The Skeptics

The U.S. Drug War Comes to Honduras

The Skeptics

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.

TopicsEconomicsCounterinsurgencyEconomic DevelopmentSecurity RegionsCentral AmericaHonduras

Washington Post Defines Worst Fears Down

The Skeptics

“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.

TopicsMediaTerrorismSecurity RegionsYemen

Japan Still Sleeps

The Skeptics

Japanese Navy destroyer HyugaMichael Auslin of AEI writes at Foreign Policy that Japan is changing its defense posture in ways that “will have profound implications for the balance of power in Asia.” I hope this is right, but I’m fairly sure it’s wrong.

Last month, while I was in Japan meeting with industry and goverment leaders, including people close to the Ministry of Defense, I saw no evidence for this thesis. And Auslin’s evidence is somewhat thin.

The article claims the Japanese government is laying the groundwork for a much larger military role in Asia over the next several decades. The evidence Auslin provides includes:

—A deal on realigning the U.S. military presence in Japan that avoids dealing with the biggest sticking point between the two sides (Futenma);

—A smattering of Japanese overseas deployments that Auslin claims have produced “a generation of [Self Defense Force] air, sea, and land officers with extensive operational experience”;

—Japan’s decision to buy the F-35;

—Tokyo’s beginning of a process to revise the proscription on arms exports; 

and Japanese cooperation with the United States on missile defense.

These developments all indicate some militarization but nothing likely to produce “profound implications for the balance of power in Asia.” Missile defense and experience conducting humanitarian-relief operations are all well and good, but they do not buy you the naval wherewithal to prevent China from taking over your sea lanes.

Auslin allows that the “overriding challenge” to a more normalized Japanese defense posture is the fact that these changes “lack a coherent political articulation and have not been supported by a national debate over Japan’s role in Asia and in the world.” Beyond that overriding challenge, however, there are a number of problems that could ground this vessel before it gets out of port.

First, demographics. Japan currently is swirling down the demographic drain. By 2040, 14 percent of the Japanese population is projected to be eighty years of age or older, with every five-year (i.e., ten-fourteen, fifteen-nineteen, etc) age cohort under sixty-five shrinking dramatically as compared to the same age group in 2010. Japan is likely to possess 40 percent fewer citizens under age fifteen and a 30 percent drop in working-age population by 2040, placing significant stress on its economy and its pension and health systems. This does not bode well for Japan’s future economic performance and thus for its ability to generate the military investment that would underwrite a more assertive defense policy.

The demographic conundrum, coupled with expansive health-care and pension benefits for Japan’s elderly, has built a tumor of structural debt into the Japanese economy. Meanwhile, the economic “lost decade” of the 1990s has turned into something that looks an awful lot like two lost decades. Maybe more. The attitude in Japan among young people is commensurately dyspeptic.

Relatedly, the big political issue in Japan today is whether to raise the consumption tax, which is essentially a value-added tax, from 5 percent to 10 percent in order to begin to close the gaping fiscal maw. What this would do, in essence, is redistribute money from high-consumption/low-earning Japanese (the large, politically powerful elderly cohort) toward lower-consumption/higher-earning Japanese (the smaller, politically weaker group of younger Japanese). But it is important to understand a) that whether this will happen is still anyone’s guess, and b) even were it to pass, it would not come close to patching over the shortfalls in the Japanese welfare state.

In Tokyo, I heard a profound sense of resignation about Japan’s ability to take a larger role in providing its own defense, even among defense intellectuals. When pressed on this point, Japanese-security scholars shrug and point at both public opinion and straight-trend-line projections of Chinese military spending and argue that they could not possibly keep up. True, but mostly irrelevant. They don’t need to keep up, dollar for dollar; they need to do a limited number of things well. Some of those things they currently do well, like antisubmarine warfare and surveillance, but the China side of the China-Japan balance is shifting rapidly.

As I said, I’d like very much to believe that Japan is going to take on a much larger role in providing for its own security. But as long as Washington defines America’s security as coextensive with Japan’s, Tokyo would be foolish to stop free riding on America’s exertions in Asia.

Image: An Honorable German

TopicsDemographyGrand StrategyPolitical EconomyMilitary StrategyRising PowersState of the MilitarySecurity RegionsNortheast AsiaJapanAsia

U.S. Taxpayers Subsidize Afghan Insurgents

The Skeptics

Defecting Taliban insurgents in Puza-i-Eshan.Less than a week after President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan and proclaimed, “We broke the Taliban’s momentum,” the chairs of the Senate and House intelligence committees offered a candid assessment of the U.S. mission. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), alongside Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI), said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “I think we’d both say that what we found is that the Taliban is stronger.”

Their observations are the type of unvarnished truth our military and civilian leaders typically avoid. U.S. and NATO officials meeting in Chicago later this month should take heed, especially since American taxpayer dollars are helping to fund the insurgents we’re fighting.

In a not-much-publicized report last August from the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, researchers found that after the illegal opium trade, the largest source of funding for the insurgency was U.S. contracting dollars. It found that Afghan companies under the Host Nation Trucking program use private-security contractors who then turn around and pay insurgents and warlords who control the roads we must use. Although the Commission on Wartime Contracting report did not mention how much was funneled to the insurgency, a similar protection racket also was uncovered a couple of years ago.

Task Force 2010, assembled by General David Petraeus, examined the connections between insurgents and criminal networks on the one hand and Afghan companies and their subcontractors for transportation, construction and other services on the other. The task force estimated that $360 million in U.S. tax dollars ended up in the hands of insurgents and other “malign actors,” including criminals, warlords and power brokers.

The $360 million “represents a fraction of the $31 billion in active U.S. contracts that the task force reviewed,” Associated Press reporters Deb Riechmann and Richard Lardner explained. As the Brussels-based International Crisis Group observed in a depressingly frank June 2011 report:

Insecurity and the inflow of billions of dollars in international assistance has failed to significantly strengthen the state’s capacity to provide security or basic services and has instead, by progressively fusing the interests of political gatekeepers and insurgent commanders, provided new opportunities for criminals and insurgents to expand their influence inside the government. The economy as a result is increasingly dominated by a criminal oligarchy of politically connected businessmen.

Is it any wonder that pouring massive piles of cash into a broken and war-ravaged system resulted in failure? Those who follow the news from Afghanistan will see how rent seeking inadvertently strengthens that country’s twin evils: corruption and insecurity. As journalist Douglas A. Wissing writes in his eye-opening new book, Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, in addition to foreign-development advisers preoccupied with their own career advancement, development money itself was not countering the insurgency but rather paying for it. Combined with an enemy whose strategy was always about exhaustion, the result has been catastrophic.

Wissing writes, “I learned that the linkage between third-world development and US national security that foreign-aid lobbyists peddled to American policymakers was a faith-based doctrine with almost no foundation in research.” Year after year, the American public was spoon-fed government reports that lacked honesty about why our top-down security and development programs were constantly failing. Buildings were poorly constructed. Projects were bereft of proper oversight. Schools were built without teachers to staff them. Road-construction contracts financed insurgent racketeering operations.

The undistorted evidence of a European-based think tank, a bipartisan congressional commission and a report from military experts assembled by the war’s former commander leads to one conclusion: the war is inadvertently throwing American taxpayer dollars at insurgents killing American troops. What about this self-aggrandizing system is making Americans safer? Moreover, what about the safety of the Afghans whom planners in Washington swore to protect from the Taliban? In spite of the tripling of U.S. troops since 2008, a recent report by the U.N. mission concluded that 2011 was the fifth straight year in which civilian casualties rose.

As Feinstein said to CNN on Sunday, “The Taliban has a shadow system of governors in many provinces. They’ve gone up north. They’ve gone to the east. Attacks are up.” After over a decade of inadvertently funding the enemy and alienating the local people, Americans should not be surprised with such a dire outcome. If anything, they should be surprised that their elected leaders are finally telling the truth.

Image: isafmedia

TopicsCounterinsurgencyEconomic DevelopmentForeign AidSecurity RegionsAfghanistan

Why Al-Qaeda May Never Die

The Skeptics

Outside the White House after Osama bin Laden's death on May 1, 2011.The first anniversary of the murderous raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideaway presents an opportunity to evaluate the threat al-Qaeda now poses. For its part, the Obama administration/reelection campaign seems more interested in using the event to score political points against Mitt Romney. But terrorism alarmists are more focused on al-Qaeda itself and are in peak form explaining that, although the organization has been weakened, it still manages to present a grave threat.

Various techniques, honed over a decade, are applied to support this contention. If they are accepted as valid, al-Qaeda will cease to exist or be “defeated” only when we run entirely out of tiny groups or individual nuts operating with al-Qaeda-like aspirations.

One technique is to espy and assess various “linkages” or “connections” or “ties” or “threads” between and among a range of disparate terrorists or terrorist groups, most of which appear rather gossamer and of only limited consequence on closer examination.

Another is to darkly elevate the vague and the distinctly aspirational as if there were some tangible potential there. Thus, al-Qaeda’s “ideology of the global jihad” still “survives,” we are told, and the group is “making provisions for the long term;” is “poised to survive;” “is regrouping;” is “not entirely isolated;” might work with Iran because “they share a common enemy;” has been “embraced” by a Nigerian group with purely local concerns; has provided “strategic advice;” has “inspired” a number of inept would-be amateur terrorists here and there; and has been thinking about plotting the assassination of Barack Obama.

A third technique is to exaggerate the importance and effectiveness of the “affiliated groups” linked to al-Qaeda central. In particular, alarmists point to the al-Qaeda affiliate in chaotic Yemen, proclaiming it to be the “deadliest” and the “most aggressive” of these and a “major threat.”

Insofar as it threatens the United States, the Yemen group has been elevated by two efforts at international terrorism, both of which failed abysmally.

It apparently supplied the 2009 underwear bomber with an explosive that he was unable to detonate, one that, a test by the BBC suggests, might not have downed his plane even if it had gone off.

The other failure is the foiled effort to set off bombs contained within laser printers on planes bound for the United States in 2010. The organization explained that one of their packages contained a copy of Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations to express its optimism about the operation’s success even as the group promised more such attacks. The optimism, and thus far the promise, have gone unfulfilled.

With that track record, the group may pose a problem or concern to the United States. But it scarcely presents a “major threat.”

Much of the alarmist perspective has been generated in opposition to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s contention last year that “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.” Insofar as this declaration can be decoded, it actually seems to be supported by the alarmists’ own admission that “the organization that brought us 9/11 is essentially gone” and that it no longer plays “a major strategic and operational role.”

More important, however, is to supply some degree of quantitative heft to an evaluation of the “threat.”

To the administration’s claim that it is trying “to keep our country safe,” Associated Press intelligence writer Kimberly Dozier rhetorically observes, “How safe remains in question.”

But there is a perfectly valid method for assessing the question and for measuring the risk international terrorism presents to the United States. At current rates, an American’s chance of becoming a victim of terrorism in the United States is about one in 3.5 million per year. In comparison, that same American stands a one in twenty-two thousand yearly chance of becoming a homicide victim, a one in eight thousand chance of perishing in an auto accident and a one in five hundred chance of dying from cancer.

These calculations are based, of course, on historical data. However, the terrorism data include not only 9/11 but also the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and alarmists who would reject such history need to explain why they think terrorists will suddenly become vastly more competent in the future.

But no one seems to be making that argument. Indeed, notes Dozier, U.S. officials say al-Qaeda has become less capable of a large attack like 9/11.

She also discloses that these officials made this brave disclosure only on condition of anonymity because they feared that “publicly identifying themselves could make them a target” of terrorists. Meanwhile, however, terrorism specialist Peter Bergen observed to Dozier in heroic full attribution mode that “The last terror attack (in the West) was seven years ago in London,” that there “haven’t been any major attacks in the U.S.,” and that “they are recruiting no-hopers and dead-enders.”

The problem is that there is an endless supply of no-hopers and dead-enders out there.

And also, it appears, of terrorism alarmists.

Image: Chris.M.G.


What’s Wrong with a Little Uncertainty?

The Skeptics

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.

Over at Shadow Government, Dan Blumenthal makes the case that if there is any Obama Doctrine it should be described as the Uncertainty Doctrine. In Blumenthal’s words:

Businesspeople and economists make a good case that the uncertainty of Obama's domestic policies has slowed the economic recovery. The private sector does not know when and for what they will next be taxed or regulated, what the new health care law visited upon them means for the economy. The anxiety causes a freeze in economic growth. So too with Obama's uncertainty foreign policy doctrine. Allies and adversaries have no idea what we will do next and are acting accordingly…Just as uncertainty in economic policy can make an economy sputter, so too has Obama's uncertainty doctrine made the world a more dangerous place. With no one else to do the chores, the United States must lead with certainty. The rest of the world may complain about our arrogance, but that is better than complaining about utter chaos.

Among the examples of the Uncertainty Doctrine in action that Blumenthal cites are the Obama administration’s simultaneous escalation and de-escalation of the war in Afghanistan, surging troops in while setting a date for their withdrawal; declaring an Iranian nuclear weapon unacceptable while restraining Israel from doing anything forceful about it; and “pivoting” to Asia while reassuring allies elsewhere that we are not abandoning them.

For those who have been around the block a few times, this line of argument should sound familiar: while the words “domino theory” do not appear in Blumenthal’s post, it is domino logic that he is relying on. His basic argument is that the Obama administration is not demonstrating the requisite strength and resolve abroad, which will eventually lead allies to abandon us and adversaries to trample on our interests.

Rather than rehash why the domino theory should be consigned to the dustbin of history, let me provide two additional reasons why Blumenthal’s criticisms are misdirected. First, the Obama administration has little choice but to be more equivocal in its commitments than Blumenthal would like. The fact of the matter is that the United States is badly overstretched, with a growing gap between the commitments we have taken on abroad and the resources available to meet those commitments. Under such conditions, great powers are wise to retrench by making some tough choices about which interests are worth defending and at what cost. What Blumenthal describes as introducing dangerous uncertainty into the mix I would describe as setting priorities and discriminating between vital and peripheral interests. In short, the Uncertainty Doctrine may be less a misguided choice on the part of the Obama administration than a prudent bowing to the inevitable.

Second, and as importantly, is introducing some uncertainty into the mix always such a bad thing? Blumenthal implies that there is no downside to backing allies to the hilt and facing down adversaries. But there is actually such a thing as too much reassurance, which can embolden allies to take dangerous actions that risk entrapping us in unwanted conflicts or, alternatively, lull them into under-providing for their own defense. Likewise, there can even be too much deterrence. If another state has no intention of threatening our interests, but we take strong actions to “deter” them, we may end up convincing them that we are hostile and set off a spiral of conflict.

The latter consideration can be discounted if an interest is vital enough to be worth defending even at some risk of war. But the fact that Blumenthal does not even concede any downside to certainty or upside to uncertainty suggests that he does not recognize any distinction between vital and peripheral interests. This, I would argue, is the common failing of any approach to strategy rooted in domino logic, which inevitably leads to overextension.

TopicsGrand StrategyGreat PowersThe PresidencySecurity

NATO: An Alliance Past Its Prime

The Skeptics

On May 20, the 2012 NATO Chicago summit will bring together the heads of state from the alliance. The agenda reads like a rundown of major world events in the past two years: the Arab Spring, the Libyan civil war, the global financial crisis and the war in Afghanistan. It seems no problem is too big for NATO.

Of these topics, the most pressing and headline-grabbing will be the plan NATO and the United States establish to gradually turn responsibility for security in Afghanistan over to the Afghan national forces. But also of note are the topics—“lessons learned from Libya” and the "Smart Defense Initiative,”—that display the reliance of Europe on the United States for advanced military capabilities. Libya in particular showcased Europe's inability to act without Washington.

The lessons from Libya are twofold, and it is important to keep them in mind as policy makers and pundits in Washington call for the next U.S. intervention, possibly in Syria or Iran. First, the results so far have been disappointing for America’s latest stab at coercive democratization.

Libya also was a disappointment as a supposed new model for U.S. intervention. In fact, that conflict reinforces the fact that NATO really stands for North America and The Others. Without the United States, the Europeans would be essentially helpless.

A new alliance study underscores Europe’s relative ineffectiveness. Reports the New York Times:

Despite widespread praise in Western capitals for NATO’s leadership of the air campaign in Libya, a confidential NATO assessment paints a sobering portrait of the alliance’s ability to carry out such campaigns without significant support from the United States.

The report concluded that the allies struggled to share crucial target information, lacked specialized planners and analysts, and overly relied on the United States for reconnaissance and refueling aircraft.

This should surprise no one. After all, during the war against Serbia—another nation which had not threatened America or any American ally—Europe was estimated to have a combat effectiveness less than 15 percent that of the U.S. The Europeans had large conscript armies, but outside of Britain and France had very little ability to project power. Later European participation in Afghanistan has been marred by the dozens of national “caveats” limiting participation in combat.

Yet alliance expansion is also on the agenda for the May NATO summit in Chicago. The list of alliance wannabes includes such powerhouses as Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia. Former Soviet republics notable mostly for their tangled and/or troubled relations with Russia—Georgia and Ukraine—are also on the list. All of these nations would be security liabilities, not assets, for America.

As the NATO study demonstrates, should the alliance’s Article 5 commitment get invoked, America would do most of the fighting. It would be one thing to take that risk where vital interests were at stake. But they are not in the Balkans, let alone in the Caucasus, which was part of Imperial Russia even before the Soviet Union.

Alliances should reflect the security environment. The Cold War is over. The Europeans have developed, the Soviet Union is kaput, and the potential European conflicts of the future—distant and unlikely—are linked to no hegemonic threat against America.

Instead of talking about NATO expansion, the United States should set down the burden of defending Europe. Let the Europeans take over NATO or create their own European defense organization, as they have discussed for years. The latest reminder of Europe’s relative military ineffectiveness reinforces the case for ending the Continent’s cheap ride. It is time to turn North America and The Others into simply The Others.

TopicsNATOSecurity RegionsAfghanistanLibyaSyriaEurope

Great Gaming Russia in Central Asia

The Skeptics

For the sake of Afghanistan, U.S. officials routinely invoke the importance of nurturing economic growth across South and Central Asia. But when it comes to advancing policies meant to increase regional trade, Washington has shown little effort to ease the geopolitical differences between itself and one of Afghanistan’s key neighbors: Russia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed late last year in Dushanbe, “we want Afghanistan to be at the crossroads of economic opportunities going north and south and east and west, which is why it’s so critical to more fully integrate the economies of the countries in this region in South and Central Asia.”

That sounds promising. So what is the problem? As George Washington University research professor Marlene Laruelle writes, present U.S. policies, like the “New Silk Road” initiative that Clinton hints at above, reflect an underlying economic rationale “to exclude Moscow from new geopolitical configurations.”

Echoing this interpretation is Joshua Kucera, a Washington-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Slate and He points to Washington’s call to tie together the electrical grids of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Washington’s placement of the Central Asian states in a new State Department bureau. He writes, “What these all have in common is that they attempt to weaken the economic (and as a result, political) monopoly that Russia, by dint of the centralized Soviet infrastructure, has on these countries.”

Moscow already thinks that Washington’s promotion of NATO’s eastward expansion is a U.S.-led containment strategy. As we have seen in that part of the world, however, Washington’s attempts to marginalize Russia in its Central Asian post-Soviet sphere will bump up against the region’s deep historical ties, cultural influence and geographic contiguity with the Kremlin. This all might seem obvious, but it's apparently not, as it would require foreign-policy planners to appreciate the overriding interests of neighboring great powers as they pertain to Afghanistan, even the ones we abhore. That will be difficult, and it is important to illuminate why.

Too many in Washington consider a less confrontational approach a sign of weakness and militant internationalism a sign of strength. But in South and Central Asia, U.S. officials must understand that what they perceive to be in America’s interest does not always line up with the prospect of regional connectivity. Washington’s pursuit of primacy in this region is erecting hurdles to the very liberal-internationalist goals that it claims to promote. If economic growth is to have any reliable chance of success, then the United States should not be attempting to foreclose constructive avenues for increased integration.

Pursuing policies that place the region’s general interest before America’s does not convey weakness. Rather, it is a recognition that some countries are better positioned to be key players in the region, especially in light of the last eleven years, which have amply demonstrated the limits of Washington’s ability to impose lasting change in Afghanistan.

As my colleague Doug Bandow alluded to the other day, Russia is not America’s “number-one geopolitical foe”—it is a declining power with nukes. Whether officials in Washington are willing to countenance such thoughts is anyone’s guess. However, given the disproportionate power of foreign-policy hawks inside the Beltway—of the liberal and conservative persuasion—I wouldn’t bet on it.

TopicsGrand StrategyGreat PowersSecurity RegionsAfghanistanCentral Asia

A New Infrastructure for Intervention

The Skeptics

On Monday, April 23, President Obama announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board and an effort to develop government-wide strategies for finding ways to intervene before mass killings take place. The Presidential Study Directive (PSD-10) and the executive order on which these actions are based rightly note that the U.S. government has never had a comprehensive strategy for preventing mass atrocities despite having promised “never again” several times since World War II.

It is very difficult to criticize any presidential efforts to put pressure on human-rights abusers, especially at this point in history when so many publics are challenging autocratic governments over their futures. It is also difficult to contest the general logic of Obama’s finding that the United States and its allies have been ill-prepared to prevent mass atrocities. What is less difficult, however, is to worry about where we might wind up if the United States finally puts its money where its mouth is and creates an infrastructure for intervention.

Obama’s policy review identified several themes behind the failure to respond to mass atrocities, all of which can be traced back to the fact that there has been no single agency or group in the U.S. government responsible for monitoring and engaging situations that might lead to such acts. And without such a system, by the time the government realizes there is a problem it could be too late to coordinate an effective U.S. response, much less help coordinate an international response. The proposed cure, therefore, makes perfect sense—if the goal is to intervene much more frequently around the world.

There are at least three reasons to worry about the Atrocities Prevention Board. First, if it works as its creators hope, it will lead to many more interventions in the future. It will create a stronger lobby for interventions within the government, it creates tools that make intervention easier to manage and potentially by raises expectations of aid from endangered people around the world. As PSD-10 states: "Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States."

Again, no one wants more mass atrocities, but many do question the extent to which preventing them is actually a core national-security interest or moral responsibility of the United States. What Obama is calling for will make the default presumption one of U.S. involvement, rather than the opposite.

Now, instead of needing good reasons to intervene, the president will need good reasons not to intervene. This, in turn, leads to a debate that the current executive order does not answer: Which mass killings are we responsible for? All of them? What counts as a mass killing? Why is nine thousand in Syria almost enough to get the United States involved but several million in the Congo was not? Without a clearer articulation of the conditions under which the United States will act to prevent mass killings, this effort starts to look more like political theater and less like sound policy.

Second, a bigger intervention tool kit raises the chances of the United States engaging in conflicts more deeply than planned. Obama argues that without an infrastructure like the one he’s building, U.S. options are limited to full-scale intervention or no intervention at all. At one level, he is correct. But at another level, the notion of partial intervention is a myth. Preventing mass atrocities is difficult, dangerous and time consuming. Very few conflicts that involve mass killings are the kind where the nudge of sanctions or vague threats of criminal prosecution are going to get the job done. Yes, there are cases where a relatively small investment of attention and action would have paid huge dividends—Rwanda comes to mind. But for every Rwanda, there are many that look more like Bosnia, Syria, Somalia or Sudan, where problems cannot be fixed without getting deeply involved in resolving multilateral civil conflicts and nation building. In those cases, getting involved at all risks getting involved all the way and, in turn, risks being involved for a very long time at great cost. Given our track record in those sorts of conflicts, I am not sure improving our infrastructure for intervention is a good idea.

Finally, the Atrocities Prevention Board, as noble as its goals are, illustrates just how militarized our foreign policy has become. In the wake of 9/11 the United States has spent billions of dollars intervening in an unprecedented number of nations in the Middle East and Africa without resolving any of the underlying problems at stake and at a cost of fueling the fires of anti-Americanism. More intervention—or even the threat of intervention—is not a great plan in this context. Moreover, the reliance on military means reveals a lack of imagination and moral sensibility. Waiting until the time people are organizing to kill each other in mass quantities to step in makes no sense, especially when your plan to make them stop is to kill some of them. The time to help people is before things get that bad. This is not always possible either, of course, but it does not require killing people, and it at least holds the possibility of creating the conditions for peace and stability that will make military intervention unnecessary.

TopicsHuman RightsHumanitarian InterventionSecurity

Romney and Russia: Complicating American Relationships

The Skeptics

Mitt Romney has become the inevitable Republican presidential candidate. He’s hoping to paint Barack Obama as weak, but his attempt at a flanking maneuver on the right may complicate America’s relationship with Eastern Europe and beyond.

Romney recently charged Russia with being America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” As Jacob Heilbrunn of National Interest pointed out, this claim embodies a monumental self-contradiction, attempting to claim “credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the one hand [while] predicting dire threats from Russia on the other.” Thankfully, the U.S.S.R. really is gone, and neither all the king’s men nor Vladimir Putin can put it back together.

It is important to separate behavior which is grating, even offensive, and that which is threatening. Putin is no friend of liberty, but his unwillingness to march lock-step with Washington does not mean that he wants conflict with America. Gordon Hahn of CSIS observes:

Yet despite NATO expansion, U.S. missile defense, Jackson-Vanik and much else, Moscow has refused to become a U.S. foe, cooperating with the West on a host of issues from North Korea to the war against jihadism. Most recently, Moscow agreed to the establishment of a NATO base in Ulyanovsk.

These are hardly the actions of America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Romney’s charge is both silly and foolish.

This doesn’t mean the U.S. should not confront Moscow when important differences arise. But treating Russia as an adversary risks encouraging it to act like one.

Moreover, treating Moscow like a foe will make Russia more suspicious of America’s relationships with former members of the Warsaw Pact and republics of the Soviet Union—and especially Washington’s determination to continue expanding NATO. After all, if another country ostentatiously called the U.S. its chief geopolitical threat, ringed America with bases, and established military relationships with areas that had broken away from the U.S., Washington would not react well. It might react, well, a lot like Moscow has been reacting.

Although it has established better relations with the West, Russia still might not get along with some of its neighbors, most notably Georgia, with its irresponsibly confrontational president. However, Washington should not give Moscow additional reasons to indulge its paranoia.

TopicsElectionsGreat PowersThe PresidencyPoliticsSecurity RegionsRussia