The Skeptics

Realists Are Right

The Skeptics

Readers with interest in the ongoing discussion about realism in U.S. foreign policy (see Dan Drezner here, Justin Logan here) may want to visit Sebastian Rosato’s and my response, posted yesterday at Drezner’s blog. As the authors of a recent article on the subject, we have a keen interest in this debate.

The author’s views are his own and do not represent those of the Air War College, the Air Force or the Department of Defense.

TopicsCivil SocietyMuckety MucksGrand StrategyPublic OpinionPolitical TheoryPolitics

Why Libertarians Are Skeptics (But not all Skeptics Are Libertarians)

The Skeptics

Earlier this week at Cato-@-Liberty, David Boaz posted a very useful and timely response to a Heritage Foundation view of military spending that will likely be of interest to a wide audience.

The Heritage “charticle” published in Tuesday’s print edition of The Washington Examiner, showed that military spending as a share of total government spending had fallen, and that entitlement spending consumes a larger share of the federal budget than it did three or four decades ago. But we didn’t really need fancy charts to know that. David included a few charts of his own, and closed with an important challenge. Surely, Heritage scholars wouldn’t:

suggest that U.S. national security should be measured by the relationship of military spending to entitlement spending. Surely we would agree that military spending must be sufficient to ensure U.S. security and not tied to some extraneous factor. So I invite the creators and promoters of the…chart to explain exactly what they think it proves.

Boaz also alludes to serious disagreements between some conservatives* and many libertarians about the foreign policy tradition of the Founders. David linked to a true gem from the archives—Ted Galen Carpenter’s essay on the Constitution and U.S. foreign policy from 1987. But others have written on this topic, including Justin Logan in a more recent issue of Cato Policy Report. And I discuss the historical roots of restraint in my book, The Power Problem.

As it happens, I was in Naples, Florida yesterday giving a talk on the subject, and my video discussing libertarian foreign policy was recently posted at

In the video, and in my lecture last evening, I stressed the Founders’ deep and abiding skepticism of government, and their fears of, in George Washington’s words, “those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty.” In drafting the Constitution, James Madison aimed to prevent the new nation from acquiring such a military by limiting the federal government’s ability to wage foreign wars (through restrictions on funding for the military) and by constraining the one branch most prone to initiate war, the executive.

He saw the vesting of the war powers in the legislature, not the executive branch, to be one of the most important provisions of the entire document. Madison explained the rationale in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.”

Such sentiments strike many today as unnecessarily unwieldy, and perhaps even dangerous. They doubt the wisdom of having foreign policy conducted by 535 de facto secretaries of state. The world is simply too dangerous, they say; the president of the United States must have the power to initiate wars unencumbered by the doubts of the public who will actually fight them and pay for them.

There were no doubt some in the late eighteenth century who believed much the same thing. Though the Congress was much smaller then, the politics were just as nasty. Gridlock was the rule. Meanwhile, the dangers facing the dis-united states were far greater than what we confront today. But by fortunate circumstances as much as by design, a foreign and military policy founded on—in Jefferson’s immortal words from his first inaugural address—“peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none,” survived and thrived in North America.

Libertarian skepticism of an activist foreign policy, particularly one that is prone to waging foreign wars, is also informed by F. A. Hayek’s observations on the “fatal conceit;” the erroneous belief that “man is able to shape the world around him according to his wishes.” (For more on Hayek’s theory as applied to foreign intervention, see this paper by Christopher Coyne and Rachel Mathers).

What Hayek called the knowledge problem also contributes to unintended consequences. These can be quite serious in the domestic context. They are more serious still in foreign policy. This is obvious when one recalls the rather banal point that wars aim to kill people and break things. Even well-intentioned wars—those, for example, that are designed to remove a tyrant from power and liberate an oppressed people—unleash chaos and violence that cannot be limited solely to those deserving of punishment. And repression and the stifling of human rights and individual liberty often occurs in the aftermath of wars that appear to have achieved their original objectives. (Just ask the people of Iraq.)

For all of these reasons—the expansion of state power, the problem of imperfect knowledge, the law of unintended consequences—libertarians should treat war for what it is: a necessary evil. “War cannot be avoided at all costs, but it should be avoided wherever possible,” writes Boaz in his seminal work Libertarianism: A Primer . “Proposals to involve the United States—or any government—in foreign conflict should be treated with great skepticism.”

Another argument that some conservatives advance in support of a crusading foreign policy abroad is that freedom needs a champion, and the United States is the only country that can play that role. People living under a tyrant’s heel must be liberated; the power of the U.S. military might convince the petty despot to step down. Failing that, the sharp end of American military power might deliver him to a prison, or the gallows.

But freedom has a champion—many, really—and it is a grave disservice to the work of institutions like the Cato Institute, the Atlas Foundation, the Institute for Humane Studies, and of countless other libertarian and classical liberal organizations to suggest that liberalism can only flourish under the covering fire of American armaments. Implicitly, calls for wars of liberation ignore or dismiss the progress toward liberty that has occurred during the past half century, and that has taken place peacefully. The U.S. role has largely been to provide a suitable model to emulate.

That was the approach favored by the Founders. Washington, in his Farewell Address and Jefferson in his First Inaugural Address both admonished their countrymen to steer clear of the internal affairs of foreign powers. Both were anxious for the United States to avoid unnecessary wars. Any claim that Washington or Jefferson secretly aspired to promote their ideas around the world by force, but were unable to do so solely because the new nation was too weak militarily, ignore that the government of the early Federal period was weak by design. A government large enough to preside over an empire of liberty would likewise be able to stifle liberty at home.

* A number of outspoken conservatives, including the editors and contributors to The American Conservative, as well as Andrew Bacevich, Douglas Macgregor and Bruce Fein, articulate a conservative, originalist interpretation of U.S. foreign policy.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsGrand StrategyThe PresidencyPolitical TheorySecurity RegionsUnited States

Will 2012 Be to Iran What 1998 Was to Iraq?

The Skeptics

I have been fairly sanguine that another war in the Middle East will not occur despite the recent outbursts from both Washington and Tehran. My thinking has been that neither the administration nor the American people have much of an appetite for another war, and Congress seems to have decided that Romania would be the last country on which America would ever declare war (during World War II). Posturers like Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman may wish to remind themselves that if they desire a war with Iran, they are constitutionally empowered to start one, if they have the courage of their convictions and the votes of their colleagues.

However, Tuesday in the Washington Post a “senior U.S. intelligence official” admitted that the aim of President Obama’s policy with regard to Iran is—wait for it—“regime collapse.” In the same article, another “administration official” says that this is not true, offering this entirely unconvincing explanation:

The notion that we’ve crossed into sanctions being about regime collapse is incorrect. We still very much have a policy that is rooted in the notion that you need to supply sufficient pressure to compel [the government] to change behavior as it’s related to their nuclear program.

And now the Post is running a correction saying that the “regime collapse” bit was wrong, and that a better formulation of what the first official was saying is that the sanctions are designed to “build public discontent that will help compel the government to abandon an alleged nuclear weapons program.” It’s worth examining what exactly is going on here.

For instance, when it comes to the amended comment from the first official and the analysis of the second official, how exactly are sanctions supposed to create pressure that will compel the Iranian government to change its behavior on its nuclear program? Presumably via creating fear in the Iranian government that public unrest resulting from the pain imposed by sanctions could bring down the regime. This sounds eerily similar to the model that has worked so well for the United States in places like Cuba and Iraq.

More generally, all of this is getting a very uncomfortable feeling about it. In 1998 when the Democratic president Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, under pressure by usual suspects from the Beltway foreign-policy community, few people clearly foresaw the wreckage of the 2000s. But once the Bush administration decided to take the country to war, the neoconservatives who were pushing the war were at pains to point out that their preferred policy was hardly some sort of Straussian conspiracy that their critics alleged—after all, it was the liberal Democratic president Bill Clinton who made regime change the policy of the United States! Don’t blame us!

I don’t know who will be the next president and neither do you. But this sounds to my ear very much like one more click of the “regime-change ratchet,” regardless of who winds up in the Oval Office in 2013.

TopicsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesPoliticsSecurity RegionsIran

Dan Drezner Is (Partly) Wrong about Realism

The Skeptics

I read with interest both Robert Kaplan’s profile of John Mearsheimer and Dan Drezner’s response to it. Drezner centers on Mearsheimer’s idea that America is a uniquely antirealist place and calls baloney. According to Drezner, this is

a sloppy argument lacking in empirical foundation. Just for starters, even realists acknowledge that Ron Paul's campaign is doing well because it's sympatico with the realist critique of American foreign policy.

First, I have seen no evidence that Ron Paul’s campaign is doing well because of, rather than despite, his foreign-policy views, although it would be reassuring to someone like me if I could be convinced of this.

Dan points to his article about realism in American public opinion as a rejoinder, which to my mind did call into doubt that American public opinion is inherently antirealist. Then again, Marshall Bouton and Benjamin Page surveyed the same sort of data Drezner did and concluded that American public opinion is inherently liberal. Interestingly, both Drezner and Page/Bouton judged that American policy makers regularly defy public opinion. Why? Because they can. As Page and Bouton pointed out, when members of the Washington foreign-policy elite were asked what they thought the public believed about eleven international political issues, they were only able to correctly identify what a majority thought in two cases. For a massive, tremendously secure country like the United States, foreign policy just isn’t terribly salient except for in rare occasions.

And on the occasions when foreign policy does become salient, what happens? The public follows elite cues. And who are the elites sending those cues? Neoconservatives and liberal imperialists, not realists. John Zaller, call your office.

The point is that the public may have some inchoate, a priori opinions about foreign policy, but they don’t matter all that much when it comes to influencing foreign policy. As Drezner concedes, “it’s somewhat more accurate to say that America’s foreign policy elites are more hostile to realpolitik—though even here, things can be exaggerated.” I actually don’t think that’s exaggerated at all. Can Dan name three realists who served in senior policy-making positions in the last decade? I can’t.

He closes by saying academic realists possess a “strong, cultivated sense of victimhood” despite the facts that

There is a long intellectual lineage in the American academy—starting with Hans Morgenthau and continuing with Mearsheimer and his students—that evinces realist principles. There is an equally strong intellectual lineage of policy principals—starting with George Kennan and continuing with Brent Scowcroft and his acolytes—that walk the realist walk.

Dan is right to say that there are living, breathing realists in the academy, but he is wrong to imply that there are living, breathing realists among policy principals. Brent Scowcroft will be 87 years old in March, and I think his realist credentials are far from what would qualify in the academy. Perhaps a better question for Dan would be whether he could point to three or four realists under 60 years old who are movers and shakers in the Beltway foreign-policy community. Again, I can’t.

The vast majority of realists opposed the war in Iraq, opposed the surge in Afghanistan and support pressuring the Israelis to stop expanding settlements and cut a deal with the Palestinians. Given the alleged prominence of realists in Washington, how come they’re constantly losing arguments? Why didn’t Barack Obama appoint one single person who opposed the Iraq War to a senior policy position? If Drezner is right, these are real puzzles.

But I think I know the answer. Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, had a funny line about my Cato colleagues when we were futilely opposing the Iraq War before it started:

I don't look to the Cato Institute or any of their writers for instruction on foreign policy. Is libertarianism a school of thought, or is it four or five people in a phone booth?

The academy is a different story, but when it comes to Washington, you could probably fit the bona fide realists into a phone booth as well. To my mind, that’s a big problem that goes a long way to explaining how the country got into the mess it’s in.

TopicsCivil SocietyMuckety MucksGrand StrategyPublic OpinionPolitical TheoryPoliticsSecurity

Getting Tough with Iran

The Skeptics

One would think that America’s volatile and still inconclusive intrusions into Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and, most recently, Libya would give American pundits and policy makers pause when discussing Iran. No such luck. Rather than appreciate the highly detrimental consequences unleashed by the aforementioned conflicts—some of them more harmful than others—many prominent observers seem to evince only mild unease when arguing for either attacking Iran or implementing confrontational policies that put the West on the path of attacking Iran. Such accepted wisdom is dangerous.

Iran is militarily inferior compared to the United States and Israel. Iran spends a piddling $10 billion per year on its military, compared with America’s nearly $700 billion. Ironically, American hawks are now invoking Iranian weakness as reason to deploy a U.S. naval carrier to the Persian Gulf. Though understandably intended to signal that Washington will not to be intimidated, the double-edged sword of this “get-tough” approach is that it increases the likelihood of a murky, Gulf of Tonkin-like scenario that can legitimate a unilateral strike. Even a minor, isolated incident could spiral out of control. If such a scenario were to unfold, even the most precise and targeted attacks on Iran could unleash a dangerously unpredictable chain of events, potentially triggering another war in the Gulf and possibly a short-term economic crisis.

Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, has said that a strike on Iran would be “stupid,” with more downside than upside. (Dagan has also said that Iran will not get a bomb until at least 2015.) Ephraim Halevy, another former Mossad chief, has said an attack could impact, “Israel and the entire region for 100 years” and that Iran is “far from posing an existential threat to Israel.” Former secretary of defense Robert Gates reportedly warned that bombing Iran could trigger “generations of jihadists” and spawn other unpalatable consequences. And former CIA officer Bruce Riedel has argued that “Iran’s capability to retaliate for an Israeli strike against the U.S. is enormous.”

In this respect, Iran is not as weak as, say, Afghanistan or Iraq. Afghanistan suffered more than two decades of continuous warfare before a small number of U.S. personnel teamed up with the Northern Alliance to punish al-Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban in autumn 2001. In the run up to the spring 2003 invasion of Baghdad, a great deal of Iraqi infrastructure and human capital had been destroyed during Desert Storm (1990– 91) and further impoverished, bombed and rocketed after a decade of continuous sanctions and no-fly zones.

To give context to the differences, laying out how a widened scope of potential conflict could play out may be helpful. If attacked—again, if attacked—Iran would have the casus belli to retaliate, and although Iran’s military is woefully substandard, it does possess certain asymmetric advantages that deserve consideration. A great deal has already been written about the Strait of Hormuz—the shipping gateway for one-fifth of the world’s oil. But Tehran could also use Shehab-1, -2, and -3 missiles to target U.S. personnel, camps and regional bases in Afghanistan (Herat, Kandahar and Shindand), Kuwait (Ali Al Salem, Ahmed Al Jaber, Buehring, Spearhead, Patriot and Arifjan), Qatar (Al Udeid), the United Arab Emirates (Al Dhafra), Bahrain (Naval Support Activity, Al Manamah) and Oman (Thumrait). In addition, Iran exerts influence in the Levant through proxies like Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, all of which can attack—and have attacked—Israel.

Another incalculable risk of provoking and potentially attacking Iran is that even proponents of attacks readily concede that it would only retard Iran’s nuclear program and thus may encourage Tehran to pursue a nuclear deterrent in the future. In December, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta—who has cautioned against, but has not effectively ruled out, a unilateral strike—has said an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would “at best” delay the nuclear program by one or two years. Robert Gates also said, “a military attack will only buy us time and send the program deeper and more covert.”

Hopefully, this author is wrong and none of these events will unfold. After all, previous American-Iranian naval stand-offs have led nowhere, and as my colleague Ben Friedman notes, “the risk of escalation is mostly Iran’s. By attacking U.S. ships, they would risk annihilation or a disarming first strike.” But it is absolutely wrong for anyone to suggest that opponents of attacking Iran neither recognize nor appreciate the threat its nuclear program would pose. And to readily dismiss the potential ramifications of provocative, “get-tough” approaches exemplifies the senselessness that lead to America’s eight-year, multi-trillion-dollar debacle in Iraq. Do the risks of provoking or attacking Iran today outweigh the costs of dealing with a nuclear Iran tomorrow? Readers can draw their own conclusions. Certainly, Iran could develop a nuclear deterrent some day in the future, but rattling the saber in order to stop it may prove a horrible idea.

TopicsMilitary StrategyNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIranPersian Gulf

An Insecure America Scapegoats China

The Skeptics

A new year brings new opportunities for harsh rhetoric toward China. On issues ranging from Beijing’s valuation of its currency to China’s military modernization program, to the PRC’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, critics in the United States are voicing shrill complaints. Many of those critics warn that Washington must “stand up” to Beijing.

Some of this is the typical posturing that seems to occur in every U.S. presidential election cycle. There are many political points to be scored by bashing China, and fewer to be scored by advocating a friendly, “soft” policy. Staunch conservatives still often regard China as an evil totalitarian power, despite the numerous capitalist economic reforms that have taken place since the late 1970s. Human rights activists across the political spectrum loathe Beijing’s policies toward Tibet and toward political dissidents generally. And labor unions resent China’s low-wage competition in a growing number of industries. The combination of those factors has long made China a convenient whipping boy in election campaigns.

Chinese officials and opinion leaders have tended to brush-off the anti-China rhetoric. In my conversations with those individuals over the years, they note that successful candidates for president have never drastically changed the substance of U.S. policy toward China, no matter what they said when running for office. They have a point. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign referred to Chinese leaders as the “butchers of Beijing” and the candidate himself denounced President George H. W. Bush for appeasing China in response to the Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese exports of advanced weapons to radical regimes, and other sins. Yet within a year, Clinton’s stance moderated and U.S.-China trade soared. Candidates George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan also signaled an intent to adopt more confrontational policies toward China, but once in office, their policies were generally conciliatory.

It is tempting to assume that this pattern will hold following the 2012 election. But there are new factors that suggest a possible divergence. On previous occasions, the gap between America and China in military and economic capabilities was enormous. Washington could always approach relations with China from a position of strength and confidence.

That is less true today. The gap in economic power has narrowed dramatically, with some experts predicting that the Chinese economy could overtake America’s as the world’s largest by the early 2020s. The gap in military power has not narrowed as much, but Beijing has developed some important asymmetrical capabilities and could make U.S. power projection into the western Pacific problematic.

And most telling, there has been a dramatic shift in fiscal fortunes. The massive U.S. federal budget deficits have made China our principal foreign banker, giving Beijing potential financial and diplomatic leverage and heightening the sense of vulnerability among many Americans. That has bred resentment at America’s dependence and increased the temptation to blame China for Washington’s woes.

It is that decline in confidence and the corresponding increase in resentment that may cause this round of China-bashing to endure rather than fade following the election. That shift might occur despite the continuing importance of the mutually beneficial bilateral economic ties. Chinese leaders do not seem to grasp the magnitude of the change in attitude that has taken place in the United States. They are in danger of being blind-sided by increased hostility among both the American population and the U.S. political and policy elites in the coming years.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsThe PresidencyTradeRising PowersPoliticsSecurity RegionsChina

Iran’s Bluster and Weakness

The Skeptics

Iran this week punctuated ten days of naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and threats to close it with a warning to U.S. Navy ships to stay out of Persian Gulf, which requires passage through the strait. The tough talk may have temporarily juiced oil prices, but it failed to impress militarily. Recent news reports have cited U.S. military officials, defense analysts and even an anonymous Iranian official arguing that Iran likely lacks the will and ability to block shipping in the strait. That argument isn’t new: Iran’s economy depends on shipments through the strait, and the U.S. Navy can keep it open, if need be. What’s more, the Iranians might be deterred by the fear that a skirmish over the strait would give U.S. or Israeli leaders an excuse to attack their nuclear facilities.

The obviousness of Iran’s bluster suggests its weakness. Empty threats generally show desperation, not security. And Iran’s weakness is not confined to water. Though Iran is more populous and wealthier than most of its neighbors, its military isn’t equipped for conquest. Like other militaries in its region, Iran’s suffers from coup-proofing, the practice of designing a military more to prevent coups than to fight rival states. Economic problems and limited weapons-import options have also undermined it ability to modernize its military, while its rivals buy American arms. Here’s how Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press summarize Iran’s conventional military capability:

Iran…lacks the equipment and training for major offensive ground operations. Its land forces, comprising two separate armies (the Artesh and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), are structured to prevent coups and to wage irregular warfare, not to conquer neighbors. Tehran’s air force is antiquated, and its navy is suited for harassment missions, not large amphibious operations across the Gulf. Furthermore, a successful invasion is not enough to monopolize a neighbor’s oil resources; a protracted occupation would be required. But the idea of a sustainable and protracted Persian Shi‘a occupation of any Gulf Arab society—even a Shi‘a-majority one like Bahrain—is far-fetched.

Despite Iran’s weakness, most U.S. political rhetoric—and more importantly, most U.S. policy—treats it as a potential regional hegemon that imperils U.S. interests. Pundits eager to bash the president for belatedly allowing U.S. troops to leave Iraq say it will facilitate Iran’s regional dominance. The secretary of defense, who says the war in Iraq was worth fighting, wants to station 40,000 troops in the region to keep Iran from meddling there. Even opponents of bombing Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons regularly opine on how to contain” it, as if that required great effort.

Some will object to this characterization of Iran’s capabilities, claiming that asymmetric threats—missiles, the ability to harass shipping and nasty friends on retainer in nearby states—let it punch above its military weight. But from the American perspective—a far-off power with a few discrete interests in the region—these are complications, not major problems. Our self-induced ignorance about Iran’s limited military capabilities obscures the fact that we can defend those interests against even a nuclear Iran at far lower cost than we now expend. We could do so from the sea.

The United States has two basic interests in the region. The first is to prevent oil-price spikes large enough to cause economic trouble. Although it's not clear that an oil-price shock would greatly damage the U.S. economy, we don’t want to chance it. That is why it makes sense to tell Iran that we will forcibly keep the strait open.

Iranian nuclear weapons would merely complicate our efforts to do so. For safety, both naval ships clearing mines there and tankers would want Iranian shores cleared of anti-ship cruise missiles and their radars, although doing so is probably not necessary to keep strait cargo moving. The possibility of nuclear escalation makes attacking those shore-based targets tougher. But the risk of escalation is mostly Iran’s. By attacking U.S. ships, they would risk annihilation or a disarming first strike. Given that, it is hard to see how nuclear weapons make closing the strait easier.

The second U.S. goal in the region is to prevent any state from gathering enough oil wealth to extort us or build a military big enough to menace us. That means conquest. The vastness of our military advantage over any combination of Middle Eastern states makes that fairly easy to prevent. The difficulty of credibly threatening to stop exporting the chief source of your wealth makes the problem even smaller. Indeed, the odds of Iran becoming an oil super-state by conquest are so low that we probably do not need to guarantee any nearby state’s security to prevent it. For example, if Iran swallowed and magically pacified Iraq, the resulting state, while a bad thing, would create little obvious danger for American safety or commerce. Still, if we did defend Iraq’s borders, carrier-based airpower along with Iraqi ground forces would probably suffice to stop Iranian columns at the border. The same goes for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Because threats of nuclear attack better serve defensive goals, an Iran armed with nukes would not meaningfully change this calculus. Iran’s neighbors would not surrender their land just because Iran has nuclear weapons, if history is any guide. And U.S. guarantees of retaliatory strikes could back them up, if necessary. Nukes might embolden Iran to take chances that a state worried about invasion would not. But the difficulty of subduing a nationalistic country of 75 million already deters our invasion.

The current contretemps with Iran is no reason for “maintaining our military presence and capabilities in the broader Middle East,” as the secretary of defense would have it. Removing U.S. forces from Iran’s flanks might strengthen the hand of the Iranian minority opposed to building nuclear weapons, though it is doubtful that alone would be enough to let them win the debate anytime soon. But even if Iran does build nuclear weapons, we can defend our limited interests in the region from off-shore.

TopicsGlobal CommonsGrand StrategyMilitary StrategyNuclear ProliferationTradeRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIranPersian Gulf

New Year Brings Good News on Terrorism: Experts Wrong Again

The Skeptics

This new year may be a bit happier because top foreign-policy experts—the “very people who have run America’s national-security apparatus over the past half century”—have yet again proved to be wrong.

Some 116 of these Very People were surveyed in 2006 by Foreign Policy magazine in a joint project with the Center for America Progress. The magazine stressed that its survey drew from the “highest echelons of America’s foreign policy establishment” and included the occasional secretary of state and national security adviser, as well as top military commanders, seasoned members of the intelligence community, and academics and journalists of the most “distinguished” nature. Over three-quarters of them had been in government service, 41 percent for over ten years. The musings of this group, it was proposed, could provide “definitive conclusions” about the global war on terror.

The Very People were asked to put forward their considered opinions about how likely it was that “a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11” would again occur in the United States by the end of 2011—that is, by last Saturday.

Fully 70 percent found it likely and another 9 percent proclaimed it to be certain. Only 21 percent, correctly as we now know, considered it unlikely. It looks like Dan Gardner might have some grist for a sequel to his brilliant and lively 2011 book on expert prediction pointedly entitled, Future Babble.

The Very People’s 79 percent error rate is especially impressive because, although there had been quite a bit of terrorist activity in Iraq and elsewhere during the four-and-a-half years between 9/11 and when the survey was conducted, none of these attacks even remotely approached the destruction of the one on September 11. Nor, for that matter, had any terrorist attack during the four-and-a-half millennia previous to that date. In addition, although terrorist plots have been rolled up within the United States, none of the plotters threatened to wreak destruction on anything like the scale of 9/11, except perhaps in a few moments of movieland-fantasy musings.

Considered in reasonable historical perspective, then, it was not unreasonable to suggest, even a year or two after the event on the pages of this magazine and elsewhere, that 9/11 might just prove to be an aberration rather than a harbinger. In 2004, Russell Seitz plausibly proposed that “9/11 could join the Trojan Horse and Pearl Harbor among stratagems so uniquely surprising that their very success precludes their repetition,” that “al-Qaeda’s best shot may have been exactly that” and that, as its forces wane, the shadow the terrorist group casts looks “ever less caliphal and more quixotic.”

But such unconventional, if plausible, interpretations of 9/11 were not only rare, but decidedly, even determinedly, dismissed or simply unconsidered. The vast bulk of the Very People were then—and mostly seem still to be—operating under the sway of the 9/11 attack, a dramatic and horrible event that created the impression (or delusion) that such events would now become the norm.

As Jane Mayer notes in her book The Dark Side, in the wake of 9/11, “the only certainty shared by virtually the entire intelligence community” was that “a second wave of even more devastating terrorist attacks on America was imminent.” Concern was certainly justified, but certainty about an imminent repetition constitutes a massive extrapolation that is at best preposterous and at worst scary—particularly if it was so universally and uncritically embraced by the Very People who in the meantime are running our “security apparatus.”

Many more terrorism experts have been equally swayed and equally wrong. In late 2003, David Rothkopf conveyed the views of “more than 200 senior business and government executives, many of whom are specialists in security and terrorism related issues.” They were, he assured us, “serious people, not prone to hysteria or panic—military officers, policymakers, scientists, researchers and others who have studied such issues for a long time.”

Almost three-quarters of this group found it “likely the United States would see a major terrorist strike before the end of 2004,” and a “similar number predicted that the assault would be greater than those of 9/11 and might well involve weapons of mass destruction.”

After nothing happened in that election year, reporter Siobhan Gorman interviewed various terrorism experts about the non-phenomenon. Some of them had quickly retooled by that time and assured her that “the months after the election may turn out to be more threatening than the months that preceded it.” Osama bin Laden would “be marshalling his resources to make good on his promise that Americans will not be able to avoid a new 9/11,” noted terrorism specialist Bruce Hoffman. “It’ll be a race against time.”

One of the problems with expert prediction, as Gardner notes, is that it is always safe to predict disaster because if it happens, you look like a seer, and if it doesn’t, nobody remembers. As Michael Sheehan, New York City’s former deputy director for counterterrorism, puts it forcefully, “No terrorism expert or government leader wants to appear soft on terrorism. It’s always safer to predict the worst; if nothing happens, the exaggerators are rarely held accountable for their nightmare scenarios.”

This, it seems to me, is not the way things should be. Experts, particularly if they are the "very people who have run America’s national-security apparatus over the past half century," should be held accountable for their predictions, so often flawed, flip, foolish or fatuous. There may be some rather unpleasant lessons in such an exercise as we look forward to the next half.

Mueller is in the process of putting together a web site with predictions about terrorism from the last decade (and counting) on the issue. A very preliminary version is posted here. If you have suggestions for additions, let him know at

TopicsMuckety MucksMediaTerrorismPoliticsSecurity

It's Time to End U.S. Aid to Egypt

The Skeptics

In recent weeks, a flood of graphic videos and images have surfaced showing Egypt’s military police brutally clubbing protesters. Some footage shows demonstrators lying motionless on the ground as they are savagely beaten.

“Recent events in Egypt have been particularly shocking,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week. But perhaps more “shocking” than these recent events is the foreign largesse sustaining it. For FY2012, the Obama administration requested $1.551 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt. That should be scrapped.

Administration planners praised Egypt’s armed forces for exercising restraint last spring. But ever since, the military caretaker government has shown itself to be anything but restrained. General Abdel Moneim Kato, a military adviser in the Orwellian-sounding Morale Affairs Department, said protesters “deserve to be thrown into Hitler’s ovens.” Reminiscent of former President Hosni Mubarak’s twenty-nine-year tyranny, military tribunals have sentenced political activists to prison for insulting the military, violating the national curfew and defying a ban on demonstrations. Since October, nearly one hundred people have been killed in clashes between heavily armed government forces and rock- and firebomb-throwing protesters. Promilitary fliers distributed in taxis blame the United States, Israel and other forces for causing the chaos. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, in response to Clinton’s criticism of the mistreatment of protesters, said, “Egypt does not accept any interference in its internal affairs.”

Washington’s servile client state now bites the hand that feeds. After all, despite provisos affixed to U.S. aid, powerful forces in Cairo seem comfortable in the knowledge that their gravy train won’t be stopping anytime soon. According to a report published last month by the Congressional Research Service, in September the Senate Committee on Appropriations attached conditions to the $1.551 billion in U.S. assistance. Those conditions stress that no U.S. funds may be provided to Egypt unless:

the Secretary of State certifies to the Committees on Appropriations that such government is meeting its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty and that that the Government of Egypt has held free and fair elections and is implementing policies to protect the rights of journalists, due process, and freedoms of expression and association.

Overwhelming evidence shows that Egypt has notmet any of the aforementioned obligations. But rather than end the U.S. government’s generous assistance to that country’s dictatorless tyranny, last week President Barack Obama signed an executive order setting up a “National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.” As part of broader “peacemaking efforts around the world,” it plans to “accelerate, institutionalize, and better coordinate” U.S. government efforts to “advance women’s inclusion in peace negotiations, peacebuilding activities, and conflict prevention.”

So in essence, Washington continues to tip the scale on both sides. It backs Cairo’s protesters and the authoritarian government that’s beating and killing them. As a friend of mine who works for the U.S. government in Cairo told me a few weeks back, even if the Egyptian people vote to bring Islamists to power, it is their prerogative to do so. (Note: this person, who took a similar position on the Palestinian elections of 2006, holds a minority view within the government.) Come what may, it’s time for the U.S. government to leave Egypt’s future “to the Egyptian people.”

TopicsAutocracyCivil SocietyCounterinsurgencyCongressDemocracyElectionsHuman RightsEthicsForeign AidMuckety MucksState of the Military RegionsEgypt

In Defense of Realism

The Skeptics

My issue of Perspectives on Politics arrived just before I left town for the holidays, which gave me just enough time to look over John Schuessler and Sebastian Rosato's article "A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States." [Paywalled.]

Regular Skeptics readers will recognize Schuessler from his posts here, so we know where he is coming from. Both Schuessler and Rosato deserve enormous credit for knocking down some of the most common criticisms of modern realism and substituting instead a more positive (and I think accurate) vision of realism's core precepts. They also offer clear policy prescriptions flowing from that vision. The entire article is worth a read, but I enclose below the abstract followed by a few observations.

What kind of policy can the United States pursue that ensures its security while minimizing the likelihood of war? We describe and defend a realist theory of foreign policy to guide American decision makers. Briefly, the theory says that if they want to ensure their security, great powers such as the United States should balance against other great powers. They should also take a relaxed view toward developments involving minor powers and, at most, should balance against hostile minor powers that inhabit strategically important regions of the world. We then show that had the great powers followed our theory's prescriptions, some of the most important wars of the past century might have been averted. Specifically, the world wars might not have occurred, and the United States might not have gone to war in either Vietnam or Iraq. In other words, realism as we conceive it offers the prospect of security without war. At the same time, we also argue that if the United States adopts an alternative liberal foreign policy, this is likely to result in more, rather than fewer, wars. We conclude by offering some theoretically-based proposals about how US decision makers should deal with China and Iran.

These are some pretty bold claims, but the article supports them quite well. Schuessler and Rosato note the conventional wisdom that realism is more prone to war than competing theories, despite the fact that nearly all of the leading realist scholars opposed the Iraq war. They note a number of realists who have been similarly vociferous in warning against war with Iran They move beyond descriptive realism (the world as it is) and offer a prescriptive vision based on three core assumptions—international anarchy, the inability to discern the intentions of others and the unpredictability of war—that help to shape policy as it should be. "The fundamental prescription that flows from these premises is that states should be attentive to the balance of power." They should avoid minor wars and seek ways to deter or prevent large ones. They point out that balancing against great powers "does not imply that they should build up their capabilities without limit, [which] would be a prescription for bankruptcy." They stress the importance of nuclear weapons and of allies (no nation wishes to fight on multiple fronts).

It isn't enough to show how realism, properly conceived, is likely to lead to fewer wars. Their article also takes on the task of showing how the other dominant theory, liberalism, often pushes in the opposite direction. Their arguments are sure to raise hackles, but I think that liberals will be hard pressed to refute them. In order to do so, they should explore the historical cases in the article—World Wars I and II, Vietnam and Iraq—and offer a competing explanation for how realism, not liberalism, was the driving force behind them.

The remaining critique that liberals might offer is that our only goal shouldn't be to minimize war and maintain stability, especially at the expense of justice. But even wars undertaken with the best of intentions have led to horrific ends, so a presumption against war seems a wise course. At a minimum, it is incumbent upon the critics of Schuessler and Rosato's approach to explain why a more permissive attitude toward the use of force would have served humankind well and would do so in the future.

TopicsHistoryPolitical Theory