53% say it will make it much better. A large majority of Egyptians believe that their “current government” will be able to address Egypt's biggest problems; 39% are very confident of this and 38% are somewhat confident.
So which problems are deemed the biggest? In Egypt, as in so many other places, it's the economy, stupid. Unemployment was easily the most frequently named (by 37%) as the number one problem, and was named by 63% as one of the top three problems. The next most frequently mentioned as the top problem were security and crime (21%), corruption and financial scandals (11%), and wages and salaries (8%).
The expectations for the revolution are at least as high on the economic front as on any other. While most respondents say their own household finances got worse during the past year, 80% believe those same finances will get better during the coming year. It is hard to imagine how any regime could come anywhere close to meeting such expectations. Even if a further political transition from military rule to a genuine representative democracy goes smoothly (itself a big “if”), the structural impediments to substantially improved economic performance extend far deeper than that. Even if inspired leadership by some Egyptian Deng Xiaoping were to embark on an accelerated effort to demolish those impediments (another big “if”) and such an effort were to overcome sources of resistance such as the Egyptian military's heavy role in the economy (a tall order), the time scale for major improvement would be generation, not just a year or two.
The stage is set for major disillusionment and dismay. Maybe the lot of the average Egyptian has been bad enough that even very modest improvement will provide sufficient satisfaction. In the poll, 41% said they have trouble feeding themselves and buying bare essentials, and another 37% said they have the means for “survival” but not much more. But the disparity between current reality and hope for the near future is so great that going from very bad to somewhat bad may not be good enough.
If disillusionment does set in, we will see how thin and fragile is the sentiment in favor of democracy. Egyptians seem enthusiastic enough at the moment about their newly found political liberties; large majorities say they they did not bother voting before but did so in the recent constitutional referendum and intend to do so in the next elections. The fact, however, that—even though at the moment Egypt is governed by a military dictatorship—democracy and free elections did not rank high on Egyptians' list of current concerns (neither one was mentioned as one of the three highest problems by any more than 6% of the respondents) speaks to the thinness. Many would lose whatever fragile faith they have in democratic procedures if they do not see those procedures leading to improvement in their daily material circumstances. And this would mean renewed appeal for strongmen or extremist ideologies.
Signs are increasing that the American people are growing tired enough over fighting two and a half (or whatever the right number is, depending on how you count what's going on in Libya) wars for their fatigue to affect policy, especially through the actions of their elected representatives in Congress. The war in Afghanistan, now the largest and most expensive in terms of ongoing operations, and now in its tenth year of U.S. involvement, has been the subject of several expressions of impatience. Less than two weeks ago a resolution in the House of Representatives calling on the administration to accelerate a withdrawal from Afghanistan came very close to passing (the vote was 204 to 215). Now Norm Dicks (D-WA), an influential Democrat on national security matters who is the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on defense, has become an outspoken critic of the war. “I just think that there’s a war fatigue setting in up here,” says Dicks, “and I think the president is going to have to take that into account.” Skepticism about the war is increasingly being voiced by Republicans as well. Even Sarah Palin is expressing unease.
On Libya—on which Congressional dissent is fueled in part by the administration's blatant violation of the War Powers Resolution—two resolutions of protest were put to a vote in the House of Representatives on Friday. One that was introduced by Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and called directly for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Libyan conflict was defeated but attracted 148 votes, including 87 Republicans. The other, which was proposed by Speaker John Boehner as an alternative to the Kucinich resolution and passed, called on the administration to provide a more detailed explanation of the costs and objectives of the U.S. involvement in the war.
Then, of course, there is the Iraq War. It is still by far the most expensive of the expeditions in terms of cumulative costs, with the bill now exceeding $800 billion in direct costs and with all the eventual indirect costs making it more like a three trillion dollar war. But simply adhering to existing policy and agreements will mean that an end to this nightmare is just seven months away. There is no need for new action by Congress.
In general, bowing to popular fatigue is not necessarily a very careful and effective way of formulating national security policy. And throwing into the same hopper three wars that have been fought for different reasons (whether looking at the original rationales or at objectives that later emerged, which in each case were different from the original rationales) doesn't necessarily represent careful policy-making either. But when drawing down or terminating each of these expeditions is in the national interest—which it is—then the national war fatigue is a force for good. It can and should be harnessed to effect a change of course in Afghanistan and Libya and to resist any diversion from the course toward the exit in Iraq.
There are multiple reasons that drawing out rather than drawing down these expeditions would be contrary to U.S. interests; most have to do with the counterproductive nature of military activity that generates or stimulates more of the very kinds of extremism that some of the expeditions supposedly are intended to defeat. But monetary cost is another important reason. It is part of what underlies the unease on Capitol Hill. Amid all the concern about debt and deficits, the monetary cost of the wars should be a major shaper of policy. The cost of the war in Afghanistan in the current fiscal year is $118 billion. One can do all sorts of comparisons with the non-defense federal expenditures that House Republicans are determined to cut (and are using extortion regarding the debt ceiling to try to get their way) to appreciate how much that is and how important a reduction in that part of the federal budget is to addressing the deficit issue.
As for Iraq—where the continuing problems of creeping authoritarianism and festering ethnic and sectarian distrust would not be solved by extending the U.S. troop presence—the appropriate question is how much more of what already is an enormous burden, fiscal and otherwise, it is reasonable to ask Americans to bear. Maybe we should recall the part of the war-promoters' sales pitch that concerned expenses. Iraq is flush in oil, they said. This war could be fought on the cheap, they said. Paul Wolfowitz declared, “There is a lot of money there,” which could be put to “a good use instead of building Saddam’s palaces.” Surely there is a limit to how much more a nation that was duped into such a misadventure should be expected to endure.
The outbreak of the popular uprisings in the Middle East was unpredictable—regarding their timing, not regarding the underlying conditions that had been present for some time and that have powered the expressions of discontent. Once begun, much else about the wave of dissent and unrest has been uncertain: how far it would extend, and how much political change it will leave in its wake. But a couple of other observations about this region-wide phenomenon can be made with more confidence.
One is that the uprisings will not last indefinitely. No season goes on forever, and that is true of the Arab Spring. Even very discontented people do not revolt permanently; they eventually get too fatigued. Regimes get fatigued, too, of course. Which fatigue curve is steeper helps to determine whether an uprising results in significant political change. So the same phenomenon that we have seen grow since it started five months ago will also subside. At some time it will peak.
Another observation is that whenever the peak occurs, it will be difficult to recognize at the time. The regional revolt has no clear and simple real-time metric. This problem of interpretation and analysis arises with other phenomena as well. It often is unclear, for example, when a professional athlete has reached his peak. When a pro golfer goes for a long time without winning a tournament, is he past his peak or only in a slump? Major highs and lows in the stock market are even harder to recognize at the time. (If I could recognize them, I would have retired some time ago to manage my wealth.)
Looking at the most recent month or so of the Arab Spring, it is reasonable to start asking questions about peaks versus mere slumps. Plenty of action is still taking place, of course, mainly in three places: a civil war in Libya, the beginnings of an even more complicated civil war in Yemen, and protest being met with harsh repression in Syria. And given where things were left when Hosni Mubarak departed, we can expect in Egypt either more political change or more protest about the insufficiency of change. But lately poplar revolt has not been spreading. Places that earlier in the year looked as if they were on the verge of catching the contagion, such as Jordan or Saudi Arabia, seem to have escaped it.
And most recently one place that did catch it has taken a step back toward normalcy. Bahrain has ended martial law. One must quickly caveat the significance of this. Protests in Bahrain are by no means over, and the regime is not exactly relaxing (Saudi troops are still there). The regime also has economic and other reasons to promote an impression of normalcy that runs ahead of the reality. (One immediate objective is to get the promoters of a canceled Formula One auto race that was supposed to have taken place in Bahrain in March to reschedule the race.) Nonetheless, the lifting of emergency rule is hardly trivial, and it is a step normally associated with the subsiding of revolt rather than the escalation of it. It is a momentum-breaker, or at least could be seen as such.
Another factor making it difficult to identify which part of the curve of the Arab Spring we are at right now is the uncertainty of what the region will look like when the entire curve is done. Unlike with the pro golfer, whose skills we can be certain will eventually degrade to where he never can win any more tournaments, we don't know what the end state of the Arab Spring will be. The situation in the Middle East is even unlike the East European revolts at the end of the 1980s, which were tied together by the common thread of Soviet domination.
A more apt comparison is with the European revolutions of 1848, which like the Arab Spring involved diverse, mutually stimulating, uprisings across a region. One aspect of the 1848 events worth noting is that they resulted in inconsistent, and from the revolutionaries' viewpoint mostly disappointing, political change. A monarchy in France was overthrown in favor of the short-lived Second Republic, and peasant serfs in the Austrian Empire found some new freedoms, but other than that the yield was meager. Another aspect to note is that the uprisings, although significant enough in intensity and scope to warrant a major place in the history books, had pretty much run their course in the space of a year. And this was before the event-accelerating effects of social networks and other modern electronic media. Overlay the timeline of 2011 on that of 1848 and it is reasonable to ask whether we are getting close to halfway through this thing.
It would be foolhardy to declare that we are and that we have seen the peak of the Arab Spring, but it would be foolish not to admit the possibility that might be the case. Prudent policy, which has required being on the right side of history as the rebellions have ramped up, also requires adapting to events as they ramp down, especially if the political results are varied and disappointing and underlying grievances remain unresolved. And we may have to start doing that sooner than most realize.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the Department of Defense will soon release unclassified portions of its first ever “cyber strategy.” One aspect of the new document highlighted in the Journal's story is that computer sabotage by another country against the United States might be considered an act of war and grounds for responding with military force. In fact, the Pentagon hopes the strategy document will serve as a warning in this regard. As one military official put it, “If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks.”
The strategy reportedly does not address a couple of major issues that such talk raises. One is how much certainty the United States could be expected to have about the origin of a cyber attack, and how much it should have before retaliating forcefully. Another is how serious electronic sabotage would have to be to qualify as an act of war warranting retaliation. On the latter question, an answer the Journal says is “gaining momentum at the Pentagon” is that the defining threshold should be one of “equivalence”: whether the sabotage causes death, damage, destruction, or disruption comparable to what a traditional military attack might cause.
If the Pentagon is so far withholding judgment on these questions, that is a good thing. Except perhaps for an assessment about the likelihood of determining responsibility for a cyber attack, the questions go beyond the Pentagon's responsibilities. The military is responsible for being ready to respond forcefully against foreign adversaries when political authorities order a response; it is not the military's job to determine when a response should be made, whether it is electronic sabotage that is involved or something else. The grounds for striking back at someone with military force is as much a job for political leaders, for foreign policy strategists, for moral philosophers who expound about just and unjust wars, and for those of us in the public who elect the political leaders.
This is not the place to attempt to construct a philosophy of what is right and wrong in responding to electronic sabotage—only to point out some directions the questions could take. The equivalence idea is attractive; perhaps after further deliberation it might provide the basis for a politically and morally sound strategy. But it can be challenged from multiple directions—that it is either too inclusive or not inclusive enough—and it might not offer as clear a line as first appears. If non-military (or as the military itself would say, non-kinetic) actions that result in death, damage, destruction, or disruption are to be considered acts of war as much as firing guns or dropping bombs, then why stop with electronic sabotage? Other actions, such as blockades and other forms of economic warfare, or perhaps even environmentally damaging actions, can have such effects as well. Some such actions (especially blockades) have been used in the past as rationales for resort to military force. Do we believe such resorts to force were justified? (How about Japan's response to an oil embargo in 1941?)
Perhaps going beyond kinetic actions that clearly constitute military force loosens unacceptably the concept of act of war and gives up one of the clearest defining lines that can be used to separate war from non-war. Shooting guns or dropping bombs really is different in some important ways, especially involving the direct effects involving human suffering, from other types of hostile actions. And societies have traditionally reacted differently to the use of guns and bombs, reactions that are not necessarily artifacts of pre-computer age technology.
Whatever formula is proposed for incorporating computer sabotage into principles of war and peace, the proposed principles naturally will be assessed against real cases and real policy problems. The case that this discussion immediately brings to mind is the famous Stuxnet virus, which reportedly caused major damage to Iran's uranium enrichment program and by most speculation was probably the work of Israel and/or the United States. According to the “equivalence” idea, introduction of this virus was an act of war.
Here is where the philosophical, semantic, and legal issues of what constitutes an act of war get mixed up with issues of what constitutes prudent policy in any one case. And it is easy to be of two minds about how to handle a case like Iran. Insofar as Stuxnet constituted an alternative to a military attack on Iran—the consequences of which would be disastrous for the United States—or at least bought substantial time to set back the possibility of such an attack, then it was a good idea. But if one accepts the equivalence idea, then Stuxnet was a wrongful act of war. It was wrong because it was not a response to any act of war by Iran. And it was wrong because the program it was intended to disable is one that Iran has a right to have (and even the feared diversion—a nuclear weapons program—is one that Israel, the United States, and seven other countries presume to have themselves). To the extent the equivalence principle applies to Iran, Tehran would have the right to respond to the electronic sabotage, if it chose to do so, with military force.
Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, defining acts of war is too complicated to be left to them.
Among the many sundry provisions in the defense authorization bill that the House of Representatives passed last week is one to cut by almost half the amount spent on military bands. This leads to the question: who has it in for military bands? What is the political foundation for the anti-band lobby?
I don't know the answer to that, although this provision might be in part a reaction to a comment by David Kilcullen that got some notice when Kilcullen was working as an adviser to David Petraeus in Iraq—that there are more musicians in the Defense Department than there are diplomats in the State Department. Whatever the impetus, this is just one example from a larger, all too familiar, pattern of highly selective Congressional micromanagement that sometimes gets far down into the weeds of the executive branch's business. That micromanagement is in turn one part of Congressional inconsistency in choosing which topics on which to instruct or not to instruct the executive. On some very weedy minutiae Congress instructs; on some broad issues of high policy that are more appropriately the business of the legislative branch, Congress defers. Some of the latter issues have raised problems of constitutionality, as improper grants of legislative power to the executive.
As a matter of constitutional principle and not just of law, the proper division of responsibility between the legislative and executive branches is clear. The legislature, the branch closest to the people, should establish general policies that are consistent with the values and priorities of the public that elected its members. The executive, which has to implement policy, should have the lead in decisions that are more a matter of implementation and less one of principle or high strategy. That's the theoretical ideal, anyway.
The defense authorization bill is all over the map regarding the specific versus the general, and the proper versus the improper assertions of legislative authority, as well as the prudent versus the imprudent among the assertions that are constitutionally proper. In addition to down-in-the-weeds instructions (including on matters arguably more important to national security than the number of military bands), there are proper expressions of legislative will on questions of high policy. This includes a continuation of the ban on trying Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts and a ban on using U.S. troops in a ground war in Libya. I happen to disagree with the first of those bans and to agree with the second one, but at least they both represent a performance of Congress's constitutionally proper function.
In contrast, there is improperly vague and loose delegation to the executive of powers, especially the power to make war. A provision that reflects language preferred by Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) authorizes the use of military force against “al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces,” thereby mushing together in one conglomeration an assortment of players with vastly different objectives, while placing no limits on pursuing them all as enemies in perpetuity.
There is little reason to hope that Congressional practice will get closer to constitutional theory and principle any time soon. If Congress can essentially collude with the executive in disregarding the War Powers Resolution and do so little to assert its own power to declare war, then it is not about to restore a clean and well-defined separation of powers in other respects either.
In the meantime, with regard to the question of how many military bands to have, I'm willing to trust the judgment of whoever it is in the Department of Defense who decides such things. The issue will not be one of my criteria in deciding for whom to vote in the next Congressional election.