The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
Here we go again. The season of planning documents in foreign and defense policy is arriving. In 2010, the Obama administration released its first National Security Strategy (NSS), Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), meaning that their second-term equivalents would roughly be expected next year. At Foreign Policy, John Norris recalls that the 2010 QDDR—the first of its kind—took a whopping seventeen months to complete. This means that work on a successor would need to begin soon if it were to be kept on about the same schedule—that is, if there is even to be a second one. The word “quadrennial” in its title suggests that the 2010 version was intended to be the first in a recurring series, but it is not required by law, as are the QDR and NSS. An attempt was made last year to pass legislation that would institutionalize the review process and require the State Department to produce regular QDDRs, but it did not succeed.
Meanwhile, Doug Wilson argued last month at Defense One that the Defense Department should scrap the next QDR. Wilson contended that the January 2012 “Defense Strategic Guidance” had effectively performed all of the functions that the QDR was meant to address. He thus recommended that the Pentagon save itself all the man-hours and dollars required to conduct the review and “stick with the product produced last year, endorsed by consensus, strongly supported by the president and incorporating all of the requirements of a QDR.”
Is all of this just a waste of time? As others have observed before, the principal problem that tends to afflict these kinds of big-picture planning documents is that they often wind up simply serving as laundry lists, looking more like political speeches than articulations of strategy. They’re drafted by committee, meaning that every division within the department or interagency process gets to add their two cents about why their issue matters and the actions they are taking are important to the country. There is rarely if ever any real sense of prioritization—that is, a ruthless accounting of which issues are truly of vital importance and which ones represent only secondary interests.
For example, near the beginning of the 2010 NSS, the White House included a section titled “Advancing Top National Security Priorities.” In an excellent dissection of the document, the pseudonymous blogger Gulliver catalogued and paraphrased all the “priorities” that fell under this category:
Pursuit of a nonproliferation agenda/security weapons of mass destruction; disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda and Associated Movements; succeeding in the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan; denying extremists safe haven in Pakistan; transitioning full responsibility for Iraqi security to that nation's sovereign government; comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and its neighbors (to include creation of a Palestinian state with contiguous territory); engagement with Muslim communities around the world; rebuilding American economic strength; pursuit of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements; support for individual opportunity and state capacity abroad; promotion of “universal values” (er, but just by example), to include global equality for women; the shaping of a just and stable international order “capable of addressing the problems of our time.”
As Gulliver rightly noted, if you have a whole bunch of priorities, you don’t really have any. The result is a document that capably outlines what the world would look like if the president of the United States had a magic wand and could reshape the world in any way he wanted, but one that pays little attention to the constraints that policy makers actually face. The same was true of the inaugural QDDR, as David Rieff described in these pages in 2011.
One defense of this ritual is that it’s a situation where “the process matters more than the product,” as Richard Fontaine argued in discussing the most recent NSS. In Fontaine’s words, in conducting one of these reviews, policy makers “are forced to think through core issues and future possibilities in a way that is much different from their day to day grind.” It’s true that it is easy for senior officials to get caught up in whatever the immediate crisis of the day is and eschew any long-range planning. Requiring them to do this kind of planning in a systemized way, therefore, makes some sense and has an intuitive logic to it.
Still, if we are going to require the White House, Pentagon and State Department to devote time to these reviews, they shouldn’t just be useful exercises for the people conducting them—the products should have some positive value as well. So, given that the practice of drafting them is not going away, here are a few very modest suggestions on how the process could be improved.
First, the NSS should be completed before all of the other subordinate documents. This has not happened the last several times; for instance, in 2010 the QDR was published in February while the NSS was not published until May. According to the law mandating the QDR, one of its chief purposes is “to delineate a national defense strategy consistent with the most recent National Security Strategy.” The idea is that the QDR and the military’s other planning documents are supposed to determine which of the objectives identified in the NSS require military means to be accomplished, and lay out what the Defense Department will do and what resources it needs to achieve them. When the QDR comes before the NSS, however, those writing it are left either relying on the previous NSS—even if it came from a different administration—or improvising and defining America’s objectives for themselves.
Second, these reports ought to contain at least some semblance of prioritization. This doesn’t mean that they need to have an ordered list of priorities ranked from most to least important. As Fontaine explains, administrations understandably don’t want to alienate overseas partners or domestic constituencies by declaring their pet issues to be minor or unimportant. At the same time, careful readers shouldn’t be left totally guessing as to what the government’s true priorities are either.
Finally—and this applies particularly to the NSS—it would be helpful if the government could develop a more modest and meaningful definition of the phrase “national security.” There’s an unfortunate tendency to cast any negative development that occurs abroad as a “national security” threat, even when the security of the American people is not really at issue. Likewise, following the true but banal assertion that America’s ability to project power and influence overseas depends on its economic strength at home, it’s also common to hear that the performance of the U.S. economy is a “national security” issue as well, as the 2010 NSS contended. The combined result is to render the phrase “important for national security” as virtually meaningless. It more or less serves as shorthand for “anything the United States would like to accomplish in the world,” or just as a club to beat one’s political opponents with. One big-picture strategic review is not going to change this, of course. But a document called the “National Security Strategy” would be as good a place as any to start.
Over the last several weeks TNI has hosted a spirited debate regarding American military strategy when it comes to a possible conflict with the People’s Republic of China. As a strategic-studies watcher and Asia security hand myself, I wish to applaud the professionalism and candor both sides displayed. There is nothing like a spirited debate allowing ideas to be vetted, challenged and ultimately made stronger. Considering the theoretical topic—what would likely be a Third World War—it is a debate worthy of our most serious attention.
Such a contest at its core pits two very different visions against one another in an attempt to define one of the most daunting security challenges America faces today—the growing military might of China.
While each side—AirSea Battle and Offshore Control—both have their own merits and drawbacks; I would like to offer some concluding points as we wrap up (at least for now) what has been a worthy contribution to this important discussion that has much larger repercussions when we begin to consider what type of military the United States will need in the future.
AirSea Battle: It’s Still an Operational Concept
This is a point I myself and several others have made. But it seems clear ASB could be rolled into a larger war plan and quite worthy of being compared to other strategies in a broader debate. Since DoD war plans are classified, comparing ASB and OC is a difficult challenge for sure. However, we do know that ASB would attempt to create a higher level of joint combat operations to hinder the ability of Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) practitioners to deny access to the commons and negate U.S. military capabilities. China and to a lesser extent Iran are clearly in ASB’s crosshairs.
In the near-future, defense analysts will have a number of ways to gage possible ASB-based strategies when it comes to China and A2/AD practitioners specifically. Clearly U.S. planners are beginning to think about how to fight from distance while also retaining the utility of multibillion-dollar aircraft carriers. The X-47B program—brought back from a very short retirement—clearly demonstrates that U.S. military planners are thinking about how naval aircraft can fight from range considering present aircraft strike capabilities would place carriers close to multiple PLA missile platforms (cruise and ballistic) including the highly touted “carrier-killer,” the DF-21D.
How Would Offshore Control Do Against Other A2/AD Challenges?
There is certainly a lot to like when it comes to Offshore Control. Such a strategy clearly aims to exploit China’s dependency on the seas for trade and natural resources in an attempt to compel Beijing to end conflict and mitigate any possibility of escalation. Adding to its appeal, such a strategy seems possible with current U.S. force levels and technology.
There are some inherent challenges. It’s important to consider whether Offshore Control could work against other possible A2/AD challengers. Various nations have already begun to embrace the weaponry of A2/AD—ballistic and cruise missiles, sea mines and quiet, conventional-powered submarines, as well as possible attacks across cyber and space domains. American forces could someday soon find themselves in harm's way from multi-dimensional strikes that not only seek to deny U.S. forces access to a combat zone, but also take the fight to America's military in an asymmetrical fashion. Would OC work against an Iranian A2/AD strategy with tight sanctions already in place? What about other nations who in the future could also embrace such technology through purchases from nations like China, Russia or possibly others? While I can see a strong argument being made that OC could be modified to take into consideration such situations, it remains to be seen whether it will.
What About Sequestration?
Clearly any China strategy would suffer if sequestration were to stay in place. Various texts concerning ASB suggest new weapons systems, such as new, stealthy long-range bombers and other expensive items would be needed if strikes against targets in Mainland China are considered part of the strategy. Where would the money come from?
Indeed, sequestration could impact ASB as well as an OC strategy. Considering Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent declarations concerning possible future consequences of sequestration it makes sense that any future strategy geared towards China could be weakened considerably. While Secretary Hagel did layout one scenario which trades “away size for high-end capability” and “would protect investments to counter anti-access and area-denial threats, such as the long-range strike family of systems, submarine cruise missile upgrades, and the Joint Strike Fighter” one could clearly see possible challenges implementing either ASB or OC in such an uncertain budgetary environment. Dollars will need to be spent to implement either of these strategies or something entirely different—the money just might not be there.
The Problem of Escalation Control
In any conflict, especially when considering nuclear armed states, the idea of escalation takes on an importance all its own. No matter what strategy one employs, how does one stop such a conflict from reaching dangerous levels of escalation? James Holmes may have said it best:
Chinese sea power fuses seagoing and shore-based assets into a single implement. PLA commanders would presumably use all assets at their disposal, sea and land, once Chinese vessels started descending to Davy Jones' locker. What if anti-ship cruise or ballistic missiles or combat aircraft flying from airfields ashore started landing heavy blows against allied fleets, whether underway or berthed in ports like Yokosuka or Sasebo? Would Washington or Tokyo really exempt land-based PLA weaponry from counterstrikes should Beijing unleash it?
If so, they would be granting the adversary one heckuva sanctuary. In short, two can escalate. Whether allied political leaders could resist popular pressure to retaliate against the source of attacks on their ships, their sons, and their daughters is a question worth pondering.
The above clearly demonstrates the frightening nature of a U.S.-China conflict. What if American counterattacks on the mainland were misinterpreted as a possible strike on China’s small but capable nuclear arsenal? Here is where we get to scenarios almost too frightening to imagine.
Looking Towards the Future
Recent reports clearly show U.S. military planners beginning to lay plans concerning its position in the Pacific. A recent article in Foreign Policy explains:
The U.S. military is encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports. The latest link: a small airstrip on the tiny Pacific island of Saipan. The U.S. Air Force is planning to lease 33 acres of land on the island for the next 50 years to build a "divert airfield" on an old World War II airbase there. But the residents don't want it. And the Chinese are in no mood to be surrounded by Americans.
The Pentagon's big, new strategy for the 21st century is something called Air-Sea Battle, a concept that's nominally about combining air and naval forces to punch through the increasingly-formidable defenses of nations like China or Iran. It may sound like an amorphous strategy—and truth be told, a lot of Air-Sea Battle is still in the conceptual phase. But a very concrete part of this concept is being put into place in the Pacific. An important but oft-overlooked part of Air-Sea Battle calls for the military to operate from small, bare bones bases in the Pacific that its forces can disperse to in case their main bases are targeted by Chinese ballistic missiles.
The pieces goes on to note:
In addition to the site on Saipan, the Air Force plans to send aircraft on regular deployments to bases ranging from Australia to India as part of its bulked up force in the Pacific. These plans include regular deployments to Royal Australian Air Force bases at Darwin and Tindal, Changi East air base in Singapore, Korat air base in Thailand, Trivandrum in India, and possibly bases at Cubi Point and Puerto Princesa in the Philippines and airfields in Indonesia and Malaysia, a top U.S. Air Force generalrevealed last month.
Clearly the United States is implementing the often criticized military aspect of its “pivot” to Asia. While America has always been an integral part of Asia-Pacific and broader Indo-Pacific security architecture, it is now quite clear words are now truly being matched by deeds.
A great-power conflict between the United States and China today, despite tensions over a multitude of issues, seems quite unlikely—but is quite frightening nonetheless. Considering the technology and weapons both sides would be able to employ the potential for the creation of one of the greatest tragedies in human history is a possibility—thanks to nuclear weapons. This is why dialogue on both sides, however blunt and at times taxing, is necessary so that current tensions never turn into future conflict.
In my view, there is no clear winner between ASB and OC. If pressed, I would favor ASB, however, I think there is much more soul searching to be had. Any strategy that deals with possible conflict with China needs some portability to other A2/AD challenges—with budget dollars getting tighter there may not be any other choice. While it seems aspects of ASB are being implemented, OC could also be utilized in current and future battle plans. Who knows, maybe both ideas could be merged together to create a dynamic, highly flexible strategy that would be even more adaptive based on the wide geographic, strategic and military domains a possible U.S.-China or future A2/AD based-conflict could occur in. Now that would be an interesting idea. Any takers?
Harry J. Kazianis is managing editor of The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.
The title character of Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 classic Oblomov may be literature’s most indecisive man. We meet the young Russian nobleman lying in bed in the late morning; it takes two chapters for him to get out of bed—and collapse onto an armchair. He spends most of his life lying down, though he has much to do. His estate is in disarray, he faces eviction from his apartment, his friends come calling hoping to bring him to town or on a trip abroad, he needs to find a wife. And Oblomov has many ideas for putting his life in order—he daydreams of the house he’ll build on his estate, of the wife he’ll meet, of travelling with his friends. Yet first he must get up, wash, trade his dressing-gown for proper clothes. And there are endless interruptions—Oblomov may hardly move, but he is constantly planning to move, telling his servant what to do to prepare things for his move, thinking up what he’ll do once he’s moving, before he loses his handkerchief or his train of thought and must start anew. And so he’s been planning to fix up his estate for years without doing anything. He’s promised friends he’ll accompany them, but never has. A book he’s reading lies open to the same page for a month. He remains on his back, in his dressing-gown, into the afternoon. And of course he sees none of this as his fault—the interruptions, the incompetence of his servant, the visitors, all intervene to keep him from acting.
One evening his friend Andrei Stolz, exasperated, tells Oblomov that they will at last take their long-planned trip.
"We will start to-morrow. It must be done now or never." With that he went to bed. "Now or never." Somehow to Oblomov the words seemed a sort of threat....Two weeks later Schtoltz departed for England, after exacting from Oblomov a pledge to join him later in Paris, Oblomov even went to the length of procuring a passport, ordering an expensive travelling coat, and purchasing a cap....A month went by—three months; yet Oblomov still did not start. Stolz, who had reached Paris long ago, continued to send him letter after letter, but they remained unanswered.
The Obama administration’s Egypt policy lately shows shades of Oblomov. It has many grand plans for Egypt’s future, many deeply felt opinions about the regime’s actions, about the Muslim Brotherhood’s responses, about what the Egyptian people deserve and what the American people hope. Scarcely a day passes that the administration doesn’t see the need to inform the public of its views on the situation—and on many days it weighs in more than once, in case anyone forgets over lunch which outrages are deplored and which are merely condemned. Yet all this talk has seen precious little action. A few F-16s the Egyptians can barely use have been delayed; a military exercise has been cancelled. And of course many long phone conversations, the administration assures, have been had.
The administration’s Oblomovtschina was on full display early last Thursday afternoon, the second official comment on matters Egyptian in three hours. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s briefing included a series of long, meandering exchanges with Associated Press reporter Matt Lee, chiefly concerning whether the administration thought its policies were effective, or were even intended to have an effect. Lee repeatedly asked whether the administration’s cancellation of an exercise merely was intended to send a message of disapproval to Egypt’s military, or whether it was intended to change the military’s behavior; Psaki repeatedly sidestepped the question, stating that the administration can’t “determine on behalf of the Egyptians what steps they’re going to take,” but that it is taking “a number of steps to encourage the Egyptians to get back on a productive path.”
Psaki repeatedly told Lee that the violence “did impact our decision-making,” that the administration “will continue to assess and review our aid in all forms,” and that it was “continuing to put constructive ideas forward.” Psaki stated that “the end result is what’s important,” prompting Lee to ask whether the administration was “confident that it is pursuing the appropriate policy to bring about its goals.” Psaki replied by reiterating the administration’s goals and emphasizing that “we’ve known this would be a long journey,” that “we can’t look into the future...we evaluate every day what the appropriate steps are.” But, of course, “reaching the goal is up to the Egyptian people to reach. We can’t do it on their behalf.” And the exchange repeated several minutes later, as Psaki filigreed a distinction between reviewing “the appropriate steps”—which can be done “every day”—and evaluating “where things stand”—which cannot.
At times Lee seemed to be getting a malicious joy from questioning Psaki. One round ended with a remark that was less a question than the pin that sticks a struggling moth to the board:
QUESTION: All right. And then my last one – and I will stop, I promise, after this – do you think – is the Administration confident that the steps, that the policy that you have pursued thus far in Egypt and also in Syria --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- are worthy of a President who not so long ago won the Nobel Peace Prize?
MS. PSAKI: Yes, Matt.
QUESTION: You do. Okay.
Psaki has spent nearly all of her short tenure squirming beneath the press corps’ skewers. Exchanges like this one on Egypt happen regularly. The crossing of Obama’s Syrian “red line” saw a similar wave of urgent reviews, evaluations, and factorings-in; Psaki was even stumped later on in Thursday’s briefings—again by Lee—when asked whether new Israeli settlements in the West Bank were “illegitimate.”
Some of the blame lies with Psaki, who (unlike her predecessor Victoria Nuland) is a career political operative, not a foreign-policy wonk. Yet the root of the problem is the entire administration. Psaki’s answers shed little light because there is little to shed light on. The Obama administration has no strategy for Egypt. It has no vision or central goal. And without a goal, it has no way to balance the complex and competing interests and values in play in Cairo. It does not know what to do or say. But it knows it must do or say something. And so it conducts evaluations without end. It asserts contradictions, then resolves them with sophistries. It weighs its options. It shares its feelings. It makes sure everybody knows how complicated the situation is, how many factors must be considered, how measured the president’s policies are, how tough these decisions have been. And there are reviews, and reviews of reviews, all of which are soon reviewed anew. “We continue to review our relationship with Egypt,” said Psaki. “I talked about the range of factors that are part of that consideration, including the depth of our partnership, including our national security interests and regional stability. And we’ll continue to review.”
“Now or never.” “To be or not to be.” Oblomov rose from his chair, but, failing at once to insert his foot into a slipper, sat down again.
Image: Flickr/Steve Parker. CC BY 2.0.
Paul Kennedy, the dean of great-power historians, has a very good op-ed in Wednesday’s International Herald Tribune in which he attempts to put our current crop of leading nation-states in perspective. After running through some of the spats currently consuming world leaders—from the U.S.-Russian fracas over Edward Snowden to the U.K.-Spanish feud over Gibraltar—he asks:
To historians of world affairs, including this one, the only proper response to this litany of spats, pouting and injured pride is to ask: “Is that all?” Are these the only issues which divide and upset the Great Powers as we enjoy the second decade of the 21st century? And, if so, shouldn’t we count ourselves lucky?
The answer, of course, is yes, as he goes on to explain. He reminds us that it wasn’t all that long ago that the great powers of the twentieth century plunged the globe into two devastating world wars, each resulting in millions upon millions of casualties. The second killed a jaw-dropping 2.5 percent of the total world population at the time. In contrast, he writes, today’s great powers—consisting of the United States, China, Europe, Russia, Japan, India and Brazil, in his mind—are not the world’s real “troublemakers.” That is, none of them wishes to undo the basic nature of the international system. The real dangers to peace and stability, he says, lie elsewhere:
in the unpredictable, overmilitarized lunatic asylum that is North Korea; in an Iran that sometimes seems to be daring an Israeli air strike; in a brutal and autistic Syrian regime; in a Yemen that both houses terrorists and pretends to be killing them off; and, far less purposefully, in the conflict-torn, crumbling polities of Central Africa, Egypt and Afghanistan, and many nations in between. Here are the world’s problem cases.
If there are neurotic Kaiser Wilhelms or bullying Mussolinis or murderous Stalins around today, they are not — thank heavens — to be found in Beijing, Moscow or New Delhi.
It’s possible to quibble with Kennedy’s piece around the edges. Is Brazil really a great power right now? Is Europe a single, unitary actor in global affairs? And might China, as its economic and military strength increases over the next several decades, develop correspondingly more expansive aims as well? But the core argument is sound: none of today’s great powers, however one defines them, currently appear to be revisionists in the sense of seeking broad territorial conquest or seeking to change the rules of the liberal international order.
Kennedy doesn’t say this explicitly, but his piece serves as a direct rebuttal to the threat inflation that often comes from Washington’s leaders of both parties, many of whom often declare breathlessly that we live in a uniquely dangerous world. Senator Lindsey Graham is perhaps the best example, asserting just a few weeks ago that “we live in the most dangerous times imaginable.” We don’t. In fact, these are far from the most dangerous times imaginable—they’re not even the most dangerous times in recent history. Nor, for that matter, did the annals of ancient history represent a particularly safe, peaceful era, as Steven Pinker shows in The Better Angels of Our Nature.
This is a point that’s easy to dismiss or even mock when any day’s headlines might contain news of a foreign tragedy like the ongoing and horrific mass killings in Egypt. Obviously, it’s of no comfort to Egyptians, Syrians or others suffering elsewhere around the world. Nevertheless, it’s an essential fact for trying to make sense of the threats that the United States and the world face today. None of the “problem cases” that Kennedy highlights, and that dominate international news coverage on a day-to-day basis, are threats of the magnitude that a truly revisionist power would pose.
What this situation requires from the big powers, Kennedy observes, is “self-restraint, year after year, decade after decade.” It doesn’t represent an end to war, but it means that the great powers work to ensure that the conflicts that do occur—whether involving themselves or their client states—remain local. No doubt “Comparatively Less War Now” doesn’t make for an inspiring bumper sticker. For the moment, however, it’s a slogan that appears to be true, and we should hope it stays that way.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Van Howell. CC BY-SA 3.0.
“O-M-G.” These were the opening words—letters?—of Samantha Power’s first major speech as America’s permanent representative to the United Nations. It was an appropriate reaction—Power had just walked out onto the stage at Invisible Children’s Fourth Estate Summit to screams and adulatory applause, moments after a slick video introduction had lauded her achievements. She’s something of a rock star in liberal-interventionist circles, and on Saturday she looked the part, working the cheering crowd like a pro. No UN ambassador has likely ever enjoyed such a reception, at least not since Bill Richardson’s baseball days.
Yet why did Power choose Invisible Children for her debut? The organization is controversial in humanitarian circles. Founded to address atrocities by Uganda’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, the organization shot to fame early last year after its documentary on LRA head Joseph Kony went viral, plugged by celebrities and viewed tens of millions of times. Criticism swiftly followed—the film was trashed for grossly oversimplifying a complicated conflict, its fans for thinking that tweets and t-shirts could stop a war, and its producers for running an organization focused as much on “awareness” as on action. Most of the organization’s budget last year went to administrative costs, media production and “mobilization” efforts; less than 40 percent went to programs that directly address the impact of Kony and the LRA. Most of its revenue comes from sales of trendy merchandise. I’ve met my share of Africa wonks and development workers; I’ve yet to meet one with a positive view of Invisible Children.
That’s why Power’s move is odd. She’s no simpleton—her work as a reporter on the Yugoslav conflicts and her Pulitzer-winning 688-page brick of a book on genocide testify to that. She has to be intimately familiar with Invisible Children’s problems. Her speech showed she knows the organization’s style—it’s a mix of inspirational platitudes, praise for the audience and social-media plugs. And it was at times painfully naive, suggesting that human nature and political realities can be transcended by youthful passion and moral clarity—“The most powerful weapon of all...is YOU. It is the next generation that is unencumbered by 68 years of doing things a certain way, but that still feels deeply connected to the same urgency, the same vision, the same belief that drove the creation of the UN. Peace.”
Power’s appropriation of Invisible Children’s approach hints at her reasoning. Invisible Children isn’t the most effective humanitarian organization, or the richest. But it has the biggest media presence and a proven ability to mobilize swarms of supporters, and it's far more willing than mainstream aid groups to urge military action. It also cuts across traditional political lines, courting lefty college students and evangelical Christians alike. If Power is hoping to use her spot on Obama’s cabinet to push America toward a foreign policy of armed altruism, Invisible Children would be a powerful backer. “Your activism enables us to do more,” said Power, continuing that “without you, it’s not at all obvious that there would be such strong bi-partisan support for sending U.S. military advisors to central Africa to help defeat a warlord.”
It’s a savvy political move, especially for someone who’s never held an elected office. But it says nothing good about liberal interventionism that one of its most powerful proponents sees a constituency in an ill-informed band of young idealists.
Psychologists today say that children as young as six months can make moral judgments between right and wrong. While life undoubtedly grows more complex as we age, we all weigh various factors in our struggle to lead a good life. Money, comfort, convenience, family, consequence and a host of other elements figure into every decision we make. Some choices are risky. Some have concrete consequences. Simply put, Milton Tepeyac—the veteran subject of Kevin Sullivan's front-page piece in yesterday's Washington Post—doesn't seem like a bad man. But he is a man who made a bad choice. He is now facing the consequences of his actions. Is that wrong? Mr. Sullivan's overly rosy portrait would lead you to think so.
Here are the facts: U.S. Immigration law says that noncitizens (including green-card holders) who commit serious crimes forfeit their right to stay in the country. Milton Tepeyac was a green-card-holding U.S. Marine. He served in Kuwait and Iraq. After his service he began a seafood business in Phoenix as a civilian. The business hit a rough patch, and he needed money. He was offered $1,000 to help with a drug deal, which landed him four years in prison. When his prison term ended, he was deported to his native Mexico, as was consistent with his felony conviction and temporary status.
Is this sad for Tepeyac? Sure. Even more unfortunate perhaps because he was eligible for citizenship at age eighteen and never filled out the paperwork. (Note: If being a U.S. citizen is important to you, looking into your eligibility for said citizenship might be a good idea.)
That established, Sullivan makes Tepeyac's tale a real sob story when it's simply not: He now "scrapes by on $3 an hour in this northern Mexican city [Hermosillo], where he has lived since the U.S. government deported him in April. His rented room floods when it rains. Scorpions skitter in. To kill them, he had to pay an exterminator $40 — more than a quarter of his weekly paycheck." Boo-hoo. Well, I'm sure that's no party, particularly when formerly, "he ran a seafood business in Phoenix, drove a BMW, and owned a five-bedroom house with a billiards room and a pool."
It's clear that our friend Milton was not one for looking into the law, but if he had, he probably could have compared these two scenarios and determined whether risking his entire way of life was worth $1k. It's unfortunate he didn't have that foresight. (One wonders, couldn't he have sold his BMW?) As an editor who distinctly does not have a pool or billiards room but manages to keep from brokering drug deals, my sympathy for Tepeyac is pretty limited. There are plenty of people who want to be U.S. citizens or even green-card holders who would never risk the privilege that life here affords, even when the going gets rough. Presumably because they understand that the "rough going" in America isn't what it is in Hermosillo, Mexico, or Mogadishu or San Pedro Sula or [insert nightmare here].
No doubt, Milton Tepeyac learned that the hard way.
Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, lamented, “It’s tragic in a case of somebody like [Tepeyac], who is not a hardened criminal." Yet truly, how many crimes does it take for someone to become a "hardened criminal"? Before earning his deportation, Tepeyac "was busted twice, for possession of cocaine and then drug paraphernalia, and placed on probation." The deal that got Tepeyac deported? For ninety-one pounds of marijuana with a street value of nearly $300,000. Not exactly chump change.
Many green-card holding recruits go on to serve honorably in the U.S. military and become citizens. As Sullivan enumerates, "Since 2009, about 9,800 military recruits have earned their citizenship during basic training in a program run by the military and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)." Kindly note that one of the qualifications to become a U.S. citizen is "good moral character." While Tepeyac might have been a nice guy to those who knew him in the United States, it's clear that he was not a man of outstanding morals. That's what Sullivan gets wrong in this excessively maudlin portrait, which focuses on the ramen Milton eats, his "baby blue" clothes, his family who rarely visits.
Sure, Milton served in the military, but he risked it all on lousy bet. Should have thought twice.
Image: Kenneth Allen. CC BY-SA 2.0.
He may have just been crazy. Garry Davis’ stump speech in his 1988 campaign for the presidency of the United States—he was running on the ticket of the World Citizen Party—begins:
I want you to know from the outset that I am a Leo with Gemini rising and the moon in Aries.
It had, on the day of that speech, been nearly forty years since Davis walked into the U.S. embassy in Paris, raised his right hand before an official, and taken a formal oath renouncing his American citizenship. He declared himself to be a “world citizen,” and shot to international notoriety several months later when, his French visa nearly up, he camped out on the steps of the Palais de Chaillot, which had been declared international territory to host the Secretariat of the new United Nations. Davis requested recognition of his world citizenship, arguing that without documents he’d be imprisoned if he remained in France, and imprisoned anywhere the French sent him. “On the seventh day,” wrote Davis,
I received my answer. I was expelled forcibly. The U.N. Secretariat, not having any police, requested the French Ministry of the Interior to please "invade" their so-called international territory and remove this piece of international flotsam. So on Sept. 17th about 50 French policemen, wearing their sternest looks, came in, took me against my will and deposited me in France again, a distance of about 10 yards.”
And so, after five years of wandering the world with no nation or international organization to represent him, expelled from country after country by confused customs officers, he declared for himself a world government. Until his death a few weeks ago, the expansion of that government was his credo. The World Government of World Citizens, claiming power everywhere but based in Vermont and Washington, D.C., issued passports, birth certificates, exit visas, and occasionally conducted elections. (“Dear World Citizen: As a candidate for World President, I hereby solicit your World Vote. A World Ballot is enclosed.”) It could claim nearly a million registered world citizens.
Davis’ ambitions for the world government were impressive. Having seen the dark side of nationalism from a Second World War bomber, he was determined to liberate humanity from its divisions, replacing sovereign nations with one sovereign leadership. Peace would follow, and with it, prosperity—not only would swords be beaten into ploughshares, but the world government would be joined by a World Citizen’s Corporation,
which has as its purpose the complete integration and coordination of all the physical resources, means of production, and labor of the entire planet, for the direct benefit of all the consumers thereon, which excludes no one. Such a one world consumer's cooperative, linked to no politics or private interests because of its very inclusive nature, would allow each and every working world citizen to benefit directly from his or her labor and the labor of his or her neighbor throughout the total world community.
Davis appears to have failed. Yet for him world government and world citizenship were always real—“if we stumble, falter, even fall, there are others to carry on, for the reality of Man's Unity is a truth that cannot die.” Well, it was a metaphysical reality, one in which the world’s jumble of sovereign nations stood in contrast to the “inherent total sovereignty with full authority and rights...of individual man.” The world government he proclaimed in 1953 “exists only in his person, but since all men are world citizens with full world sovereignty...the proclamation of world government is every man’s right, privilege, and responsibility.” He further declared the point at which he stood—in the city hall of Ellsworth, Maine—to be “World Territory.” He noted that “a point has no dimensions...and therefore no physical existence.” Yet nonexistence had its existential advantages—“it having no physical existence, my claim needs no confirmation on the part of the national authorities as such...As a world sovereign, existing legally only in a worldly sense, I am able to give this point a legal existence.”
That metaphysical certainty—and the dream of a world economy that abolishes private interest—put Davis among the twentieth century’s multitude of utopians. Yet while the others measured their successes in mass graves, collective farms and Lebensraum, success for Davis was a fresh stamp in his World Passport from yet another bewildered official. He quickly came to learn, in declaring himself a sovereign government, the rough and tumble world that sovereign governments inhabit—he was imprisoned dozens of times, shipped back and forth between unwelcoming countries, and once spent weeks stuck on a bridge crossing from France to Germany, the Germans not letting him enter and the French not letting him return.
Though his speeches and writings often sounded absurd in their seriousness, his life showed a world that could be seriously absurd. Perhaps it was not crazy for a man living in mankind’s deadliest century to turn against an order that threatened the world with nuclear destruction. Yet his renunciation traded one absurdity for another, the madness of Strangelove for the alienation of Kafka. Spears were replaced by spindles, firearms by filing cabinets. The terror of divided Berlin yielded to the torpor of bureaucratic Brussels. Garry Davis called himself the first of the world citizens. But he lived as the new world’s first citizen, shuffled from clerk to clerk. We may be free for a moment from imminent great-power war, but the new world's not nearly as nice as Davis had imagined.
Israel has lost a key ally in its struggle against Iran—Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. From his inauguration in 2005 to his replacement on Sunday, there was no one in the world who did more to advance Israeli foreign interests. For without the bearded madman raving in Tehran, the international community would have never come together in such an unprecedented manner to isolate and sanction Iran over its nuclear program.
The Israelis had long perceived the Iranian nuclear program as a burgeoning existential threat, and accordingly have been the chief proponents of measures against it. As early as 1992, prominent Israelis across the political spectrum were warning of the danger and urging international cooperation against it. Foreign minister Shimon Peres called Iran “the greatest threat and greatest problem in the Middle East, because it seeks the nuclear option while holding a highly dangerous stance of extreme religious militancy.” And Benjamin Netanyahu, then a deputy minister, called for “an international front headed by the U.S.” to “uproot” the threat. But in spite of Israeli entreaties, America only slowly came around, with its primary focus on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The rest of the world paid little attention.
So, at the turn of the millennium, the international front against Iran had just two members. The 2002 revelation of secret nuclear activities—most notably the massive enrichment halls at Natanz—grabbed the attention of several European powers. Yet they were hardly committed opponents of Iran. Hossein Mousavian, then a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, and Mohammed ElBaradei, then head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, each noted in their memoirs that both the German and British foreign ministers said privately that Europe was taking a leadership role in nuclear talks only because they wanted to be a “human shield” preventing a U.S. or Israeli attack. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office, the international community was watching Iran’s nuclear activities closely—talks with the IAEA were regular—but there was no consensus, and the Security Council had taken no action. Sanctions were spare, climbing oil prices promised new prosperity, and the Americans had just overthrown Iran’s enemies to the east (the Taliban) and west (Saddam).
From Iran’s perspective, however, the situation was still far from perfect. Ahmadinejad and his team felt that the West was subjecting Iran to unfair scrutiny, and that their predecessors’ willingness to negotiate had only increased Western demands. And so at home, they launched a strident public defense of the nuclear program; abroad, they sought to “look to the East,” attempting to gain the support of China, Russia, the Muslim world and the Nonaligned Movement to balance the Israelis, the United States and their halfhearted European supporters. The latter move was a miscalculation—Mousavian would charge that the “‘looking to the East’ policy exaggerated the cohesion, abilities, and willingness of the ‘Eastern bloc’ to confront the West,” that “in some instances, it even consolidated Eastern and Western countries against Iran,” and that the policy’s “failure was a blow to the credibility of Iran’s foreign policy.” And the Ahmadinejad administration’s public defense of the nuclear program, while successful as a domestic political move, did little for Tehran’s position abroad.
These were mistakes, and are sufficient to account for some of Iran’s troubles. Yet the blame for Iran’s present isolation and misery rests squarely on Ahmadinejad’s badly tailored shoulders. He missed no opportunity to make himself appear erratic and irresponsible in international fora. His international debut, just over a month into his first term, was a wandering speech before the United Nations General Assembly. His remarks included references to “the Zionist occupation regime,” oblique doubts that Al Qaeda really carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks, and hints that Israel is secretly manipulating world affairs behind the scenes. All this was bookended by millenarian religious rhetoric, including a closing call for the return of the Mahdi. He allegedly later told a cleric that he had been bathed in a divine light during the speech.
One month after the UN speech, addressing a “World Without Zionism” conference in Tehran, he stated of Israel that “the establishment of the occupying regime of Qods [Jerusalem] was a major move by the world oppressor [the United States] against the Islamic world.” He praised the conference’s title, saying that “They say it is not possible to have a world without the United States and Zionism. But you know that this is a possible goal and slogan.” He compared the arrival of a world without the United States and Israel to the fall of the Shah and of the Soviet Union. He followed this with his most controversial remark—a statement translated by the New York Times as “Our dear Imam [Khomeini] said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map...I have no doubt that the new wave that has started in Palestine, and we witness it in the Islamic world too, will eliminate this disgraceful stain from the Islamic world.”
The translation has been hotly disputed—some argue that Ahmadinejad had not said that Israel “must be wiped off the map,” but rather that it “will vanish from the page of time.” The Israelis did not feel it was terribly important whether their demise was being invoked in the passive or active voice. The fact that Ahmadinejad reprised these remarks at a Holocaust denial conference the next year was even more alarming—and his timing could not have been worse, as Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was visiting German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin the same day, making for a powerful joint denunciation of the Iranian leader.
Suffice to say all of Ahmadinejad’s remarks recounted above—and the many similar ones he made over his eight-year presidency—were unnecessary. All Iranian leaders have to take a hard line on Israel and invoke divine will—these are each part of the Islamic Republic’s raison d’être. Yet stating these positions in such particularly outrageous terms served no purpose. Ahmadinejad lent credibility to Israeli warnings that an apocalyptic regime could not be trusted with apocalyptic weapons. And thus his remarks cost Iran dearly. Mousavian notes: “Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy enabled the United States and Israel to win over the EU, Russia, China, India, Japan and other countries on the referral of Iran’s [nuclear] dossier to the Security Council and to orchestrate unprecedented sanctions resolutions against Iran at the United Nations.” Many states have also launched unilateral sanctions. Coupled with the Ahmadinejad team’s economic mismanagement, the result has been a disaster: bursts of extreme inflation, shriveled oil exports, falling currency reserves, high unemployment and a cutoff from international banking. And Ahmadinejad’s remarks made it impossible to address the crisis in Iran’s international position directly: as Mousavian notes, “the unnecessary controversies that Ahmadinejad created also raised the domestic political costs in Washington of talking to Iran. This contributed to the failure of Obama’s engagement policy.”
In short, then, Ahmadinejad brought Israel major successes in what has become a central goal of its foreign policy. Israeli leaders had been trying, and failing, to convince the world Iran was dangerous for more than a decade. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did that successfully in just a few months. Netanyahu ought to send a card thanking him for his services.
Image: Marcello Casal Jr\ABr. CC BY 3.0.
Freshly retired U.S. Central Command head General James Mattis caused a stir last week by accusing the Obama administration of responding too softly to a 2011 Iranian-backed terror plot. “I don’t know why [it] wasn’t dealt with more strongly,” Mattis told an audience in Colorado. “We caught them in the act, and then we let them walk free.” The plot, in which an Iranian American used-car salesman tried to hire Mexican drug cartels to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States as he ate at a tony Georgetown restaurant, had been exposed by the Department of Justice after a tipoff from a DEA informant. Mattis argued that the plot was authorized “at the very highest levels in Tehran,” yet the response was confined to actions by the Justice Department. He warned that Iran’s present stance was, in a remarkable analogy, “like children balancing lightbulbs full of nitroglycerin,” and that there was a severe risk that “one of these days they're going to drop one and it's going to knock out the London stock exchange or Wall Street because we never drew a line and said, ‘You won't do it.’”
Mattis has a long history of eye-catching statements, and the plot was so outrageous and poorly executed that many have expressed doubts that Iran—even Iran—would sponsor it. (Our own Paul Pillar suggested that the plot may have been designed to be discovered, i.e. that rogue elements within the Iranian government hankering for deeper confrontation could have been behind it.) Yet Mattis makes a fair point if he’s right that the plot was ordered from the top. Why would the United States tolerate a confirmed terrorist plot by an unfriendly state, even as it spends hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives to prevent the emergence of terrorism in other countries? Further, letting such an action go unanswered would send a dangerous message of weakness and irresolution.
A chief problem with taking action, however, is that it would rebound on the main U.S. government priority toward Iran: preventing it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. As Geoffrey Kemp and I explained in our book, War with Iran, a key strength of the current U.S. position rests on the delicate international balance that has allowed an unprecedented sanctions regime. A U.S. military action against Iran could lead to major powers withdrawing their support for sanctions, undermining one of Washington’s few points of leverage.
And a military action would have risked a spiraling confrontation with Iran, one which could easily have spread into both Iraq and Afghanistan, and which may have seen terrorism in multiple continents—possibly even within the United States. America can dominate this escalation in theory—the ability of the world’s most powerful military to make a weaker state hurt is limited mainly by our creativity and our qualms. In practice, however, the costs grow. The United States can confront Iran in isolation, but a global power never confronts anything in isolation. The entanglement of U.S. forces in one corner of the globe creates openings in all other corners. Great powers like China and Russia would react negatively, and the conflict would have compounded America’s strategic, military and fiscal overextension. The United States was, at the time, already involved in two major conflicts and experiencing substantive domestic political dysfunction and imbalance. Iran’s weak hand becomes competitive in such a context.
Lesser responses have their own weaknesses. The Hill called for more sanctions after the terror plot was revealed, but this is hardly an appropriate response to a belligerent act—and Congressional calls for more sanctions can’t be a very powerful signal to Tehran anymore, given that they’re issued so frequently. Covert action would have been more symmetrical, but it would not hurt Iran enough to make it stop, and would further entrench the norm of cloak-and-dagger violence between the United States and Israel on one side and Iran on the other—a norm which offers Iran a fig leaf for acts of terror.
One way out of the sort of cyclical violence any military action likely would have caused is to take matters into the courts, answering the latest attack not with further attacks but by trying the perpetrators. Trying the restaurant plotter—which is what the administration did—accomplished this without ever starting the cycle. It also is a smarter response if the government was, contra Mattis, unsure that Tehran had officially authorized the attack. Since we in the public sphere can’t see the intelligence to which Mattis and other officials had access, it’s frankly impossible to do more than speculate on the appropriateness of the administration’s response. The fact that Mattis suggested certainty that Tehran authorized the plot is significant, but Mattis’s reputation for not choosing his words with extreme care is, too.
Had the plot gone through—had the Saudi ambassador been killed, with other Washington bigwigs possibly among the victims—there would not have been so much flexibility. If a foreign power can carry out acts of terror on American soil without paying a grievous price, what is our military for? What purpose does our pursuit of global leadership serve? If, as I’ve suggested, worries about our efforts to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon might factor into our response to an Iranian terror attack, our priorities might not be in balance. An Iranian bomb could have serious consequences for the stability of the Middle East, for the strategic balance on the Gulf and for global nonproliferation. Yet the damage to American interests here is more potential than actual. The U.S. would retain a multitude of tools to manage the Iranian threat—including, at last resort, our vast stockpile of nuclear weapons. The restaurant attack, on the other hand, would have been an egregious violation of U.S. sovereignty and of numerous international norms, and likely would have cost many Americans their lives. The damage to American interests would be concrete, and the risk that inaction would invite further damage would be great. The complex strategic concerns over proliferation are appropriate. But in this case they would have to yield to the more central and visceral concerns of physical security that are at the core of any government’s foreign-policy duties. Mattis might have been running his mouth last week. But he might have been right.
It’s long been known that the U.S. government considers itself to be at war with Al Qaeda and its “associated forces.” But exactly which groups does that include? Earlier this week, I noted that the list of organizations that the Pentagon sees as meeting this standard remains classified. In a May congressional hearing, Senator Carl Levin asked Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, to provide his office with the “existing list of groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda,” and Sheehan promised to do so. Since then, the Pentagon has apparently provided Levin’s office with the list, but refused to disclose it to the public.
Today, ProPublica’s Cora Currier followed up on this question to ask for the rationale for keeping the list secret. She reports:
A Pentagon spokesman told ProPublica that revealing such a list could cause “serious damage to national security.”
“Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list,” said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory. “We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks.”
So, to summarize, the argument is that if this list were made public, groups that were named as enemies of the United States would be able to use this fact as a recruiting tool of sorts, allowing them to enhance their capabilities and making them stronger.
This is deeply unconvincing. At Lawfare, Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration, calls this rationale “weak” and provides a thorough rebuttal. Two points of his are especially worth highlighting. The first is that the Pentagon spokesman appears to greatly exaggerate the harm that might be caused by naming these groups and thus “inflating” them. As Sheehan said at the hearing, to qualify as an associated force a group “has to be in co-belligerent status with al Qaeda operating against the United States.” Presumably, then, as Goldsmith notes, they are already “on the receiving end of U.S. or U.S-supported military operations,” a fact that would already be well known on the ground in whichever country they operate in. That would be “a spur to recruitment” whether or not Washington officially acknowledges it. Put another way, if an organization is already doing something that makes it enough of a threat to the United States to be put on this list, it’s hard to see what officially naming it as such would do to meaningfully add to this threat.
Second, whether or not there is a marginal benefit to keeping the list classified, the Pentagon’s statement fails to take into account any of the corresponding costs. In Goldsmith’s words:
There is a countervailing interest in disclosure that the DOD statement does not discuss: The American People’s interest in knowing against whom, and where, U.S. military forces are engaged in war in its name. Such knowledge – which at the May AUMF hearing many members of even the Armed Services Committee seemed to lack – is minimally necessary for the American people to assess the quality, prudence, and necessity of our military efforts.
This is the key point: it is quite simply impossible for the U.S. public to exercise any level of democratic accountability over its government on issues of war and peace when the government will not even say publicly who it considers itself to be at war with.
In his May 23 speech at the National Defense University, President Obama said, “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” This is an entirely sensible reframing, both for the government in conducting its operations and for the public in making sense of them. But if the president is really interested in getting the public to think about the conflict as a series of “targeted efforts” rather than a boundless global war, the least he could do is define for us exactly who those efforts are targeted against.