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The Skeptics

Mexico Bleeds over the Border

 Although most journalists and pundits admit that the drug violence afflicting Mexico has become very bad indeed, many of them also argue that there is no evidence of a spillover into the United States. Gabriel Arana, writing in the Nation, typifies that view, contending that if dire reports “are to be believed, an Armageddon-like rash of drug-related violence” has “crossed from Mexico into the United States.” He responds that “the numbers tell a different story.” And until recently, Arana and other analysts had a point, since violent crime rates in El Paso and other southwestern U.S. cities remained relatively low, and the trend did not differ from cities in other parts of the country. Nevertheless, there are growing indications that the spillover effect is not a myth.

There have been ominous signs for some time. Mexican drug organizations had established close connections with domestic gangs in some two hundred fifty U.S. cities—and all fifty largest cities—by mid-2008. The increasing Mexican domination of all phases of the drug trade in the United States carries with it the obvious risk that the turf battles in Mexico between rival cartels could become proxy wars in U.S. communities. There is evidence that such struggles are already underway. In at least three cases, members of La Familia kidnapped competing drug dealers in Houston and held them for ransom. Similar events have occurred in Phoenix, Las Vegas and other U.S. cities.

Cartel hit men have not only killed victims–including Americans–in Mexico, but they have apparently struck at individuals inside the United States. During 2008 and 2009, seven individuals were killed execution style in Laredo, Texas, across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo—a major arena in the turf wars between the drug gangs. Authorities arrested and convicted two Gulf cartel enforcers for the string of executions. In October 2008, a Las Vegas child was kidnapped because a relative owed money to one of Mexican drug gangs.

In September 2009, three armed men dragged Sergio Saucedo, a resident of Horizon City, Texas, out of his home and shoved him into an SUV. Saucedo’s wife, as well as school children in a packed bus, witnessed the abduction. His body was found several days later in Ciudad Juárez, with its arms chopped off and placed on the chest. U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested four men, including two who were U.S. citizens, the following February in connection with the crime.

The drug lords are now bold enough to put Americans living in the United States, including law enforcement personnel, on target lists for execution. Police in Nogales, Arizona went on heightened alert in June 2010 after receiving a threat, relayed through an informant, that officers would be targeted if they continued to carry out off-duty drug busts. Apparently traffickers considered it within the rules of the game for police to engage in such raids as part of their job when they were on duty, but that it was a gratuitous affront to do so on other occasions. When off duty, the cartel warned, police were to look the other way and ignore any drug shipments that came across the border, if they valued their lives. The warning occurred just days after two off-duty police officers seized four hundred pounds of marijuana while horseback riding outside the city. What was especially chilling about the cartel warning is that it specifically named the officers who were off-duty in the area of the drug bust that day. The Nogales police chief instructed his officers to keep weapons with them at all times and to frequently communicate their whereabouts to the department. He also encouraged them to wear body armor even when they were off duty.

Perhaps the most jarring incident occurred in early August 2010, when reports surfaced that a Mexican cartel had put a $1 million bounty on the life of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, the chief lawman in Maricopa County (which includes Phoenix and many of its suburbs). The threat originated in Mexico and was conveyed via a disposable cell phone–standard operating procedure for all of the drug gangs. There is no doubt that the Mexican drug cartels loathe the man, since his department is one of the most active in the southwestern states in intercepting drug shipments. Consequently, state and federal law enforcement agencies took the threat against Arpaio’s life quite seriously. They did so perhaps even more than usual in the summer of 2010, because just weeks earlier, the DEA had warned that the cartels were about to take their war from Mexico north of the border and attack U.S. law enforcement personnel.

Sometimes, the spillover of Mexico’s violence is graphic and direct. Officials and residents in El Paso were badly shaken in late June when seven bullets struck the upper floors of city hall. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured, but if the incident had occurred earlier in the day when more people were in the building conducting business, the outcome might have been different. Apparently, the shots came from an altercation across the border in Juárez, and the incident was a graphic reminder that Mexico’s violence was not necessarily confined to Mexican territory.

Fear and anger is spreading well beyond the southwestern states. A scathing editorial in the influential conservative newspaper Investor’s Business Daily scorned President Obama’s assurance that our southern border is more secure today than at any time in the past twenty years. If that’s true, IBD’s editors asked, “why is El Paso’s City Hall taking fire from Mexico?”

The editorial went on to argue that events along the border “suggest bottoms dropping out, with horrors unimaginable in the past becoming the new norm.” It then listed a series of alarming developments.

! The U.S. has lost control of actual U.S. territory to drug and migrant smugglers as much as eighty miles inland in Arizona. Any American who enters this area risks getting shot dead.

! The Falcon Dam on Texas’ lower Rio Grande was targeted for destruction by a Mexican cartel to destroy a rival’s drug smuggling route. Had the foiled plot succeeded, 4 million people could have ended up downriver with mass casualties and deaths.

! Arizona now has the second-highest kidnapping rate in the world, behind only Mexico City, with all of it due to drug and migrant smugglers and their quests for cash and territory.

! Mass graves have been discovered in New Mexico, believed by lawmen to be the work of cartels.

The editorial closed by accusing the Obama administration of exhibiting no sense of urgency about the danger and, in fact, showing a “can’t-do attitude.”

Jitters mounted in early October when an American, David Hartley, was killed while jet skiing on Falcon Lake, which straddles the border between Texas and Mexico. Hartley’s horrified wife, Tiffany, watched the incident unfold. The perpetrators were apparently members of the Zetas, perhaps the most violent of the Mexican trafficking organizations. That thesis gained further strength a few days later when the lead Mexican police investigator in the case was found decapitated—a trademark of drug gang executions.

The alarm that Investor’s Business Daily expresses may be excessive–and some of it may even reflect a cynical strategy of taking political potshots at a liberal Democratic president. Most of the evidence suggests that the spillage of violence over the border is not yet at a crisis point. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to view it as a minor problem, much less as a myth.

Some chilling indicators of the extent of the danger emerged in August 2010, when the federal government began posting signs along a sixty-mile stretch of Interstate 8 between Casa Grande and Gila Bend, Arizona, more than one hundred miles north of the border with Mexico. The signs warn motorists that they are entering an “active drug and human smuggling area” where they may encounter “armed criminals and smuggling vehicles traveling at high rates of speed.” Pinal County sheriff Paul Babeu, whose jurisdiction is in the heart of that smuggling route, goes even a bit further than the federal warning signs, contending that he and his deputies are totally outnumbered and outgunned. “Mexican drug cartels literally do control parts of Arizona,” Babeu stated.

Such developments are a worrisome harbinger of the deterioration of the security situation on our southern border. It is almost inevitable that Mexico’s troubling violence will increasingly impact the United States as well. The only surprise is that it has taken this long.

 

(Photo by Codo)

United States, Mexico

“Big Government,” Conservative Values, and the War on Terror

Fiscal modesty, belief in the importance of strong families, and any number of other conservative values have been sacrificed at the altar of the War on Terror. Might having government agents reach into women's underpants be the straw that breaks the conservative camel's back?

The beleaguered head of the Transportation Security Administration said today that at least one airport passenger screening went too far when an officer reached inside a traveler's underwear, and the agency is open to rethinking its current protocols.

An ABC News employee said she was subject to a "demeaning" search at Newark Liberty International Airport Sunday morning.

"The woman who checked me reached her hands inside my underwear and felt her way around," she said. "It was basically worse than going to the gynecologist. It was embarrassing. It was demeaning. It was inappropriate."

[...]

In recent days, several passengers have come forward to tell shocking stories about their experiences with TSA officers.

Thomas Sawyer, a bladder cancer survivor, said he was humiliated after a pat down broke his urostomy bag, leaving the 61-year-old covered in his own urine. Sawyer said he warned the TSA officials twice the pat down could break the seal.

"I was so embarrassed and so petrified of going out into the airport and people would see me and quote unquote smell me," Sawyer said. "My underwear had dropped to the floor and I'm standing there in front of them with my underwear and had to ask to pull it up."

Cathy Bossi, a long-time flight attendant and breast cancer survivor said the TSA made her take off her prosthetic breast.

"She put her full hand on my breast and said 'What is this?' I said 'It's a prosthesis because I've had a breast cancer,'" Bossi said. "And she said, 'You'll need to show me that.'"

A video of a father taking his young son's shirt off so he can be searched has gone viral online with nearly half a million views in just three days.

I suspect there's so little left to Beltway Conservatism beyond contempt for Democrats and an unslakable thirst for war that its avatars will shrug this sort of thing off as a matter of course. Having a TSA employee perform a gynecological exam, having one's urostomy bag broken and being soaked in one's own urine, and having one's prosthetic breast removed and examined will be deemed measures necessary to our War to Protect Civilization.

It All Comes Back to Hegemony

On Thursday, President Barack Obama took to the pages of the New York Times to remind Americans of NATO's continued relevance:

"For more than six decades, Europeans and Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder because our work together advances our interests and protects the freedoms we cherish as democratic societies."

After the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO's purpose dissolved. Nevertheless, America’s embrace of "collective security" has since morphed into a rationale for subsuming Europe’s military autonomy within a U.S.-dominated security framework. Take, for example, the Clinton administration's promotion of the European Union’s move toward military self-reliance, through the European Security and Defense Policy. That support, however, was conditioned by what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the "three D's": no decoupling of U.S. and European decision making, no discriminating against non-EU NATO members, and no duplicating NATO's operational planning system or command structure.

President George W. Bush also signaled Washington's support for improvements to Europe's military capabilities, so long as it took place under NATO's purview. In fact, when the largest European states—Germany and France—opposed America's intervention in Iraq, they proposed the establishment of an independent military headquarters, with an independent planning capacity. In reponse, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns described the effort as "the greatest threat to the future" of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Interestingly, many U.S. leaders bemoan the relatively paltry sums their Western allies spend on defense. Compared to the United States, which this year spent roughly five percent of its $15 trillion dollar GDP on military-related expenditures, Britain, France, and Germany spent as little as 2.6 percent, 2.1 percent, and 1.15 percent of their GDP on defense, respectively. But these deficiencies should be expected: multi-national alliances like NATO encourage large member states to bear a disproportionate share of the common defense. Since smaller states know that larger states will provide the collective good of military protection, smaller states devote a smaller portion of their resources toward defense and still feel safe.

That compelling assessment of the behavior of small states still falls short of explaining why larger states choose to bear a disproportionate share of the common defense. Luckily, one school of thought within International Relations—hegemonic stability theory—may provide an answer. It posits that a stable international system is most likely to transpire when a single dominant state acquires a preponderance of global power. Therefore, today, in the absence of a preeminent Soviet rival lurking over the European landmass, a weakened NATO, in the estimation of U.S. leaders, may ostensibly secure America's hegemonic interests by derailing potential challenges to U.S. primacy.

Hegemony, however, comes at a high cost. Attempts to retain it can even hasten hegemonic decline. Given the immediate threat facing NATO's prestige in Afghanistan, as well as America's soaring budget deficits at home, the current state of the trans-Atlantic alliance should throw into question the wisdom of assuming inordinate economic and military burdens to subsidize the protection of European welfare states.

United States, Europe

He's Baaack: George W. Bush as Freddy Krueger

Image of The Nightmare Never Ends: The Official History of Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare on Elm Street FilmsThe Nightmare Never Ends: The Official History of Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare on Elm Street Films Like the star of a third-rate horror film, George W. Bush is back, scaring the public. The former president has a memoir to sell, and he’s busy defending his militaristic and profligate presidency, highlighted by his attempt to turn America’s chief executive into an elective despot. It’s a record Americans should reject today as firmly as they did when he left office nearly two years ago.

 

Presidents often appear better when looking backward. Consider hapless and unelected Gerald Ford. When judged by the standard of his successor, Jimmy Carter, the natural reaction was: bring back Jerry. President George W. Bush is benefiting from a similar effect. As President Barack Obama nationalizes health care, increases spending, expands the Afghan war and threatens civil liberties, some people are asking: what’s not to like about the Bush presidency?

A lot, actually.

President Bush was not an evil man, in contrast to the image spun by his severest critics. However, he was temperamentally unsuited to the presidency. Not stupid, he was something worse: willfully ignorant. He did not view lack of knowledge as any reason not to bomb, invade, and occupy other nations. Indeed, he almost joyfully tried violent social engineering in lands about which he knew nothing.

George W. Bush treated appointments to government like filling fraternity offices. Knowledge naturally was irrelevant, along with competence and experience. Instead, President Bush preferred buddies, political supporters, sycophants, people to whom he took a superficial liking and above all loyalists.

Who else would have insisted that appointees to the occupation authority in Baghdad have backed his 2000 campaign and hold the “correct” view on abortion? Or would have nominated the egregiously ill-prepared Michael Brown and Harriet Miers to the Federal Emergency Management Administration and Supreme Court, respectively?

The president also judged people and information by whether they matched his ideological presuppositions. For instance, those who suggested that events in Iraq failed to match his rosy scenario earned dismissal as defeatists. George W. Bush appeared to be congenitally unable to reconsider bad decisions, even when new information contradicted what he believed was supposed to have happened.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that when “The Decider” decided the results were usually ugly.

President Bush’s philosophy was even worse than his mode of decision making. Contrary to his rhetoric, he abandoned most conservative—or at least limited government—principles once he took office. It was a presidency that only a committed statist could truly love.

First was spending. George W. Bush turned a large surplus into a huge deficit. The Congressional Budget Office reported a $13 trillion deterioration in federal finances over ten years. The single biggest factor after economic readjustments was increased outlays.

This Republican president and Congress actually increased domestic discretionary spending faster than did President Lyndon Johnson and his Democratic Congress. The GOP initiated the biggest expansion of the welfare state in four decades, the Medicare drug benefit, with an unfunded liability of $13 trillion—about the same cost as President Barack Obama’s health care reform bill. It was hard to find a program for which expenditures did not go up under President Bush.

Moreover, much of the spending blamed on President Obama began under Bush. On President Bush’s watch the federal government bailed out Bear Stearns, creating an expectation on Wall Street of further bailouts. The Bush administration terrorized a reluctant Congress into passing TARP, the most important effect of which was indirectly bailing out Goldman Sachs. Bush officials admitted that there was no “metric” to justify the $700 billion program: they just wanted a “big number.” And it was President Bush who took a plan to purchase “toxic” financial assets and turned it into bank and auto-industry bailouts.

While President Bush was not responsible for the roughly $800 billion Democratic “stimulus” legislation passed in early 2009, he pushed smaller and no less foolish initiatives during this presidency. Pork barrel spending peaked at $35 billion annually—under the Republicans. The Bush administration’s faith-based initiative turned into an expensive attempt to buy GOP political support from African-American churches.

Second, George W. Bush believed in limited government and federalism only when convenient. His “No Child Left Behind” legislation expanded national control over education. The nation’s founders would never have imagined federal funding for marriage counseling. Backed by President Bush, the U.S. Congress intervened in the tragic Terri Schiavo case, overturning multiple state-court decisions. The president believed in no limits to national political power.

Third, George W. Bush adopted promiscuous but incompetent war making as the basis of his foreign policy. After mistakenly downplaying the threat posed by al-Qaeda, the Bush administration treated terrorism as an existential threat akin to that of nuclear war. For good cause, the administration ousted the Taliban government after 9/11, but provided too few troops to capture al-Qaeda’s leaders, blithely accepted deadly Pakistani double-dealing in Afghanistan, and prematurely withdrew U.S. forces in order to attack Iraq.

As a result, we are foolishly engaged in bloody but ineffective nation building nine years later. In Iraq the president treated the most serious decision which a president can make as a casual choice, akin to deciding eligibility for federal grants. He and his top aides simply assumed success, ignoring facts on the ground, failing to plan for obvious contingencies, disdaining outside advice, providing too few military personnel, and attempting to rule Iraq from Washington. While extravagantly praising U.S. troops, the Bush administration failed to properly equip those sent into combat. American personnel suffered many unnecessary casualties before they had sufficient body armor and up-armored Humvees.

Iran and North Korea were treated with similar frivolity. The president disdained not just negotiation, but even contact with these troublesome regimes, foreclosing any possibility of peaceful accommodation. Had not the president’s Iraq adventure turned out so badly, the administration might have initiated one or more additional wars.

And turn out badly Iraq did. There were no weapons of mass destruction to find or terrorists to root out. Yet nearly five thousand American and other allied military personnel have died. Tens of thousands have been wounded, many of them permanently maimed. The best estimates of the number of dead Iraqis start at around 200,000 and climb upwards to a million. Millions of Iraqis have been displaced; the indigenous Christian community has been largely destroyed. Violence remains high and Iraq’s future remains unclear at best.

At the same time, Iran has been significantly strengthened and anti-American terrorists have gained another grievance with which to recruit acolytes. Other policies, such as support for Israel’s apartheid-like rule in the occupied territories and opposition to Mideast democracy when the wrong people win, as in Gaza, added to Muslim hostility. In Iraq, the United States so far has squandered $750 billion, with at least another trillion dollars or more to be spent caring for the American wounded in coming years. U.S. military forces have been weakened. President Bush unintentionally showed the world the limits of Washington’s influence: the unipower can’t even resolve an electoral crisis in its new client state.

Finally, the Bush administration demonstrated the truth of Randolph Bourne’ s admonition that war is the health of the state. In the name of promoting public safety, President Bush acted to destroy republican government. The hallmark of his administration was the claim that in wartime the president is the equivalent of a monarch or even dictator.

According to the president, he could declare an endless war in which the United States was the battlefield. He could initiate wide-ranging surveillance activities, searches and seizures, and arrests with no oversight or accountability of any sort, either from Congress or the courts. The president could order the arrest of an American citizen on American soil and hold him incommunicado—for as long as the president thought appropriate. The president could order the assassination of another American citizen without being second-guessed by anyone. The president could send American military and intelligence forces to promiscuously grab, capture and kidnap potential adversaries overseas, many for a bounty, and hold them without a hearing indefinitely, even if that meant forever. And if the president so desired, he could order that they be tortured.

The U.S. prosecuted Japanese military officers who employed waterboarding against American prisoners during World War II. But the president could direct its use against America’s adversaries—or people accused by someone somewhere of being America’s adversaries—irrespective of U.S. or international law.

Perhaps most striking was President Bush’s assertion that these powers were both unreviewable and perpetual. So long as he, or any other president, decided that the “war on terrorism” continued, America’s chief executive was an elective dictator in all but name. It was an extraordinary claim to make for someone elected in a republic to be chief executive of a government supposedly of limited and enumerated powers.

“Miss me yet?” ask the billboards of George W. Bush. Not just no, but hell no. His is not a legacy which can be remade. Not after the passage of two years. Not after the passage of twenty years. Or more.

President Bush should go back into retirement in Texas. He can live out his life, unlike those who have died in his wars. George W. Bush might not be the worst president in U.S. history—there are many impressive contenders for that title. But he surely is one of the worst. If the GOP hopes to regain its role as America’s governing party, it should look at the Bush administration to learn what not to do.

If Senator Lieberman Wants a War with Iran, He Should Try to Declare One

In a recent event at the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative, Senator Joe Lieberman had this exchange with Bill Kristol:

SENATOR LIEBERMAN: …nobody wants to use military force against Iran, but there is a base, a broad, bipartisan base of support if the Commander in Chief comes to a point where he thinks that's necessary.

MR. KRISTOL: And so Congress could –

SENATOR LIEBERMAN: Could express that in some way, but I think that's not tomorrow, but it may be down the road depending on -- I mean, when you think about it, by January it will have been six months since the sanctions began to be applied to Iran, and it's fair to say that there's been no voluntary limitation of their nuclear weapons program. There's been some involuntary limitation as a result of some problems they've had with it. So we haven't seen really any positive action in response yet to what we've done.

I disagree with Senator Lieberman about the utility and desirability of a war with Iran, but let’s put that aside for a moment. Joe Lieberman is a sitting Senator in the United States Senate. He does not need to wait for the “commander in chief’s” say-so if he thinks a war with Iran is or becomes necessary. Let’s repair to Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution:

The Congress shall have Power…To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water…

That’s right, if Joe Lieberman decides the United States should attack Iran, he doesn’t have to wait for Barack Obama to decide. He can rally his forces on Capitol Hill and actually make it happen.

It speaks volumes about how far the balance of power among the branches has shifted that a sitting Senator would act as if he has to wait on the President to declare a war. This sort of thing could make one wish that Senator Byrd were still with us.

Iran, United States

McCain Plays the Isolationist Card

Predictably, John McCain claims that Republicans such as Senator-elect Rand Paul represent a wing of the party associated with protectionism and isolationism.

Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is having none of it. Good on him. McCain was castigating Paul, and by extension Coburn, for suggesting that military spending needs to be included in any deficit reduction plan. But McCain has it wrong. It is simply absurd to argue that military spending, which has grown by more than 86 percent in real terms since 1998, can and should be immune from scrutiny in an era of austerity. The name-calling might succeed in intimidating the less thoughtful or merely timid, but a few minutes with the actual numbers puts to bed the notion that military spending can and should be held sacrosanct.

But while all Members of Congress, egged on by the public, should be willing to shine the light on the Pentagon's procurement practices, and to ask hard questions about what is genuinely needed as opposed to merely desired, deeper cuts in military spending should be tied to a strategic outlook very different from that which has guided Washington for many years. My colleague Justin Logan has elsewhere documented the too-loose invocation of the loaded term "isolationism" to describe a general approach to foreign policy that looks to most Americans like common sense. That alternative approach holds that countries are chiefly responsible for their own defense, that American taxpayers should not be expected to indefinitely shoulder the burdens of defending the entire world from all manner of threats, and that a smaller, more focused U.S. military would still provide Americans with a level of security that our ancestors would envy.

As Ben Friedman and I have argued elsewhere, a grand strategy of restraint would allow for a smaller Army and Marine Corps as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawn to a close (as they should be), deep cuts in the Pentagon's civilian work force, which has grown dramatically over the past 10 years, and sensible reductions in the nuclear arsenal. More modest cuts are warranted in intelligence and R&D. Finally, significant changes in a number of costly and unnecessary weapons and platforms, including terminating the V-22 Osprey and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and greater scrutiny of the F-35 program, for example, must also be in the mix. This Friday, Cato will host a discussion of these issues at a public forum featuring Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) as well as the Lexington Institute's Loren Thompson.

But our proposal is hardly the only one in the mix. Last week, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the president's debt reduction commission, recommended cutting big-ticket procurement items, and backed some politically risky reforms in military compensation. All told, it was a noble effort. Still, the Bowles/Simpson proposals are too cautious and overly dependent upon unrealistic expectations that Sec. Gates's proposed reforms will actually generate significant efficiency gains. Although they incorporated some of proposals of the Sustainable Defense Task Force (or which I was a member), they failed to follow its lead in basing their cuts in a strategic rationale that allows cuts of force structure. Bowles-Simpson makes only glancing reference to strategic change and attempts to have the same military at less cost.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has published a report by a task force chaired by former budget director Alice Rivlin and former Senator Pete Domenici. Its defense savings, as discussed here by the analysts at the Stimson Center that helped prepare it, are in the ballpark of Simpson-Bowles. Rivlin-Domenici, however, does much better in associating cuts with missions we can shed. Their recommendation to reduce military end-strength by 272,000 for example, is based first on the idea that strong allies and limited threats allow us to draw down in Europe and Asia, and second, on the judgment that recent experience makes it unlikely that we will soon undertake another open-ended counterinsurgency campaign.

Last but not least, the Project on Defense Alternatives and the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy will release a joint letter signed by 46 (as of Wednesday morning) scholars and policy experts making the case that the Pentagon’s budget can be cut without undermining U.S. security.

As it considers this swirl of proposals, Congress should keep in mind that serious cuts to military spending -- in other words, far deeper cuts than those proposed by Messrs. Bowles and Simpson last week, and Rivlin-Domenici today -- must be part of a broader strategic reset that ends the free-riding of wealthy and stable allies around the world, and that takes a more balanced and objective view of our relative strategic advantages and our enviable security.

Sen. McCain might call that isolationism. I'll call spending $700 billion on the military so that our European allies can fund generous social welfare programs foreign aid.

United States

Fear and Loathing over Kabul

On Sunday, Peter Baker of The New York Times reported that the Obama administration envisions ending America’s combat mission in Afghanistan by 2014. The assumption is that by that date the coalition will have built an Afghan Army and police force that can defend their country. Upon closer inspection, however, the 2014 statement reflects a deeper incoherence in U.S. policy.

Even though I advocate a narrower, more focused mission, I am under no illusion that the attachment of an end date has made many Afghans reluctant to stick their neck out and cooperate with coalition forces for fear of militant reprisal. Amid an inevitable U.S. drawdown, the end date has also intensified the scramble for regional influence among surrounding states. The question is: Why attach an end date at all if the goal is to cultivate trust and forge cooperation with and among local actors?

This basic dysfunction was reflected in a statement made by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen. During the presidential transition period, Mullen reportedly told President Obama that in truth there was no strategy for the Afghanistan war; regardless, Mullen said that with the proper resources America could succeed.

Succeed at what exactly? In our efforts to keep grasping for this nebulous notion of “success” we have allowed tactics to define and drive strategy. This is consistent with what Bob Woodward quotes Army Gen. David Petraeus as saying:

You have to recognize also that I don't think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It's a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives."

It is endless war for the sake of endless war: COIN-dinistas request more troops, more money, and more patience for the achievement of short-term goals that would not substantially improve our ability counter real threats to our vital interests.

A closely related problem is the mismatch between the coalition’s overarching goal (the promotion of “a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan”) with the underlying acceptance that we lack the political tools necessary to achieve that goal. This disparity was revealed earlier this week when Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in an interview with the Washington Post, called for a reduction in the U.S. military presence and an end to night raids.

"The time has come to reduce military operations," Karzai told the Post. "The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life."

I, for one, am shocked—shocked!—that Afghans are upset with civilian casualties, and that the man running the Afghan government has the nerve to voice those frustrations publicly. Of course, Karzai has been saying this for years, so it’s no wonder that he seems to be growing more desperate and frantic in his attacks.

As expected, Gen. Petraeus reportedly expressed "astonishment and disappointment" at Karzai's remarks, and said that the president's attitude could make his position "untenable."

This latest imbroglio presents the perfect opportunity to step back and think about the extent to which U.S. and NATO leaders claim to want a strong local partner in Kabul, yet swat down Karzai whenever he asserts himself. I have little sympathy for Karzai himself, but this incoherence is glaring and deserves criticism.

More importantly, the coalition appears to be conflating strong governance with good governance in that many COIN/nation-building proponents insist that their strategy requires a legitimate host nation government. And yet, despite knowing full well that no such government exists, they remain firm on expanding the reach and scope of the current government in the face of reports that it is corrupt, abusive, and wholly inept.

As U.S. officials prepare for the NATO summit in Lisbon at the end of this week, they should think very hard about the strategic purgatory we are presently stuck in: the coalition’s goals cannot be achieved with the resources currently applied, while the costs and risks needed to fully resource the mission outweigh the interests involved.

Afghanistan

A Worried Washington Confronts Turkey

The Obama administration is increasingly worried about Turkey’s apparent unreliability as a U.S. ally. The litany of grievances grows ever longer. Much to the dismay of U.S. officials, Ankara continues to make life difficult for the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq and openly opposes Washington’s hard-line strategy toward Iran. Equally disturbing from the standpoint of the Obama administration is Turkey’s increasingly cozy relationship with Russia and blatantly hostile attitude toward Israel.

I discuss the growing estrangement between the United States and its long-time NATO ally in an article in the latest issue of Mediterranean Quarterly. The article emphasizes that the tensions with Ankara are caused by far more than the specific issues involved. Those tensions illustrate a broader phenomenon—the growing unwillingness of previously friendly regional powers (even treaty allies such as Turkey) to follow Washington’s policy lead. Without a frightening and powerful mutual adversary to keep traditional security partners in line, we are almost certain to see such balky behavior become the norm. And, unfortunately, U.S. leaders are not adjusting well to the changed circumstances.

Security
Turkey

Promoting Peace on Veterans Day

The proclamation that Dwight Eisenhower issued in 1954, turning Armistice Day into Veterans Day, asks us to honor veterans by "reconsecrating ourselves to promoting an enduring peace."

This Veterans Day finds Americans in growing debate about the size and purpose of the defense budget.

Those two facts make this a particularly opportune day to point out that we can both honor veterans and cut military spending by planning for and fighting fewer wars.

Defense, Security
United States

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April 20, 2014