The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
Timbuktu is in the news these days, as Malian forces, aided by French paratroopers, took the city this week from al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who had held it for nearly a year. But for decades the very word Timbuktu seemed to convey a place that time forgot. In fact, when it was invoked, it was almost always as a metaphor denoting the very end of the earth.
That is why Richard Halliburton, a famous journalistic adventurer of the era between the world wars, made a point of visiting there in the early 1930s. After all, he had hid out all night in the Taj Mahal, flown near the summit of Mt. Everest, crossed the Alps on an elephant as Hannibal had done, and located and interviewed the last surviving assassin of Russia’s royal Romanov family. And he had written about all that and more in is bestselling books. So why not fly to what people in the West understood colloquially to be the end of the earth?
Once there, he and his pilot, Moye Stephens, were promptly taken in by the renowned Frenchman Pere Yakouba, an Augustinian monk who had fled modernity to study the remote region and its people. It was thoroughly characteristic of Halliburton’s penchant for connecting with interesting people during his wide-ranging travels and availing himself of their hospitality and tutelage.
He found himself quite fascinated by the Timbuktu slave market, where people seemed to embrace with utter casualness the practice of slavery as just a normal part of life. No one seemed agitated by it, not even the slaves. Spying a lively young boy on the auction block, Halliburton promptly bought him as part of his ongoing endeavor to experience life in far-flung precincts of the world as the natives did.
He developed a strong affection for the lad, though he hardly seemed worth the auction price, given his blithe refusal to respond to any directive, no matter how cheerfully or sternly delivered. Eventually, he gave the boy his freedom, along with enough money to provide an actual start in life, and he and Stephens flew off in search of new adventures. He told the story of his Timbuktu visit, and his brief career as slave master, in his next book, The Flying Carpet, published in 1932.
Today’s Timbuktu may be far away from big cities and modern bustle, but it certainly can’t be considered at the end of the earth. The French are there, trying to thwart an Islamist takeover of Mali, and the United States wants to build a base in nearby Niger so it can fly Predator drones over African nations beset by Islamist militants, including Mali. The “war on terror,” as they call it, is spreading with a seemingly inexorable force.
But it’s interesting to contemplate a time when the city represented to Westerners not much more than the romance of adventuresome travel and a place where local customs, however primitive or outrageous, were deemed to be simply fascinating examples of how other people lived.
DARPA, the Pentagon subsidiary charged with developing new technology, has released information about its newly developed 1.8-gigapixel spy camera, and the specs are truly stunning. ARGUS-IS, as the project is known, is thought to be highest-resolution camera in the world with the ability to recognize six-inch targets from over twenty thousand feet.
The landmark video camera can be attached to unmanned drones and transfer over six hundred gigabytes of data per second. Its storage capacity is equally impressive: ARGUS can hold up to five thousand hours of extremely high-resolution video footage.
According to ExtremeTech.com, “If ARGUS were hovering over New York City, it could observe half of Manhattan. Two ARGUS-equipped drones, and the US could keep an eye on the entirety of Manhattan, 24/7.”
Aside from the incredible technological feat this machine represents, considering ARGUS in the context of Moore’s Law raises legitimate questions. The rate of technological advance always seems to outpace our preparedness for the resulting new geopolitical vulnerabilities. Are we ready for ARGUS? And who else, friend or foe, will eventually harness this powerful tool?
Stephen Walt has an entertaining post up at Foreign Policy in which he wonders what would happen if one of our senior U.S. foreign-policy officials took a truth serum and just started talking about America’s approach to global affairs. What impolitic truths would they reveal? He then offers a list of the “Top Five Truths You Won't Hear Any U.S. Official Admit,” which are:
#1: "We're never gonna get rid of our nuclear weapons."
#2: "We don't actually care that much about human rights."
#3: "There's not going to be a two-state solution."
#4: "We like being #1, and we're going to stay there just as long as we can."
#5: "We do a lot of stupid things in foreign policy. Get used to it."
This is a pretty good list, but it’s worth observing that #4 is in fact something that American officials say, and even trumpet loudly, quite frequently. It may not be phrased exactly in the crude terms of “we’re number one,” and it’s more often couched in phrases like “global leadership.” But grand references to America’s position at the apex of world power, along with pledges to maintain and build on that power, are common from leading figures of both political parties. Consider these words from President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address:
Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. . . . America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs—and as long as I’m President, I intend to keep it that way.
Or, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2010:
The United States can, must and will lead in this new century. Indeed, the complexities and connections of today's world have yielded a new American moment, a moment when our global leadership is essential.
Or, as Mitt Romney put it in his foreign-policy speech at the Citadel in 2011:
I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.
Moreover, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Obama’s and Romney’s remarks both illustrate this point well. In both cases, these men were drawing on other previous, well-known statements. Obama’s “indispensable nation” phrase was first popularized by Madeleine Albright in the 1990s, and Romney’s “American Century” derives from the title of Henry Luce’s famous 1941 Life essay. Indeed, the practice of U.S. officials telling audiences both foreign and domestic how powerful their nation is, and how they intend to keep it that way, is by this point a time-honored tradition.
Over at the Atlantic, Kathy Gilsinan has a piece that is a dead-on parody of more or less the entirety of America’s public discourse on foreign policy. Written in the style of a Mad Lib, it provides a template for justifying any and all policy prescriptions. Here’s a sample:
The fact is that [fact] is of global concern in an increasingly interconnected world. The implications for the United States specifically are not yet clear. But one thing that is clear is that growing [noun] cannot simply be wished away. The [current U.S. president] administration must do more to shape events on the ground, lest they [verb] in a manner that runs contrary to American interests. The danger of continuing to embrace an [adjective] approach to the issue would be hard to overstate. In the short term, it would almost certainly result in [overstatement of danger]. The long-term consequences could be more dangerous still.
There are a number of reasons why this satire works so well. One is definitely the writing style, which hits all the right buzzwords and clichés. But perhaps the most important is that it perfectly skewers the all-too-common tendency among U.S. commentators and government officials to rely on exaggeration and threat inflation. Each situation becomes characterized as “the greatest danger,” “an unparalleled threat” and so on.
For a real-life example of this trend at work, we only need to look at outgoing secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s testimony yesterday on Benghazi. In questioning, Rand Paul, a new member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the attack “the worst tragedy since 9/11.” (As if to preemptively deny that he was exaggerating, he immediately followed this up with the phrase: “And I really mean that.”)
Without diminishing the significance of the Benghazi attack or the four lives that were lost there, it should be immediately clear that this is nonsense. Consider, for example, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in which roughly a quarter million people were killed. Or, if we want to limit ourselves to American examples, consider the Iraq War or Hurricane Katrina, both of which had death tolls that outstripped Benghazi by orders of magnitude. Or Fort Hood, Aurora or Newtown—the list could go on and on. The point is simply that, assuming Paul was being serious and not just trying to score political points, his claim is both wildly inaccurate and represents the worst kind of Mad Libs–style thinking when it comes to foreign policy.
At the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outgoing defense secretary Leon Panetta announced today that female service members will now formally be allowed to serve in combat roles.
According to the Washington Post:
The Army, by far the largest fighting force, currently excludes women from nearly 25 percent of active-duty roles. A senior defense official said the Pentagon expects to open “many positions” to women this year; senior commanders will have until January 2016 to ask for exceptions.
Congratulations to the forces for taking another step towards gender equality. I think anyone who would like to risk his or her life for U.S. safety should be commended, and I happen to agree wholeheartedly with Anu Bhagwati, a former marine and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, who said, “Every time equality is recognized and meritocracy is enforced, it helps everyone, and it will help professionalize the force.”
Unfortunately, some of the more short-sighted among us, including Newsweek editor David Frum, don't see it this way. Frum went on CNN to enumerate his concerns.
In response to Frum's "three points."
1. Women will cause—and have already caused—a decrease in overall military qualifications.
The U.S. Army has not lowered physical fitness or endurance standards for all because women are in the forces. Period. There are different physical standards for men and women in some parts of the military. In others, such as the U.S. Army Rangers, men and women are held to exactly the same fitness standard. To insinuate that everyone now gets to do forty push-ups and join the army because that's what women can pass with just isn't accurate. (Spoiler alert: All active-duty women can do more push-ups than David Frum.)
2. There is a risk of harm to female personnel in combat, including rape and sexual abuse.
First off, we must dispel the notion that women don't serve in combat already. This announcement makes it formal, but women have long served on the front lines. Many people—women AND men—are raped every day in the military, both in combat and simply via solider-on-solider crime in their units. Sexual abuse and torture are problems that plague all people in war zones, not just women. The problem is already there; it is not waiting to happen.
3. The stress on military families is too great.
Families break up under the stress of deployment, PTSD, death in combat as well as a host of other issues that accompany military service. Numerous families have a father or mother deployed right now. The challenges these families face will not change. There will just be new, formally recognized opportunities for women who are already in the forces.
Women formally serve in combat in many countries already, including Canada, Israel, New Zealand and Australia. America has set a smart precedent by joining their ranks.
Many [corporate leaders] are brought down by making a strategic error, of which there are six common varieties. There is the Do-It-All strategy, shorthand for failing to make real choices about priorities. The Don Quixote strategy unwisely attacks the company’s strongest competitor first. The Waterloo strategy pursues war on too many fronts at once. The Something-For-Everyone tries to capture every sort of customer at once, rather than prioritising. The Programme-Of-The-Month eschews distinctiveness for whatever strategy is currently fashionable in an industry. The Dreams-That-Never-Come-True strategy never translates ambitious mission statements into clear choices about which markets to compete in and how to win in them.
America’s approach to the world seems to suffer from each in places, but the main problem seems to be a Do-It-All strategy. Consider the piece Christopher Preble wrote in these spaces on Monday, which argued that the Pentagon would—like a business—have to make “difficult but necessary trade-offs” as its budget comes under new constraints.
If compelled to choose between more [ballistic missile submarines], more attack submarines, or more conventional surface combatants, what would the admirals pick? . . . Likewise, the Air Force should be asked whether the marginal benefits that would accrue from retaining the bomber leg of the nuclear triad are worth having fewer F-35s, fewer tankers, or fewer bombers dedicated solely to conventional strike missions.
Making trade-offs like these requires an estimation of what sorts of missions Washington will send its military on in the future, what enemies it will confront and where it will confront them. A Navy with lots of attack submarines, for instance, will be suited for confronting an enemy that is strong enough to use and control some of the sea in spite of U.S. efforts; those attack subs will be less suited for confronting piracy. A Navy with lots of surface combatants will excel at a range of missions, yet may struggle with an enemy skilled in sea denial. A Navy with lots of ballistic missile subs might come in handy if we anticipate some new Cold War-style confrontation, but it won’t be as good at sea control or securing logistical support for land operations.
In choosing what to cut, then, military leaders will have to accept that there will be certain missions and methods of protecting our interests that we’ll have to forgo. We’ll be tying our hands. Thus, we need a robust concept of what our most crucial interests are and how we are to go about securing them, so we can determine which capabilities are least vital. The United States currently has no such robust concept, and the costs of that are visible far beyond the world of defense acquisitions. We have spent thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars propping up the government of Afghanistan, one of the world’s most peripheral countries; we are simultaneously containing and not-containing China; we responded to a civil conflict in Libya as though our own security depended on the outcome, and paid a significant diplomatic price in the process. Without a strategy, U.S. foreign policy is just a disjointed set of actions related to things we think are important.
Successful strategies, say the authors of Playing to Win, require answers to five questions: what winning is, where to compete, how to compete, what unique strengths can add to competitiveness, and what things need the most attention to get to the win. Can our foreign-policy leaders answer those questions about America in the world?
Over at the New Yorker, George Packer looks forward to President Obama’s second inaugural address next Monday. He observes that “great political speechmaking depends on turns of phrase joined to profound ideas that answer the pressures of a historical moment.” Today’s moment, he says, with the government stagnant and a number of issues competing for attention, “comes at an inauspicious moment for political rhetoric.” This “suggests that next week’s speech will be a bit of a snooze.”
Nevertheless, Packer hopes that the president will aim big:
I hope that Obama the writer finds some vivid prose for the occasion; that Obama the thinker treats us like his intellectual equals, as he did in Philadelphia and Oslo; and that Obama the man allows himself the risk of deep feeling, as he did in Tucson and Newtown. Most of all, I hope Obama the politician is willing to say things that some people might not want to hear.
But as Packer hints at, it’s not just the historical record that points toward a “snooze”—it’s Obama’s personal style as well. Obama has often been at his best when grappling with big issues, as in his 2008 campaign speech on race in Philadelphia and his Nobel speech in Oslo. An inaugural address, by contrast, does not lend itself to the kind of critical, long-form examination of a specific theme like the problems of race in America or the question of when war is justified.
Moreover, attempting to be too bold in identifying and interpreting the historical moment can sometimes backfire. Recall that our previous president, George W. Bush, used his second inaugural address as an aggressive articulation and defense of the global “freedom agenda.” In a statement that historian John Gaddis argues represents the purest statement of a “Bush Doctrine,” he declared:
It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
Bush went on to say that advancing this goal “is not primarily the task of arms.” But as we now know, a decision that he had already made—to promote this goal through armed regime change in Iraq—would ensure that his second term would be overshadowed by that country’s downward spiral into chaos. The result was that Bush’s gauzy rhetoric about freedom and democracy would ring hollow to many in America and around the world.
So will Obama speak to history and grand themes on Monday? It’s possible. But if he doesn’t, if he plays it safe and gives a mostly forgettable speech, no one should be all that surprised or disappointed. Indeed, as Michael Kazin points out, those presidents who have given the most celebrated inaugural addresses have generally contradicted their words with their subsequent actions anyway.
Are the Pentagon's impressive new tools for strategic planning undermining its effectiveness? In the Spectator, Andrew Bacevich describes the "strategic seminars" led by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The off-campus, informal sessions, which were profiled extensively in the New York Times last year, utilize a basketball court-sized map. Designed to encourage planners to think on a grand scale, the map is easy to lampoon. But Bacevich has a larger point about the dangers of oversimplification:
[U]nlike Dempsey’s map, the real world is not fixed. Contra Tom Friedman, it’s not flat. And it’s not small. At a Pentagon strategic seminar you might stroll from Quantico to Cape Town for a cup of coffee without the boss even noticing you’ve left your post. In the real world, the trip’s more difficult.
Yet Dempsey’s map hints at the dirty secret that members of the fraternity of strategists, civilian and military alike, are loath to acknowledge. The formulation of strategy begins by assuming away complexity, reducing reality to a convenient caricature. Strategic analysis is almost by definition dumbed-down analysis. To conjure up solutions, you start by simplifying the problem.
Technology has provided many tools that make "assuming away complexity" very easy. The chief culprit is perhaps not maps that belong on game shows, but Microsoft's PowerPoint slide presentation software, which is apparently the primary means of communication in today's Pentagon. As another Times article explains, "Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs."
When Powerpoint slides do attempt to portray complexity, it often results in something unintelligible, such as this 2010 attempt to explain the mission in Afghanistan:
Whether a giant floor map or vague bullet points on a slide, new tools are no substitute for the kind of analytical rigor demanded by the written form. Sometimes you must first open some books and sharpen your pencil.
Last week, The Buzz highlighted a new report by Micah Zenko on drone strikes, which argues for reforms in U.S. policies concerning targeted killings overseas. Among the points Zenko makes is that the drone war that the Obama administration is conducting is proceeding with limited to no oversight from Congress. As he notes, “Despite nearly ten years of nonbattlefield targeted killings, no congressional committee has conducted a hearing on any aspect of them.”
This subject is particularly timely. The beginning of 2013 saw a noticeable uptick in the frequency of drone strikes, with the United States conducting seven strikes in Pakistan over the first ten days of the year (compared to an average of about one per week in 2012). During this time, President Obama also nominated John Brennan, his chief counterterrorism adviser and the principal architect of the U.S. drone program, to serve as the next director of the CIA. Brennan’s nomination and confirmation hearings, therefore, should serve as an opportunity for senators to assert their role in overseeing the drone program and ask serious questions about where U.S. drone policy is going in the next four years.
A welcome step in this direction came today from Senator Ron Wyden, who serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In a letter to Brennan, Wyden requests answers on a whole range of issues related to targeted killings. Chief among them is the important question of under what conditions the U.S. government has the legal authority to kill American citizens. Wyden notes that “senior intelligence officials have said publicly that they have the authority to knowingly use lethal force against Americans.” However, this authority is justified by “secret legal opinions issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel,” which Wyden says he has asked to see repeatedly but has been so far denied. In response to the lack of concrete answers, Wyden makes the crucial point:
This situation is unacceptable. For the executive branch to claim that intelligence agencies have the authority to knowingly kill American citizens but refuse to provide Congress with any and all legal opinions that explain the executive branch’s understanding of this authority represents an alarming and indefensible assertion of executive prerogative.
Wyden’s letter is worth reading in full, but one other aspect of it is especially noteworthy. On the second page there is this rather amazing statement:
My staff and I have been asking for over a year for the complete list of countries in which the intelligence community has used its lethal counterterrorism authorities. To my surprise and dismay, the intelligence community has declined to provide me with the complete list.
What a quaint notion: the idea that the American people—or, at the very least, their elected representatives on the relevant congressional committees—have a right to know in which countries their government has killed people overseas. The fact that Wyden (not to mention the rest of us) has been refused this information so far is a scandal. We can only hope that as Brennan’s confirmation process proceeds and as the second Obama term unfolds, other members of Congress will join him in taking their oversight role seriously and demanding answers to these types of questions.
The AP reports that U.S. military suicides have surged to the highest level ever recorded:
Pentagon figures obtained Monday by The Associated Press show that the 349 suicides among active-duty troops last year were up from 301 the year before and exceeded the Pentagon’s own internal projection of 325. . . . Last year’s total is the highest since the Pentagon began closely tracking suicides in 2001. It exceeds the 295 Americans who died in Afghanistan last year, by the AP’s count.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that the military is dealing with some tough issues these days. While not explicitly linked, the concurrent modern-day epidemics of suicide and rape in the armed forces are rather unnerving. Particularly disturbing is the seemingly rampant abuse of the "adjustment disorder" diagnosis. In a reported piece titled "The Enemy Within" earlier this year, National Journal's James Kitfield found that sexual-assault victims, often viewed within the forces as "problematic" to their units, were labeled as having so-called adjustment disorders and washed out of the military. Similarly, the AP report on one particular suicide seems to set off warning bells as the same adjustment-disorder language crops up again:
One such case was Army Spc. Christopher Nguyen, 29, who killed himself last August at an off-post residence he shared with another member of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., according to his sister, Shawna Nguyen.
“He was practically begging for help and nothing was done,” she said in an interview.
She said he had been diagnosed with an “adjustment disorder” — a problem of coping with the uncertainties of returning home after three deployments in war zones. She believes the Army failed her brother by not doing more to ensure that he received the help he needed before he became suicidal.
Kitfield's piece earlier this year followed Petty Officer 3rd Class Jenny McClendon:
McClendon says she was assaulted again by an investigator while based in Norfolk, Va. This time, when she reported the attack, her lieutenant called her a “whore” and sent her to a Navy therapist, who suggested that she was a bad fit for the Navy. “Essentially, I was diagnosed with a personality disorder for failing to adjust adequately to being raped,” McClendon says, even though “borderline psychotics. . .could never make it through boot camp.”
It seems, if anything, that the military is not adequately adjusting to the reality of these sad and tragic problems. So far, no additional measures have been taken to combat the unprecedented number of military suicides, and there is still no civilian oversight agency for the reporting of violent crimes in the forces.