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The Skeptics

Romney, Kerry Miss the Point on Threats: Size Matters

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) is the latest person to mock Mitt Romney’s declaration that the Russian Federation “is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe.” It was a pretty silly statement, particularly given the fact that Russia is a demographic basket case and a very humble economic power. But there’s all sorts of weirdness going on in Romney’s assertions and those of his critics.

Take, for example, Wolf Blitzer’s follow up to the Romney assertion:

BLITZER: But you think Russia is a bigger foe right now than, let's say, Iran or China or North Korea? Is that - is that what you're suggesting, Governor?

ROMNEY: Well, I'm saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world's worst actors. Of course, the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran. A nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough.

But when these - these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when - when Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go - we go to the United Nations, and who is it that always stands up for the world's worst actors?

It is always Russia, typically with China alongside.

And - and so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that's on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council and is, of course, a - a massive nuclear power, Russia is the - the geopolitical foe and - and the - and they're - the idea that our president is - is planning on doing something with them that he's not willing to tell the American people before the election is something I find very, very alarming.

So in fairness to Governor Romney, it does seem like he realizes he’s made a gaffe here, so he tries to back up and take another run at it. But in doing so, he just FUBARs it worse. Taking a mulligan, he tries to pivot from the Russia allegation by folding in Iran (“the greatest threat the world faces”) and North Korea, and gesturing at Syria.

It’s the same thing Kerry does in his condescending lecture to Romney:

We have much bigger problems on this planet in the Middle East, with the evolution of Egypt, with the challenge of Syria, terrorism, al-Qaeda in Yemen, and so forth.

Both of these guys should be ashamed of themselves. And they ought to be light-headed from the amount of threat inflation they’re doing. We spend too much time debating the relative size of our enemies and too little debating their absolute size. Every country at all times has a number one, number two, and number three “geopolitical foe.” But the threat environments posed by those foes vary radically.

In a better world, American political elites would discuss the absolute level of threat they face rather than just bickering over our enemies’ batting order. As Ben Friedman and I recently wrote in Orbis:

The dirty little secret of U.S. defense politics is that the United States is safe—probably the most secure great power in modern history. Weak neighbors, vast ocean barriers, nuclear weapons and the wealth to build up forces make almost nonexistent the threats that militaries traditionally existed to thwart. Americans cannot seriously fear territorial conquest, civil war, annexation of peripheral territories, or blockade. What passes for enemies here are small potatoes compared with what worried most states at most times. Most U.S. military interventions affect U.S. security at best marginally. We have hopes and sometimes interests in the places where we send troops, but no matter how much we repeat it to honor the troops, it is untrue that they are fighting to protect our freedom.

Part of the reason our national security politics are pathological is that we focus disproportionately on debating which enemy is the biggest without stopping to ask how big the enemies are.

If your three biggest problems are being infected with Black Death, having a bull rhino charging at you, and being knee-deep in quicksand, you can wonder—for a few seconds, at least—which is your number one problem. Similarly, if your three biggest problems are that you got into an argument with your spouse about who left a dish in the sink, your shoelaces are untied, and you can’t log in to Facebook, you can puzzle over which of those is bigger. But only a fool would miss the distinctions between the two scenarios.

535 Secretaries of State

Congress, especially the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, has become hyperactive on the foreign-policy front in recent weeks. In rapid succession, the House passed two important amendments to the defense-authorization bill, both of which have the potential to cause major complications for U.S. diplomacy in East Asia. The latest measure would require the sale of sixty-six F-16 C/D model fighters to Taiwan, which drew an immediate, angry response from Beijing. The earlier amendment would press the Defense Department to redeploy nuclear weapons to South Korea. President George H. W. Bush removed such weapons at the beginning the 1990s.

In addition to those two amendments, resolutions are kicking about in both chambers of Congress that seek to dictate to the Obama administration, in pretentious detail, the policy it ought to pursue toward Iran. Among other things, those resolutions try to prevent the administration from even considering containment and deterrence as a strategy for dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The only options acceptable to hawkish advocates appear to be 1) accepting Iran’s abject surrender on every issue in dispute, or 2) a strategy of escalating coercion, up to and including the use of preemptive military force.

It would be an understatement to say that such attempts at congressional direction of foreign policy on highly sensitive matters are most unhelpful. Fortunately, the amendments to the defense-authorization bill may not pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. And the Iran resolutions, despite their rhetorical swagger, are not binding on the executive branch.

But the intent behind those measures is worrisome. And there is more than a little irony involved. Conservatives, especially conservative Republicans, are the most vocal supporters of all three items. Yet, prominent conservatives over the decades, including Ronald Reagan and John McCain, have repeatedly invoked the cliché that the United States cannot afford to have “535 secretaries of state.” In other words, Congress must defer to the president in the arena of foreign affairs. That deference, they argue further, is what the Constitution intends.

Unfortunately, conservatives have been most adamant about such deference when it involved chief executives who launched or sought to maintain presidential wars. The view that Congress should tamely acquiesce in such conflicts is a perversion of the Constitution. Both the language of the document and the history of the revolutionary and early national periods in U.S. history make it clear that the founders intended Congress, not the president, to determine whether the republic should go to war.

Conversely, the founders did intend the president, rather than Congress, to manage the day-to-day foreign policy of the United States. We now, quite literally, have the opposite of what they and the Constitution envisioned. Congress has totally abdicated its responsibilities regarding the war power, while it increasingly tries to micromanage key features of the nation’s diplomacy.

That is a profoundly unhealthy situation. Policies toward Iran, North Korea and Taiwan are extremely sensitive matters, and it is unwise of Congress to try to force the president into adopting initiatives that could foment or worsen crises. Such posturing may score political points—or, as in the case of pressure for the sale of advanced-model F-16s, bring lucrative contracts to firms in key states and congressional districts—but it does not serve the national interest.

Negotiations with Iran: What Has Changed?

On May 23, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) will enter into talks with the Iranian leadership about the latter’s nuclear program. The Baghdad talks come after talks last month in Istanbul. A number of observers have raised expectations for the talks in Baghdad. The latest hopeful development is IAEA chief Yukiya Amano’s declaration, on the heels of his visit to Tehran, that he expects a structured agreement for inspections to be signed “quite soon.” Any progress toward a diplomatic solution would be preferable to backsliding or a collapse. Unfortunately, the talks are unlikely to live up to the high expectations.

Beyond Amano’s visit to Tehran, the big change since last month’s talks is French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s loss to the socialist François Hollande, who appears less truculent on Iran than was Sarkozy. Previously, Sarkozy was the hardest-driving member of the P5+1, so Hollande’s victory is likely to bring the P5+1 into closer harmony. More broadly, the considerable anxiety over the prospect of an outright collapse of the euro is likely to diminish European interest in focusing too much attention overseas.

Despite these changes, however, one wonders how the underlying calculus of negotiations has changed. The United States is still threatening to bomb Iran in order to prevent it from developing a nuclear deterrent. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to define “success” in a way such that it cannot realistically be achieved and to warn that anything less than total Iranian capitulation is failure. Like-minded U.S. legislators, such as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), agree that the only acceptable Iranian move is immediate surrender. And high-ranking Iranian military officials are declaring that Iran is “standing for its cause that is the full annihilation of Israel.”

Given these two sets of developments, the question remains: Have sanctions by the United States and its partners caused enough pain and fear of instability in Iran that its leadership will forego a nuclear program that it likely feels is vital for its legitimacy and security? Most skeptics, this writer included, would like to be proved wrong, but they still appear to have the better of the argument.

Image: Sinaf7798n

Iran

NATO Summit Will Reaffirm Afghanistan’s Weakness

The focus of the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago will be Afghanistan. President Obama is expected to speak of the need for solidarity from the international community. His only major success will be a pledge from NATO members to commit funds to Afghanistan well beyond 2014. Difficult questions surrounding the mission’s long-term sustainability will remain unanswered. But any long-term plan for stabilization must put Afghans in the lead. That is the country’s true path to self-sufficiency.

The estimated cost of paying for the 230,000-350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) hovers between $4-6 billion, annually. The President will seek $1.3 billion from allies, which in an age of austerity will be difficult for NATO partners, leaving the United States to foot much of the bill.

Although it is cheaper to fund Afghan forces than deploy foreign troops, long-term operations, maintenance, and sustainment costs for the ANSF may continue through 2025. Building security and governance to the point where locals can stand on their own is an indefinite commitment, not an exit strategy.

The real story of the summit is that Untied States and NATO officials plan to extend their financial support to Afghanistan in the face of war-weary publics at home, brazen insurgent attacks in the capital, and a string of scandals involving coalition forces and their Afghan counterparts. Lingering issues that will go unresolved include the quality of the ANSF, the seemingly indefatigable insurgency, and the long-talked about negotiated peace settlement with extremists and regional powers.

Beyond the cost and size of the security forces, President Obama will also speak of the lofty commitments in the recently signed U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership framework, which include “protecting and promoting shared democratic values” and “social and economic development.” What remains unanswered is what will happen if Afghanistan does not meet these ambitious benchmarks?

What will happen if the fundamental rights and freedoms of women are not protected? What will happen if the 2014 presidential elections are not free and fair? What will happen if security and national unity are not advanced? Does failure void the agreement, and for how long will Afghanistan rely on the United States if we do not see progress? These questions persist as American taxpayers spend $2 billion a week on an unpopular war, and as widespread local corruption and perceptions of social injustice continue to fuel passive support to the insurgency.

The international community’s pledge to never abandon Afghanistan is well-intentioned, especially since Washington was partly responsible for that country’s past and present turmoil. But it is also imperative that the international community not become Afghanistan’s perpetual crutch. Afghans desperately seek foreign assistance, but what really matters is the long-term sustainability of Afghanistan’s institutions. Sadly, social and political changes won’t be seen as legitimate if they depend on institutions that appear to be at odds with local traditions or are excessively reliant on foreign patronage.

Paradoxically, the U.S. and NATO may wind up both helping and hindering Afghanistan on its path toward self-sufficiency.

Afghanistan

Euro 2012 and the Price of Repression

Ukraine has suffered a tortured post-Soviet independence. Its second president, Leonid Kuchma, was accused of ordering the murder of an opposition journalist. Kuchma’s successor, Viktor Yushchenko, was pro-Western but utterly ineffective, even incompetent. The current president, Viktor Yanukovich, turns out to be almost as pro-Western, but his chief ability appears to be beating up his opponents.

Now, he and his country are paying the price for his politicized prosecution of his last electoral opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko. At least eight foreign leaders, led by the presidents of Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany, threatened to boycott a Central and Eastern European summit scheduled last weekend at Yalta in the Crimea. With so many heads of state indicating they weren’t coming, Kiev was forced to postpone the gathering.

Moreover, Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, has told the Ukrainian prime minister not to attend a EU-Ukraine meeting scheduled for next week. The Yanukovich government looks especially foolish being banned from a meeting about the country it governs. And several European leaders are pressing for a boycott of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, scheduled for next month and cohosted by the Ukraine and Poland. The event, in which Ukraine has invested $9 billion worth of facilities, will go on, but only under a cloud—and the guarantee of numerous media stories about Tymoshenko’s condition and Yanukovich’s governance.

Admittedly, it’s hard to pick sides in Ukraine. Many participants in the political system are unsavory. Virtually no business oligarch, including Tymoshenko, once known as the “gas princess,” likely is entirely clean. She and Yushchenko, the joint victors over Yanukovich in the so-called “Orange Revolution,” had a bitter falling out. Despite his pro-Russian reputation, Yanukovich has emphasized an orientation toward Brussels over Moscow.

But no one is served by gratuitous repression. One can at least understand brutality intended to keep the existing regime in power. The prosecution of Tymoshenko has the air of persecution, the vengeful destruction of an already defeated opponent. Indeed, it looks a bit like Vladimir Putin’s seeming obsession with keeping one-time billionaire and potential political opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky behind bars.

In Yanukovich’s case the practice also smells of political weakness. He faces a tough legislative election in October, when all 450 seats in the Rada will be in play. Now, he has suffered the humiliation of being rejected by his peers throughout the region on top of pressure from European leaders who will decide on Ukraine’s suitability for the European Union.

Yanukovich also has squandered any chance of exercising regional leadership. Ukraine is the largest former Soviet Republic, after Russia, to achieve independence. For countries seeking cooperation with Moscow while maintaining their independence, Kiev could play a lead role. But Yanukovich risks turning his nation as well as himself into a pariah. Admittedly, Ukraine won’t be North Korea, but no one will be looking to Ukraine for leadership on any issue.

Engagement usually is a better foreign-policy strategy than isolation when attempting to transform a recalcitrant state. Indeed, economic and trade sanctions often are counterproductive, discouraging reform. However, in this case engagement did not prevent repression, so a little bit of isolation seems called for. Especially important is tarnishing the upcoming games, which apparently were a favorite prestige project for Yanukovich. Reported Andrew Rettman in the EU Observer: “Markiyan Lubkivskyi, Ukraine’s man in charge of preparing the event, has said Euro 2012 is the president’s baby.”

Ukraine should be a leader among not only the former Soviet republics but the independent Eastern European nations once dominated by the U.S.S.R. However, Yanukovich’s ruthless rule is squandering Ukraine’s opportunity. It’s a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, but also for anyone else who would benefit from a freer and wealthier Ukraine.

Image: Pavol Frešo

Ukraine

Rough Seas Ahead for Navy’s Surface Fleet?

In its markup of the National Defense Authorization Act, the House Armed Services Committee proposed a number of changes to the Obama administration’s plans for the U.S. Navy. The NDAA rescinds the retirement of three cruisers and restricts retirement of ballistic-missile submarines (so as not to fall below a minimum of twelve). The bill also contains an amendment which authorizes a GAO review of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. The amendments collectively reflect the committee’s concern that the navy won’t be able to fulfill its current missions with fewer and perhaps less capable ships. Unfortunately, no one is asking whether any of those missions could be modified, eliminated or shifted to others.

I will address some of those issues at a Cato policy forum this Monday, May 21, at noon. I am particularly thrilled to be joined by Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work, Ben Freeman of the Project on Government Oversight and Eric J. Labs of the Congressional Budget Office. Those three make this an all-star cast to discuss the future of a U.S. surface fleet that is undergoing some major changes. With the retirement of the navy’s cruisers and frigates, the development of bigger and more complex destroyers, and the introduction of the LCS, tomorrow’s surface fleet will look quite different than today’s.

Congress is particularly concerned about the LCS because of reports of design and construction flaws and operational problems, including this letter issued by the Project on Government Oversight and a subsequent article in Aviation Week. But some are also concerned that even though LCSs eventually will constitute about one-third of the navy’s surface combatants, the LCS is not supposed to engage in combat. In addition, its mission modules, especially the antisubmarine-warfare package, are years away from operability.

Our panel will address many of the questions swirling around the surface fleet today, including: How will the replacement of thirty frigates with the still-untested LCS affect the navy’s overall capability? Will the ballistic-missile-defense requirement reduce the availability of destroyers for other missions? Could the navy pursue a different strategy to advance U.S. national security that could be executed with fewer ships? Of course, the answers to all of those questions are framed within the context of declining procurement budgets. Given that reality, one could argue that the greatest threat to the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is its undersea fleet: the looming SSBN(X) program could devour the shipbuilding budget for a decade.

So, with no shortage of difficult and far-reaching decisions ahead for the navy, it is a privilege to have Undersecretary Work, Ben and Eric to help us navigate the way. I hope you can join us on Monday.

Why Americans Are Less Hawkish than Their Leaders

American leaders are reliably more hawkish than Americans. That gap marks a failure in democratic decision making. Under some circumstances, the free marketplace of ideas not only fails to produce good policy but actually thwarts it.

That problem underlies a new joint study published by the Stimson Center. Based on a survey of 665 Americans, the study shows that when presented with arguments for and against cutting the defense budget, Americans want to cut it—a lot. Respondents rated general arguments for and against cutting total defense spending, finding most arguments convincing but dovish arguments generally more so. They preferred cutting defense spending to raising taxes or cutting other spending (though Republicans somewhat preferred cutting other spending). Asked to set a defense-spending level for next year, nine-tenths of Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans cut it. The survey then listed defense-spending categories, gave standard pro and con arguments for each, and asked respondents for their recommendation on each. Their biggest cuts, by percentage, came from the war in Afghanistan and nuclear weapons. The average total cut amounted to about 18 percent of the nonwar defense budget.

The study is a useful exposition of what we knew: Americans are less enthusiastic about war and military spending than U.S. policy on these matters suggests. As Christopher Preble points out, polls show majorities of Americans will gladly slash defense spending to reduce the deficit, are against the war in Afghanistan and remain lukewarm about global policing and current alliances. But the American political system offers only historically modest defense cuts, an endless, albeit reduced, military presence in Afghanistan and preservation of our globocop strategy. Republican voters’ growing opposition to war of late (which, incidentally, Tea Party supporters seem to be hindering, not leading) has not translated into many antiwar positions among Republican leaders. As Ari Berman recently noted in the Nation, Mitt Romney’s foreign-policy advisors are almost entirely neoconservative Bush administration retreads. Democratic voters, of course, are disappointed by the Obama administration’s hawkishness, though it shouldn’t have been surprising.

This gap is not new. Historically, according to Gallup, substantially more Americans say that we spend too much on defense than say we spend too little. Dan Drezner finds Americans are traditionally more realist in their foreign-policy views—thus less inclined to support military adventure—than American elites. In the latest edition of Political Science Quarterly, Joshua Busby and Jonathan Monten show that Republicans elites have long been more prone than Republican voters to favor high defense spending and long-term alliances.

One explanation for this democracy deficit is what Busby and Monten call “dual slack,” the absence of restraint that either voters or international politics put on U.S. defense policy. Foreign-policy issues tend to rank low among voters’ concerns and to contribute little to their voting decisions. So politicians have little incentive to cater to voters’ foreign-policy views. They are relatively free to adopt principled (undemocratic) stances. And with few rivals restricting U.S. military deployments, foreign-policy makers can indulge ideological ambition and fancy.

Relative power causes the two sources of slack. Power lets the United States run amok abroad while insulating citizens from the consequences. For most Americans, even the war in Iraq brought little worse than marginally higher tax rates and unsettling TV images. Americans don’t much care about foreign policy because it is usually inconsequential to their welfare.

Slack is a permissive condition. It explains why foreign-policy makers can ignore the public, not why they do. Understanding their motives means considering how power changed interests and ideology. As in other public-policy areas, minorities with concentrated interests rule over less interested majorities. The Cold War required organized interests in government and beyond that benefit from high defense spending. Foreign-policy elites may not directly work for the iron triangle, but those interests dominate conventional wisdom in both parties. Those seeking political appointment, government funding or credentials as an establishment bigwig can’t safely buck it.

Exercising power abroad also required changing the United States foreign-policy ideology to suit activism. Where once the dominant idea was that preserving liberalism meant staying out of foreign military fights, the new ethos—call it Wilsonianism—said that liberalism’s success required participating in those fights. Advocates of that view included both the narrow interests mentioned above and most others eager to overcome isolationist sentiment and keep the United States military abroad. By further limiting restraints and thus increasing the policies that Wilsonianism had to justify, the Soviet Union’s collapse accelerated that shift. Variants of Wilsonianism are now the operational code of party’s foreign-policy elite, while realism has been cast aside. The public remains relatively realist because it gets less Wilsonian education and socialization.

The public-elite opinion gap on foreign policy is likely to shrink if these issues get more salient, as Trevor Thrall will tell you. As voters get more interested in issues, they gather information about them from sources consistent with their partisan predispositions and should increasingly reflect elite views. From my perspective, that’s ironic: the more Americans learn about foreign policy, the worse their opinions become. Democracy is not the culprit really—elite rule would be worse—but it hardly helps.

This analysis suggests that good U.S. foreign policy requires bad events. As Justin Logan and I discuss in the latest Orbis, if the economy stays flat and deficits further mount, maintaining military costs will increasingly require sacrificing entitlements or low tax rates. Although the public might then become more informed and partisan, the nature of partisanship might shift. That fight should catalyze antidefense interests that slowly move elites toward the realist, public view. Likewise, another brutal war or mounting threats should increase the popularity of restraint and realpolitik among elites. Because none of those conditions are worth rooting for, the public-elite opinion gap is. It’s a bad consequence of good fortune.

New Paper Argues for Immediate, Practical Cuts in Military Spending

A new report published today by the Project on Defense Alternatives argues for $17–$20 billion in immediate savings to the fiscal-year 2013 defense budget. I coauthored the report along with Benjamin Friedman of Cato and PDA’s Carl Conetta, Charles Knight and Ethan Rosenkranz. Those savings come from eighteen line items—personnel, weapons systems and programs—that could be implemented quickly. Adjustments to U.S. national-security strategy are not a prerequisite for these options, which are relatively low-hanging fruit.

The 2013 defense-authorization bill will move to the House floor this week. Many members are expected to offer amendments, some allowing savings in the defense budget. During the debates that are about to ensue,, it is important to keep in mind just how large the defense budget has become. As our paper notes, the national defense base budget constitutes 52 percent of discretionary spending, separate from the war account. Since 2000, it has risen by 90 percent in nominal terms and 42 percent in real terms. If Washington is serious about addressing the nation’s massive fiscal challenge, many programs will have to be cut or reformed. The Pentagon should not be expected to bear all of the costs; other departments and agencies will also have to contribute. But there has not yet been a significant decline in the Pentagon’s base budget, contrary to what some have claimed.

The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 places an initial discretionary spending cap on National Defense for 2013 at $546 billion. Both President Obama’s request and the House Republican’s budget exceed the BCA caps. In addition, the BCA requires $110 billion in spending cuts in January 2013 via sequestration, half of which need to come from DoD. Neither the White House nor Congress plans for that to occur; both sides hope to amend the law and achieve equal deficit reductions by other means. As it currently stands, though, they disagree on how. Republicans want to cut other spending; Democrats want to raise taxes. The options outlined in our paper could facilitate these negotiations by revealing savings in the DoD budget that will not damage our national security.

The savings options in the report focus on reducing or curtailing:

—Assets and capabilities that mismatch or substantially exceed current and emerging military challenges;

—Assets and capabilities for which more cost-effective alternatives exist;

—Investments that are tied to the past, reflecting bureaucratic inertia or individual’s service interests, rather than current collective-defense needs;

—Acquisition programs that exhibit serious, persistent cost overruns while failing to deliver promised capability; and

—Acquisition programs that are based on immature or unproven technologies.

Further savings are possible if we rethink our strategy, missions and national-security commitments. Ben Friedman and I have long argued this point. Until then, the options presented in “Defense Sense” are limited in scope in an effort to pave the way toward responsibly balancing national-security ends, ways and means.

Although I encourage everyone to look at the report, here are just five of the eighteen cuts that policy makers should immediately consider:

—Military personnel in Europe: Remove additional ten thousand military personnel by end of FY 2013; save $100 million in FY 2013 and $188 million per year once complete

—Active-component military personnel: Reduce end-strength by an additional ten thousand personnel; save $400 million in FY 2013 and $860 million recurring annual savings once complete

—Missile Defense: Focus on procurement and end-stage development on systems with proven, reliable, cost-effective capability (see report for details); save $2.5 billion in FY 2013

—F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Cancel USMC variant; buy equivalent numbers F/A-18 E/F; save $1.8 billion in FY 2013

—Littoral Combat Ship (LCS): End procurement at ten and seek alternative; save $2 billion in FY 2013

The U.S. Drug War Comes to Honduras

New York Times correspondent Thom Shanker broke the story on May 5 that the U.S. military had established three base camps in Honduras to help that country combat the increasingly powerful Mexican drug cartels. The Obama administration authorized this new, and potentially quite dangerous, military operation without congressional approval or the slightest public debate by the American people. That aspect is merely the latest evidence that Obama is as much a devotee of the imperial presidency as any of his predecessors.

But this move should not have come as a great surprise. The Mexican cartels have become a major force in nearly all of the Central American countries, especially Honduras and Guatemala, over the past four years. Political leaders in Central America, as well as their U.S. counterparts, have grown increasingly worried that one or more of those countries could become de facto narcostates.

The increased cartel activity in Central America is a direct result of the vigorous, military-led offensive against those organizations in Mexico during President Felipe Calderón’s presidency. That offensive has been a fiasco for Mexico, resulting in the deaths of more than fifty thousand people in the past five and a half years and turning portions of the country into full-fledged war zones.

One key effect of the offensive, though, has been to pressure the cartels to find safer locales for their operations. That incentive has caused several of the trafficking organizations to greatly expand their presence in neighboring Central American countries, where government institutions, security forces and civil societies are significantly weaker than in Mexico. Whether that was an inadvertent effect or a deliberate goal of the Calderón government is uncertain. Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady suspects it is the latter. According to O’Grady, “Mexico seeks to raise the cost of trafficking so that the flows go elsewhere.” And, one might add, so that much of the violence accompanying the drug trade also goes elsewhere.

But even if it is not a deliberate ploy by Mexico’s government to “beggar thy neighbor,” the impact is the same. Central American governments have become increasingly vocal in wanting heightened financial and security assistance from Washington. The latest measures in Honduras confirm that the Obama administration is determined to take stronger action against the cartels.

Sending U.S. military personnel into Honduras to wage the war on drugs, though, is ill-advised. American military commanders openly state that they intend to apply the lessons learned in Iraq to the situation in Honduras. That anyone would regard the Iraq debacle as a template for future military operations is more than a little worrisome. The principal lesson of the Iraq war should be to avoid murky counterinsurgency/nation-building crusades, not to try to pursue such missions more effectively.

Given Central America’s geographic proximity, the United States does have some security interests at stake there. No one wants to see even one of those countries come under the control of the vicious Mexican drug cartels.

But trying to thwart the cartels with this strategy is akin to putting a Band Aid on a malignancy. The primary reason the cartels are so powerful both in Mexico and Central America has to do with fundamental principles of economics. There is a huge demand for drugs, especially in the United States but also in Europe and, increasingly, in other portions of the world. When such a robust demand for a product exists, it is an economic certainty that profit-seeking entities will try to fulfill that demand. Prohibiting commerce in a product does not negate that dynamic, it merely perverts it. Instead of legitimate businesses engaging in lawful competition, the trade falls into the hands of elements that don’t mind breaking the law and assuming all the other risks in a black market. Often, that means that the most ruthless, violent individuals and organizations come to dominate the trade.

Because of the black-market risk premium, profit margins are far wider than normal, filling the coffers of illicit traffickers and giving them ample financial resources to challenge competitors and either corrupt or neutralize government institutions. That is what happened in the United States during the Prohibition era, when the government tried to ban alcoholic beverages. That is what is happening today, especially in the Western Hemisphere, with the prohibition of marijuana, cocaine and other illegal drugs. And the major beneficiaries are the Mexican cartels.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration stubbornly refuses to recognize that reality. Instead of moving to abandon the futile, counterproductive prohibition strategy, the president and his advisers seem intent on sending U.S. military personnel into yet another quagmire, this time in Central America. The deployment in Honduras appears to be the first, fateful step into the quicksand.

Washington Post Defines Worst Fears Down

“Al-Qaeda bombmaker represents CIA’s worst fears.”

That’s the headline of a Washington Post story on Yemeni terrorists’ attempt to down a U.S.-bound flight by placing a bomb on the body of an operative who turned out to be a CIA and Saudi agent. By straining to alarm readers about the bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the story makes three errors.

First, by defining the CIA’s “worst fears” as“a highly skilled terrorist determined to attack the United States,” the Post underestimates the imaginative capacity of intelligence officials and overrates Asiri’s prowess. The article uncritically quotes House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King’s claim that “Asiri is an evil genius. He is constantly expanding, he is constantly adjusting.” Whatever King means by “expanding,” “failing” would have been a better choice of words. In just one of the four Asiri plots mentioned in article did his bomb detonate properly. That one killed only its bearer, al-Asiri’s brother. The nearby target, Saudi’s Prince Nayef, suffered only minor wounds.

Second, the article dubiously claims that two of those plots nearly wreaked great damage:

If it were not for a technical problem (Abdulmutallab’s device failed to detonate) or solid intelligence tips (Saudi counterterrorism officials alerted authorities in Dubai and Britain to intercept the cargo planes), Asiri would have succeeded in staging a catastrophic disaster in American skies.

It is, however, questionable whether Abdulmutallab’s bomb, had it properly detonated, was powerful enough to cause his plane to crash. Even if it opened a hole, the plane might not have crashed.

In the second case, where bombs were hidden in printer cartridges on cargo planes, authorities tell us the detonators probably would have worked and could have downed the planes. But there remains a decent chance that detonation would have occurred while the planes were on the ground. Also, one reason the devices made it on to cargo planes without detection is that they contain few people and thus justify less security. The death of a crew would have been tragic, of course, but “catastrophic disaster” is a stretch.

The likely success of terrorist plots can’t be assessed simply by looking at the stage of the plot that caused its failure. As Jim Harper argues, plots require success in a series of tasks, each of which drives down the odds of overall success. Bombs that are both difficult to detect and easy to detonate are tough to make, and competent bombers are hard to find. Borders have guards. Intelligence services employ double agents.

The article’s third error is its assertion that the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda has “taken advantage of Yemen’s political turmoil and seized large swaths of territory in the south.” That language conflates the terrorist group with a broader insurgency, confuses their goals and overstates the group’s potency. The misperception invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.

Let’s review the record of the bomb maker who is labeled our “worst fear.” His organization has made no discernible progress towards its murky political objectives—though its Islamist protectors have gained territory amid a power vacuum. He has never produced mass violence nor apparently come close, and his most successful act of terrorism was to help his brother blow himself up. His next-best effort resulted in a severe crotch burn for the bomber, who survived, talked to U.S. authorities for months and is serving a life sentence.

That is “success” only under an exceedingly capacious definition. Bin Laden and his acolytes are being grandiose when they talk about bankrupting us. But their boasts show that “terrorism” remains a good label for their misbegotten efforts. They sustain their endeavors by imagining that violence, by generating fear and cost, will cause their enemy to fold and to accommodate their goals. By hyping their menace, we help them cling to that fantasy.

Yemen

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April 19, 2014