Blogs: The Skeptics

The Golden Rule of Foreign Policy

The Skeptics

The crescendo for action in Syria continues to grow. From Left to Right, from pundit to politician, the cry is “Do something!”

No surprise, the U.S. Senate’s so-called “Three Amigos,” Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), long have been calling for war. But then, there are few countries in which they do not want to go to war.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently penned a column entitled “Obama AWOL in Syria.” He didn’t urge an invasion—not yet, anyway—but wanted to aid the rebels. And he cited a variety of people pushing more active military involvement, such as a no-fly, no-drive zone.

Naturally, Kristof didn’t spend much time on the risk of things turning out badly. He might have asked Madeleine Albright, whom he quoted in favor of intervention, about the havoc wreaked by the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo after the administration she served lent them America’s air force. But she probably didn’t notice.

Kristof does have an idea on how to limit any ill consequences. He cited Anne-Marie Slaughter’s proposal for military intervention on behalf of rebels who behave nicely. “Some Free Syrian Army commanders have signed such a code of conduct,” he enthused.

At least Kristof opposed the Iraq invasion. Most members of the perpetual-war party exhibit no shame. They just glide past the wreckage of their earlier military crusades and beat the war drums again. For some, war is the ultimate panacea. For instance, Sen. McCain has proposed attacking North Korea and Iran. He wanted to confront Russia when it battled Georgia. He advocated war forever in Iraq and Afghanistan, if necessary. And, of course, he wants action in Syria.

Perhaps even more striking is Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who criticized the president for his “risky, do-nothing doctrine.” The Afghans are afraid the United States is leaving (of course, only after eleven years of costly nation building). The administration isn’t prepared for confrontation with Iran (even though U.S. intelligence agencies find no evidence of an active weapons program, which would seem to be necessary to conceivably justify war). And President Obama is doing nothing in Syria, where the “civil war is approaching genocide” (it’s a nasty conflict, but genocide it most certainly isn’t, and a lot of conflicts have been far worse).

This argument seems particularly disconnected coming from someone who worked for George W. Bush, whose presidency was defined by the Iraq war. We were promised cakewalks, freedom on the march and pro-American democracy. Instead, the result was a ravaged society, a tidal wave of crime and violence, and bitter guerrilla conflict and even more brutal sectarian war. Casualty estimates vary wildly, but a couple hundred thousand Iraqi civilians likely died. The historic Christian community was destroyed. Millions of people were forced from their homes. Add to all that the slow authoritarian and pro-Iranian drift.

People who helped generate such horror should take a deep breath before demanding that Washington again let loose the dogs of war.

Doctors long ago taught us that the first duty of those who would help is to do no harm. That should be the first plank of any foreign policy as well.

Four Syrian Scenarios

The Skeptics

As the fighting in Syria intensifies, it is evident that there are four plausible outcomes. Unfortunately, most of them are rather unpleasant for both regional stability and Western values.

The following scenarios are in ascending order of probability.

The Assad regime manages to suppress the rebellion. If it had not been for outside interference, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Turkey but secondarily from the United States and its core European allies, this would have been the most likely outcome. Given that interference, though, Assad’s days appear to be numbered. The Assad family’s rule was always a fragile one, based on a tacit coalition of its Alawite followers together with Christians and other religious/ethnic minorities. That “government of the minorities” faced the daunting task of maintaining control over the majority Sunni Arab population. The decision by Saudi Arabia and Turkey to fund and arm their Sunni brethren, who dominate the so-called Free Syrian Army, has likely made continued rule by the Alawite-led regime untenable.

The Free Syrian Army ousts Assad and manages a transition to a multireligious, multiethnic democratic Syria. This outcome is Washington’s fondest hope, but the odds are heavily against it. Although the FSA is likely to prevail militarily—at least in most areas of the country—the emergence of a democratic political system is a long shot. Not only does Syria lack a meaningful democratic tradition, it has a weak economy and civil society. That is worrisome, since a strong economy and a vibrant civil society are important factors for a stable, tolerant, democratic system. And there are the stark religious and ethnic divisions in Syria. The combination of all of these factors makes the emergence of a democratic Syria highly unlikely.

The insurgents win a decisive victory and establish an authoritarian state. Ominously, radical Islamist elements appear to be ascendant within the insurgency, and rebel units are already engaging in practices reminiscent of Al Qaeda. That development is unsurprising since Saudi Arabia’s theocratic regime has such a prominent sponsoring role. Even if the rebels can gain and maintain control of most of the country (a very big assumption), a post-Assad Syria is more likely to be Islamist and authoritarian than democratic. Indeed, authoritarian elements seem even better positioned for victory over secular, democratic factions in Syria than they are in Iraq, Egypt and Libya—and democratic fortunes over the long term are none too good in any of those countries.

Syria fragments into religious and ethnic enclaves or ministates. Given Syria’s complex ethnic and religious composition, this is the most probable outcome. Assad’s Alawite-dominated military shows signs of trying to establish an Alawite-Christian redoubt in the western part of the country. Absent massive interference by Turkey (or the United States and principal European allies), that coalition may have enough strength to sustain such an entity. However, that development would likely be the first, not the last, stage of Syria’s fragmentation. Syria’s Kurds are already establishing armed checkpoints in the northeast, where they are most numerous. The chance to form a de facto independent Kurdish state (a la the Kurdish region in Iraq) could prove irresistible.

All of the plausible scenarios have negative implications for regional stability. Syria has already become the pawn of a nasty power play involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Assad’s continued rule would still face a simmering Sunni-led insurgency backed by both Ankara and Riyadh. Conversely, a definitive Sunni victory, whether that led to a democratic or authoritarian Syria, would provoke countermeasures by the leading Shiite power, Iran. And a fragmented Syria would be an arena for endless brass knuckles maneuvers by all of those powers.

Pundits in the West who assume that Assad’s ouster would usher in an era of stability and freedom are as delusional as they were when they made the same assumption about the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Syria and the greater region are in for a very bumpy ride. And Washington would be well-advised to stay off of that dangerous roller coaster.

Image: PanARMENIAN_photo

Felipe Calderón’s Arrogant Call for U.S. Gun Control

The Skeptics

The blood had barely dried in the tragic Aurora, Colorado, shooting before Mexican president Felipe Calderón put the blame on permissive U.S. gun laws. In a post on his Twitter account, Calderón offered his condolences to the victims but then added that the incident showed that “the American Congress must review its mistaken legislation on guns. It’s doing damage to us all.”

It was hardly a new theme from Mexico’s lame-duck president. But his latest statement requires an extraordinary amount of gall. During Calderón’s presidency, more than fifty thousand of his people have died in the war on drugs that he chose to escalate. A foreign leader with that awful of a track record daring to lecture the United States on its policies regarding firearms is not likely to sit well with most Americans.

But Calderón repeatedly has blamed U.S. gun laws rather than his decision to launch a military-led offensive against the drug cartels for the resulting violence in his country. The Mexican government even posted a massive sign on the border with the United States between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso reading “No More Weapons!” The sign was made from recycled guns seized by Mexican security forces.

But the location of that sign undercuts Calderón’s own argument. Juarez has been for the past five years the epicenter of gun violence in Mexico. Yet El Paso has a very low violent-crime rate. If “lax” U.S. gun laws were the cause of the carnage in Juarez, wouldn’t El Paso also be awash in blood? Some other factor must account for the extraordinary violence south of the border.

Extensive research on restrictive gun laws in both U.S. and foreign jurisdictions shows no correlation between tough laws and a decline in homicides and other crimes. Mexico’s own experience confirms that point. Following sometimes violent radical leftist challenges to the government in the late 1960s, Mexico enacted some of the strictest gun-control measures in the world. Today, it is nearly impossible for a civilian to possess a handgun or rifle legally in that country. Yet such tough restrictions have done nothing to disarm the drug gangs. In fact, those measures may have made it easier for cartel enforcers to terrorize portions of the country, since they don’t have to worry much about law-abiding civilians being armed and able to defend themselves and their families.

Conversely, the trend over the past decade or so in various jurisdictions throughout the United States toward conceal-carry and other permissive policies regarding firearms has not produced the surge of killings that gun-control zealots predicted. To the contrary, the rates of homicides and other violent crimes in most of those jurisdictions have actually gone down.

Calderón should have had the decency not to exploit the Aurora tragedy to push his misguided gun-control agenda for the United States. During his remaining months in office, he should instead focus on easing the suffering that his policies have caused in his own country.

Image: expertinfantry

A Vicious Cycle of Intervention in Somalia

The Skeptics

On Sunday, the L.A. Times revealed that the United States is equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to fight Al Shabab, the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government. For now, outsourcing the combat to African countries may appear to bring America minimal risk, but Washington’s renewal of its multidecade attachment to Somalia continues a cycle of deciding its winners and losers. Among an assortment of tribes, clans and African states fighting for self-serving ends, Washington has handcuffed itself to a hornet’s nest.

The hubris of policy makers who believe they can remedy Somalia’s problems could produce policies that draw more recruits to the cause of militant groups, much as similar policies have in the past. Policy makers have failed repeatedly to bring order to the destitute African state, such as when it descended into clan-based warfare in the early 1990s.

At the time, U.S. officials agreed to enforce a March 1993 U.N. resolution that pledged to rehabilitate Somalia’s economy and reestablish national and regional institutions. State Department official David Shinn spoke of “basically re-creating a country,” while then U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright said America’s mission in Somalia “aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations.” The humanitarian mission eventually tasked America’s military with disarming Somali warlords and conducting house-to-house weapons searches. What began as U.S. leaders imbued with the best of intentions eventually ended with our brave military’s ignominious defeat.

Today, the United States fights Al Shabab by proxy. The group poses no direct threat to the security of the United States; however, exaggerated claims about the specter of Al Qaeda could produce policy decisions that exacerbate a localized, regional problem into a global one. Amid news that African troops are doing the fighting but that “The United States is doing almost everything else,” African Union forces could be seen as a puppet proxy of Uncle Sam.

Washington is supplementing the training of African troops with private contractors. Outsourcing makes intervention easier, as policy makers can hide the costs of a mission they have yet to clearly define. Intervention on the cheap also becomes costly in other ways. For a commander in chief who allegedly believes he should take moral responsibility for America’s lethal counterterrorism operations, privatizing intervention allows him and his administration to escape accountability should the forces we train, or the weapons we provide, turn against us or our allies.

Like moths to a flame, disparate Somali groups may rally around the perception they are fighting against the injustice of foreign meddling. Moreover, while military analysts were boasting back in June that Al Shabab could be facing the end of its once-powerful rule, questions surrounding what form of political stability will fill the Al Shabab vacuum remain unasked and unanswered.

The United States began fighting Al Shabab after December 2006, when Washington backed Ethiopia in toppling Somalia’s loose network of Islamist sharia courts. The intervention backfired. The Islamist movement grew more powerful, and today U.S. officials fear Al Qaeda could gain a foothold unless Al Shabab is defeated.

Sadly, America's history of intervention in Somalia aptly demonstrates the resiliency of unintended consequences. Although developments in Somalia have some observers arguing that America should become more involved, the more reasonable conclusion to draw—looking at the historical record—is that America has tried and failed repeatedly to transform Somalia at an acceptable cost.

Image: U.S. Army Africa

Serial Innumeracy on Homeland Security

The Skeptics

At hearings of the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee earlier this month, former congresswoman Jane Harman (D-CA), now head of the Wilson Center in Washington, made a gallant stab at coming up with, and hailing, some homeland-security functions that “execute well.”

At the top of Harman’s list was the observation that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) last year stopped more than 3,100 individuals from boarding U.S.-bound aircraft at foreign airports for national-security reasons. Since these were plucked out of more than fifteen million travelers that went through fifteen preclearance locations overseas, it was, she exclaimed enthusiastically, “like picking needles from a haystack!”

Committee chair Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) waxed even more enthusiastic about the number, concluding grandly that it “took very sophisticated data systems and implementation of those systems to make that happen” and that “we’re all safer as a result of it.”

This was an exercise in serial innumeracy, of course, because the relevant statistic is not how many individuals were denied entry but how many of those denied actually presented a security threat. Neither enthusiast presented relevant data, but, judging from the fact that no one apparently was arrested (we’d tend to know if they had been), the number was likely just about zero. Nor was information presented about the problems or costly inconvenience inflicted upon the many who were likely waylaid in error.

Moreover, it is not clear where the Harman/Lieberman number even comes from. According to Homeland Security officials interviewed by Michael Schmidt for a recent article in the New York Times, only 250 people in each of the last two years were turned away or even pulled aside for questioning as potential national security risks by preclearance screeners. Maybe CBP is even more “sophisticated” at picking needles from haystacks than Harman and Lieberman give it credit for. Does that mean we’re even safer as a result? Or less so?

Schmidt also supplies information that calls into question the whole preclearance enterprise. Stimulated in considerable measure by the failed underwear-bomber attempt to blow up an airliner flying from Europe to Detroit in 2009, the program is, as Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano stresses “an expensive proposition.” Although it has been instituted so far only in airports in Canada, the Caribbean and Ireland, it already costs $115 million a year. Expansion to hundreds of other airports (including the one the underwear bomber actually took off from) is not only costly but also requires a major diplomatic effort because it involves cajoling foreign governments into granting the United States police-like powers on their own soil. The program has not foiled any major plots thus far, notes Schmidt, and he pointedly adds that it would scarcely be difficult for a would-be terrorist to avoid the few airports with preclearance screening to board at one of the many that do not enjoy that security frill.

But the main innumeracy issue in all this is that the key question, as usual when homeland security is up for consideration, is simply left out of the discussion. The place to begin is not “are we safer” with the security measure in place but how safe are we without it.

We have calculated that, for the twelve-year period from 1999 through 2010 (which includes 9/11, of course), there was one chance in twenty-two million that an airplane flight would be hijacked or otherwise attacked by terrorists.

The question that should be asked of the numerically challenged, then, is the one posed a decade ago by risk analyst Howard Kunreuther: “How much should we be willing to pay for small reductions in probabilities that are already extremely low?”