Andrew Bacevich's Shrewd Letter to Paul Wolfowitz

Jacob Heilbrunn

To mark the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, Andrew J. Bacevich has adopted the epistolary mode of communication in the latest Harper's, a magazine that can always be counted on for elegantly turned essays, to implore Paul Wolfowitz to come to terms with the conflict that he played a key role in promoting and, moreover, that he really only addressed once in a lengthy interview with Sam Tanenhaus in Vanity Fair, in which he conceded that weapons of mass destruction had been fastened upon by the George W. Bush administration as the most persuasive way to sell the war to the public. Now Bacevich is urging Wolfowitz, more or less, to come clean about the war, to reflect upon what went awry in an intellectually honest fashion. Addressing Wolfowitz as "Dear Paul," a privilege he grants himself based upon the fact that Wolfowitz gave him a job when he needed one several decades ago at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Bacevich has composed a remarkably personal and penetrating missive.

As Bacevich observes, the post, however minor, offered him the chance to participate in meetings led by Zbigniew Brzezinski at SAIS where the great events of the day were discussed with various luminaries. Bacevich says it was a learning experience, not so much for what he learned about foreign affairs but about the people who professed to be expert about them. He reached the conclusion—rapidly, I suspect—that "people said to be smart...really aren't. They excel mostly in recycling bromides. When it came sustenance, the sandwiches were superior to the chitchat." Wolfowtiz, however, was an exception. He was bored with administrative work, Bacevich indicates, but when it came to discussing foreign policy, he had game—"at Zbig's luncheons, when you riffed on some policy was a treat to watch you become so animated."

The heart of Bacevich's essay, however, is about Wolfowitz's relationship with the legendary strategist Albert Wohlstetter. Bacevich suggests that Wolfowitz was never really a neocon; rather, his "approach owed more to Wohlstetter Inc.—a firm less interested in ideology than in power and its employment." Bacevich outlines what he sees as Wohlstetter's approach to international relations (though in a rare lapse he omits to mention the key role played by Wohlstetter's wife Roberta, the author of a highly regarded scholarly study of Pearl Harbor which had a decisive effect on Dick Cheney's thinking about unexpected threats—indeed, a good argument could be made that she was the more rigorous thinker of the two). As Bacevich presents it, Wohlstetter was interested in dominion abroad and believed that "transforming the very nature of war, information technology—an arena in which the United States has historically enjoyed a clear edge—brings outright supremacy within reach." He adds, "of all the products of Albert Wohlstetter's fertile brain, this one impressed you most. The potential implications were dazzling." Iraq provided the pretext to attempt to implement the Wohlstetter doctrine. A successful conflict would allow America to proclaim without fear of contradiction, "I am the greatest!" It failed.

What would Wohlstetter have made of it all?

Bacevich suggests that the ruthlessly pragmatic Wohlstetter, who died in 1997, would have taken a hard look at what went wrong—the war in Afghanistan dragging on into a second decade, Iran's influence increasing almost daily in Iraq, and U.S. and Israeli security interests "rapidly slipping out of sync." (Still, it's fair to wonder if Wohlstetter himself would have endorsed the war in the first place, which Bacevich appears to assume.) No one among George W. Bush's votaries has offered anything other than valedictory statements. But why not the most gifted of the bunch, Wolfowitz? Why doesn't he take a fresh look?  It is incumbent upon him, Bacevich mordantly concludes, to "give it a shot."

My own suggestion: Bacevich and Wolfowitz should carry on a prolonged correspondence about foreign policy that could be turned into a book. Neither of these two perspicuous observers would be able to evade the other. This would surely constitute one of the more illuminating exchanges that Washington, DC has witnessed in many moons.

TopicsMuckety Mucks RegionsUnited States

The Far-Out Security Threat

Paul Pillar

Those with a bent for the supernatural might think that cosmic events last Friday were the sending of some sort of message. The earth encountered two asteroids, a known one that passed closely but harmlessly as predicted, and an unknown one that was smaller but still big enough to cause an explosion, estimated at 300-500 kilotons, that injured about a thousand people in Russia. The two objects were on much different trajectories, and NASA's Near Earth Object Program tells us that the two encounters occurring on the same day were “pure coincidence.” If anyone chooses to see the occurrences as a kind of warning, however, that is probably a good thing, because protection from bombardment by asteroids and comets deserves more priority and resources than it currently gets.

The insufficient priority illustrates deficiencies in our political process that manifest themselves in many other ways. One of those deficiencies, which is rooted in a more general psychological tendency, is an inability to analyze properly low-probability events and responses to them. Oh, sometimes it sounds like we are paying good attention to such events. It was just a few years ago that Dick Cheney was saying that even if there were only a one percent chance of something like an aggressive dictator getting his hands on weapons of mass destruction, we need to do something about it. But that comment did not really reflect any analysis. The probability of a problem occurring does matter, partly because of the costs and risks of trying to do something about the problem. Cheney's comment was only a rhetorical device for expressing his preference for doing something about the particular dictator he had in mind.

More generally, we tend to give too much attention to certain low-probability events that for some reason have come to frighten and fascinate us—which is true of some terrorism scenarios. Meanwhile, other low-probability events we basically ignore, even though the very high consequences if they did occur mean that if we apply good expected-utility analysis we should be paying more attention to them. Richard Posner's book Catastrophe is a useful corrective to these tendencies, describing what good policy analysis ought to look like when addressing low-probability, high-impact events. Among Posner's conclusions is that the danger of asteroid collisions probably ought to get more priority than it has received so far.

Friday's events were enough to elicit some encouraging sounds from politicians, including an op ed from Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ)—a physicist and former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory—and his Congressional colleague Donna Edwards (D-MD). Perhaps more significant, because it comes from the side of the aisle more accustomed to opposing increased spending on anything other than the military, was a statement from Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Although Smith did not say anything about increased spending, he did describe work on this subject as “critical to our future.” Smith said, “We should continue to invest in systems that identify threatening asteroids and develop contingencies, if needed, to change the course of an asteroid headed toward Earth.” One can hope that members of Congress will come to recognize protection from natural threats from outer space as being at least as much “defense” in the most literal sense as much that is funded in the budget for the U.S. Department of Defense.

It will be interesting to see how this issue plays in Russia. Astronomers tell us that hits from asteroids on the order of the ones that caused Friday's air burst and the 1908 Tunguska event (which flattened trees over a wide area farther east in Siberia) are once-in-a-century events. Russia has now taken on behalf of the planet the hits for the twentieth and—so far—the twenty-first centuries. Prime Minister Medvedev made a comment about how Friday's event shows that the whole planet is vulnerable, and a deputy prime minister was arguing for some kind of terrestrial defense system to reduce damage from similar happenings.

One might wonder, however, how much Russians will be inclined to shrug off asteroid hits as just another of the many impositions and hazards they have to put up with. The area around Chelyabinsk, where the meteor struck, has long been one of the worst spots in the world for radioactive pollution. This is because of a plutonium production and reprocessing complex that has had several accidents, including an especially bad one in 1957. The Danish filmmaker Boris Bertram made a documentary in Chelyabinsk called Tankograd (a nickname for the city, after its role as a producer of armaments in World War II) that addresses the radioactivity problem as necessarily a concern for health care professionals who have to deal with the consequences but not a subject that is dwelt upon by other citizens going about their daily lives.

The international dimension—which Medvedev noted—of the threat from objects in space gets to another shortcoming in the U.S. political process. This involves the antipathy some American political persuasions have against almost anything multilateral, especially where decisions of national security are involved. On this subject unilateralism will not work. This is not mainly because of shortcomings in what the United States can do technologically (although we ought to remind ourselves that currently we are dependent on Russian spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the international space station). NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005 successfully crashed a spacecraft into a comet. A bigger need for international cooperation may be in the detection of earth-bound objects. The currently weakest part of that effort involves the part of the sky visible only from the southern hemisphere.

The stickiest issues involving international cooperation and possible American reservations about it may concern decisions about taking preventive action once an earth-bound object is sighted. Even if an object-deflecting system is physically in place and ready to go, how is the decision made to use it? We can hope that any such situation that arises will be a straightforward one in which one can accurately say that what's good for the United States is good for the planet, and the U.S. president gives the order to save both. But one can imagine other situations, such as if the object is discovered too late to be able to keep it from hitting Earth altogether, and the issue becomes one in which intervention might make it more likely or less likely to hit certain parts of the planet.

TopicsCongressDefenseTechnologyGlobal GovernanceTerrorism RegionsRussiaUnited States

The Chinese Eiffel Tower

The Buzz

China is copying more than Western consumer electronics and media, according to a new book by Bianca Bosker, Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. In an excerpt run by the Wall Street Journal, Bosker explains:

To show they are making it big, the Chinese have turned to faking it big.

In recent years, some of the nation's real-estate developers and even government officials have been churning out detailed counterfeits of the West's greatest architectural hits, from Unesco World Heritage sites to Le Corbusier gems to Manhattan skyscrapers.

Paris, Orange County, Interlaken, Amsterdam—all have their doubles in China. In Hangzhou, gondolas glide through the man-made canals of Venice Water Town, which boasts its own Piazza San Marco and Doge's Palace.

Last year, developers in Huizhou unveiled a brick-for-brick replica of the Austrian village of Hallstatt, complete with its cobblestone streets, historic church and even sidewalk cafes.

Don't assume that China's reproduction of Western architecture is proof of the West's superiority—at least that's not how the Chinese see it, says Bosker. Instead, the act of recreating the icons of other cultures on their own soil is a deep seated part of Chinese nationalism:

China's emperors also used copycat buildings to convey their mastery—actual or anticipated—over their adversaries. In the third century B.C., the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, commemorated his conquest of six rival kingdoms by ordering that exact replicas of their palaces be built in his capital. Today, the ersatz Eiffel Towers and Chrysler Buildings symbolize China's power to control the world by transplanting Europe and the U.S. into its domain.

Traditional Chinese attitudes toward replication also help to explain the trend. While Americans view imitation with disdain, the Chinese have traditionally taken a more permissive and nuanced view of it. Copying can be valued as a mark of skill and superiority. The director of China's National Copyright Administration has even praised copies as a sign of "cultural creativity."

Many of the most vibrant civilizations have long incorporated other traditions for cultural inspiration. But only history will tell who is getting the most benefit from the exchange.

TopicsSociety RegionsChina

New Drone Medal Outranks Bronze Star

The Buzz

Many exploded in outrage yesterday at the announcement of a new medal for UAV pilots that outranks the Bronze Star. According to the Army Times:

The Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded to pilots of unmanned aircraft, offensive cyber war experts or others who are directly involved in combat operations but who are not physically in theater and facing the physical risks that warfare historically entails.

The new medal will rank just below the Distinguished Flying Cross. It will have precedence over — and be worn on a uniform above — the Bronze Star with Valor device, a medal awarded to troops for specific heroic acts performed under fire in combat.

Aside from the debate over what is more or less heroicthough I've never heard of a drone pilot getting shot in the face for looking around a corner at the wrong timeI can't help but feel that this medal is an effort to normalize drone operations by painting them as acts of valor.

Even if a drone pilot (recall that this person is almost always on the ground out of harm's way) were to act heroically, the already-existing Air Medal would be appropriate. Why this new special medal? It would seem the administration believes that humanizing drones via "valorous" pilots will make covert warfare of this nature go down a little easier.

TopicsState of the Military RegionsUnited States

The Myth of Iranian Nuclear Coercion

Paul Pillar

One of the most oft-repeated, widely accepted and habitually unquestioned beliefs about the Iranian nuclear issue is that if Iran got a nuclear weapon then Tehran would—merely by possessing such a weapon, even if it never detonated one—throw its weight around in the region in ways that it wouldn't or couldn't do without a nuke. A nuclear-armed Iran, according to the belief, would coerce and influence neighbors in untold ways we are not seeing now from a non-nuclear-armed Iran. This belief is shared by a wide variety of people who disagree on other aspects of Iran and its nuclear program. It is held by many people who are firmly committed to using diplomacy to resolve differences with Iran, as well as by people who are itching to launch a war against it. It is held by many people who reject the notion that Iranian leaders are mad mullahs who would nuke Tel Aviv at the first opportunity, as well as by people who peddle some version of that notion.

It is remarkable how a belief that has come to play such a major part in discussion about an issue as prominent as the Iranian nuclear issue has been so automatically accepted and so infrequently examined or questioned. Probably the most prominent questioning of it was in a short piece last year in Foreign Affairs by Kenneth Waltz. But Waltz, despite his long-established reputation as an eminent political scientist, has been preemptively pigeon-holed on this issue as an outlier. He had long ago argued, without specific reference to Iran, that the spread of nuclear weapons has been more of a stabilizing than a de-stabilizing force. His piece on Iran is titled “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.” So, sort of like George Ball in his devil's advocate role regarding the Vietnam War, Waltz with his argument on Iran has been treated as someone to be politely acknowledged but safely dismissed.

A few others have questioned the belief about Iranian nuclear coercion, bucking its entrenched status in the conventional wisdom. I did so a year ago, pointing out how the belief simply does not hold water when well-honed doctrine from the Cold War about nuclear weapons and influence is applied to it. Stephen Walt has also shot down the belief, reviewing how the history of nuclear weapons and attempts at coercion simply does not support it. And yet the image of Iranian nuclear extortion continues to prevail, probably in large part because for most people it seems to make intuitive sense that ownership of something as awesome as a nuclear weapon ought to have a significant effect on the owner's international relations.

Those still stuck in the intuitive mode ought to consider the findings of a study reported in the current issue of International Organization by Todd Sechser of the University of Virginia and Matthew Fuhrmann of Texas A&M. Their study is partly a rigorous quantitative version of what Walt did, as an examination of the historical record of attempts at coercion. They used a comprehensive database covering both nuclear and non-nuclear would-be coercers and spanning the entire nuclear age and more. Their finding: possession of nuclear weapons does not help in coercing other states. This is true whether or not explicit threats to use the weapons are made (they seldom are).

Sechser and Fuhrmann accompany their quantitative results with the key analytical points that explain those results. Nuclear weapons are great for deterring a catastrophic action—one that would extinguish one's regime. But they are not very useful in imposing one's will regarding other matters. They are less useful for that latter purpose mostly for reasons examined many years ago by Thomas Schelling when he contrasted deterrence with—his newly coined word—compellence. It is very difficult to threaten credibly the use of nuclear weapons to coerce change to a situation that the threatener has already been living with. And the very awesomeness of nuclear weapons means great costs to anyone who uses them, even if the use does not start a full-scale nuclear war.

Given the stakes involved in the Iranian nuclear matter—with talk still out there about the “military option”—it is irresponsible for so many people who talk about the subject to be relying on intuition rather than on analysis and the historical record.

TopicsHistoryNuclear Proliferation RegionsIran