Legacies of the Lethal Presidency

The Buzz

Tom Junod’s much-discussed Esquire story, “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama,” is a must read. Framed as a long letter to President Obama, the piece examines the many challenges and contradictions involved in the “shadow wars” the Obama administration is conducting in Yemen and elsewhere. It focuses on the administration’s reliance on targeted killing via drone strikes and the centrality of these killings to its conduct of foreign policy.

Of particular concern for Junod is the process that the administration has put in place in order to determine who should be killed. He notes that officials have been careful to describe the process as cool, reflective and rational, emphasizing that everything is being done in accordance with the rule of law.

Indeed, Junod points out, it is largely because Obama has successfully portrayed himself as deeply concerned with the rule of law that he has been able to wage the drone war so aggressively and with so little opposition. As he writes, “You have been able to kill our enemies because you have forsworn waterboarding them.”

It is this power—the ability to order individuals to be killed without oversight—that Junod sees as central to Obama’s legacy. He admits this may not be a new power, but the scale of what is being done now is unprecedented. Moreover, by its nature, this power is inherently expansive. We may conceive of the targeted killings as a response to a specific contemporary threat from Al Qaeda and other groups. Yet this is a power that will now be formalized for all future presidents—as well as other world leaders whose exercise of it we might not be nearly as comfortable with.

This is not to say that there is an easy alternative to the drone war as Obama is waging it. Indeed, it’s easy to see its appeal, especially when compared to the Iraq and Afghan wars of the past decade. But at the very least, the drone program’s existence raises important political and moral issues. Junod’s thoughtful piece is a notable attempt to sort through them.

TopicsThe PresidencyMilitary StrategyPolitics

Michele Bachmann's Plot To Defame Huma Abedin

Jacob Heilbrunn

Michele Bachmann is at it again. She's been alleging that Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, may be an agent for the Muslim Brotherhood. She's joined by several Republican legislators who have signed and sent a letter to various inspectors general warning them, among other things, of the dangerous risks Clinton is running by employing Abedin (who is also the wife of former congressman Anthony Weiner).

Bachmann's evidence? An obscure article from 2002 contending that Abedin's father—who has been dead for several decades—once received financial assistance from a group with ties, the New York Times reports, to the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, Senator John McCain, to widespread commendations, has condemned the smearing of Abedin, observing that she represents everything that is good about America. She's the child of immigrants who has risen by dint of her hard work to the highest councils of government. As McCain put it, she is "an honorable woman, a dedicated American, and a loyal public servant."

Does the matter end there? No, it does not. These allegations were ventilated by Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy, an outfit that has specialized in identifying what it sees as American-Muslim agents of influence who are engaging in sedition. This year, it released a series called "The Muslim Brotherhood In America: The Enemy Within" that it terms a course in ten parts presented by Gaffney. It says, "America faces in addition to the threat of violent jihad another, even more toxic danger—a stealthy and pre-violent form of warfare aimed at destroying our constitutional form of democratic government and free society. The Muslim Brotherhood is the prime-mover behind this seditious campaign, which it calls 'civilization jihad.'" Gaffney sees President Obama as a nefarious exponent of Islamic law, subverting the American military. In a July 9 op-ed in the Washington Times, he wrote that American soldiers

are ordered to honor their hosts in visits with local elders by consuming foods offered, despite the fact that doing so can subject them to lifelong affliction by parasites and diseases. They must observe rules of engagement that restrict use of their firearms and deny them air cover and artillery support in circumstances where it can mean the difference between living and dying. Worse yet, our troops are seen by the enemy in these and other ways to be submitting to the latter’s doctrine of Shariah. According to that supremacist code, its adherents are compelled, when confronted with evidence they are winning, to redouble their efforts to make us feel subdued.

The letter sent by Bachmann and her confreres refers to Gaffney's work as pointing to a dire threat. The current character assassination of Abedin is remarkably similar to the venomous assault that Gaffney has also mounted against Suhail Khan, a member of the board of the American Conservative Union and a former George W. Bush administration official. The accusation was the same almost down to the letter: Khan's father, we were told, was a bad egg, someone who had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Along with Grover Norquist, the allegation continued, the son, Suhail, was trying to infiltrate and subvert the conservative movement. Both accusations are too ridiculous to even merit refutation.

Now conspiracy thinking is focusing on Abedin. Here is what Gaffney writes on his website:

While it cannot be confirmed at this writing, presumably Mrs. Clinton was accompanied on her travels as usual—particularly in the Middle East—by her Deputy Chief of Staff, Huma Abedin. That would be all the more probable given that Ms. Abedin has myriad family ties to the Brotherhood. For example, her mother, Saleha Abedin, is a leader of the organization's secretive women's auxiliary, the Muslim Sisterhood, in which she serves along with Mohammed Morsi's wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud.

The presence of an individual with such associations in the seniormost ranks of the State Department at a moment when the Obama administration is assiduously "engaging" with the Muslim Brotherhood has raised concerns on Capitol Hill. To their credit, five legislators, led by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, have asked for a formal inquiry into the role Ms. Abedin and perhaps others have played in the adoption of problematic policies favorable to the Islamists.

The idea, in other words, is that Obama, himself a not-so-covert Muslim, is trying to install his Muslim buddies into power in Egypt. And Abedin is part of the conspiracy. Already Gaffney's wild contentions about an allegedly pro-Islamic Obama—which fly in the face of his reluctance to embrace the Arab spring—have caused mischief in Egypt, helping prompt anti-Islamic activists to try and bombard Clinton with tomatoes when she visited Egypt. And why would Abedin have married a Jewish congressman? The answer, at least for those who like to engage in fevered thinking on the Right, is simple: What if he secretly converted to Islam? So maybe Weiner, who has always been staunchly pro-Israel, was just using that as a cover? Welcome to the world of the right-wing conspiracist.

Nothing is too loopy for Bachmann, who is standing by her allegations about Abedin. She sees a Muslim American threat everywhere. Here she is speaking a few weeks ago to a radio talk-show host:

It appears that there has been deep penetration in the halls of our United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood. It appears that there are individuals who are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood who have positions, very sensitive positions, in our Department of Justice, our Department of Homeland Security, potentially even in the National Intelligence Agency.

Potentially? Anything is potential. The sun might not rise tomorrow. The surprising thing is not how ubiquitous a threat exists from Muslim Americans but how little danger they pose. Bachmann and her ilk would be ecstatic if a serious one really existed. Instead, they are reduced to fighting phantasms. Along the way they are engaging in the very kind of conspiratorial thinking they claim they are exposing.

Image: Gage Skidmore


Three Paths to Nuclear Escalation with China

The Skeptics

The U.S. military has enjoyed extraordinary freedom of maneuver since the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union meant that no one else was left to seriously challenge the United States when it decided to act abroad. Today, however, strategists worry that U.S. rivals are developing weapons that will make it difficult or impossible to gain access to contested areas. Dealing with the so-called “anti-access” problem has become a central task for civilian and military planners—and something close to an obsession for the navy.

One popular solution is AirSea Battle (ASB). In its most general sense, ASB is about increasing integration between the navy and the air force. Service leaders argue that without serious advance planning, coordination is likely to break down in the midst of a conflict. This must include not just operational discussions about war fighting but also integrated training, data sharing and weapons procurement. As the air force and navy service chiefs put it in a recent article, the idea is to “take ‘jointness’ to a new level.” Jointness is a favorite buzzword in Washington, and enthusiastic defense officials recently opened the AirSea Battle Office in the Pentagon.

Strangely, much of the discussion about AirSea Battle has been about what it is not. Officials have stressed that ASB is not a single operational concept about how to fight wars; they simply say that they want to maximize interservice integration so that regional combatant commanders have maximum confidence in their ability to carry out their operational decisions. Officials also have stressed that ASB is not about China or any other country. At a press conference describing the purposes of the AirSea Battle Office, they went to great lengths to fend off such suggestions from incredulous reporters.

Not everyone buys these arguments. In theory, the proliferation of anti-access weapons means that any country could create problems for forward-deployed U.S. forces. In reality, there is a very short list of countries that have both the interest and wherewithal to make life nasty for the United States. China is first on the list. No one is investing more in anti-access capabilities than China, which in the last decade has acquired an impressive array of submarines, antiship ballistic missiles, antiship cruise missiles and antisatellite weapons. And no one has a clearer interest in denying U.S. forces entry in the event of a crisis. China has particularly strong reasons for wanting to keep the U.S. Navy from undertaking a show of force in or around the Taiwan Strait, as it did during previous crises. U.S. planners are not naive about China's motives, and they seek new ways of undermining China's new capabilities. “Let's just say it,” two Naval War College professors recently wrote, “AirSea Battle in East Asia is about China.”

Nor is it the case that AirSea Battle is just about jointness. Last year the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) published a long monograph on the concept, which remains the most comprehensive treatment to date. According to CSBA, AirSea Battle envisions a sequence of operations designed to overcome enemy obstacles and guarantee U.S. access. The first step is a “blinding attack” on key facilities, including long-range weapons that threaten U.S. bases and carrier groups, along with the radar systems needed to cue them. This initial volley would deliberately strike the enemy’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems and make it impossible to organize an attack in the aftermath. The second step includes efforts to bottle up the enemy’s naval fleet behind a distant blockade, which would allow the United States plenty of time to bring superior forces to the theater.

While officials have not been specific about AirSea Battle, there are reasons to believe that the CSBA version is close to the mark. The United States, after all, has danced the same two-step in all of its recent conventional wars. And despite arguments that ASB is not a single operational approach, the service chiefs and officers from the AirSea Battle Office write that it relies on a construct called “disrupt-destroy-defeat” that closely follows the CSBA script. By disrupt they mean attacking the enemy's ISR and command-and-control facilities. By destroy they mean killing things like “ships, submarines, aircraft, and missile launchers.” Defeating the enemy will be much easier after these two steps are complete.

AirSea Battle is seductive. Some officials believe that it may act as a competitive strategy that will lure rival states into self-defeating arms races with the richer and more technologically advanced United States. They also hope that AirSea Battle acts as a deterrent. If adversaries like China become convinced that they cannot overcome U.S. military superiority, they are unlikely to pick a fight in the first place. Most important, however, is the alluring idea that AirSea Battle can undue years of efforts by the Chinese to keep the United States out. China has invested greatly in solving one big operational problem. AirSea Battle is an appealing way to “unsolve” its operational breakthrough.

But there are also serious risks to this approach, including the danger of nuclear escalation if AirSea Battle is ever implemented in a shooting war with China.

There are three pathways to nuclear escalation. Psychological pressures can lead to serious misperceptions about enemy intentions, causing states to overreact to limited military actions. Political pressures also can make escalation possible, especially if the target government fears that it will lose power if it loses the war. In these cases the government might take extraordinary risks in order to “gamble for resurrection.” Finally, inadvertent escalation can occur when conventional attacks put the enemy's nuclear capabilities at risk. In these cases the enemy might worry that the attack is only the first phase of a larger war.

AirSea Battle opens all three pathways to escalation. By deliberately launching a blinding attack, it would increase the chance of serious misperceptions and complicate any effort to reassure China of limited U.S. intentions. It also would exacerbate the political problem for the Chinese Communist Party, which long ago gave up its ideological mandate and now relies on a combination of nationalism and economic growth in order to stay in power. Given signs of weakness in the Chinese economy, we soon may face a situation in which the CCP relies on nationalism alone. Under these circumstances it is likely to be very risk acceptant, and, if faced with a humiliating defeat in the early stages of a conflict with the United States, it will have strong political incentives to escalate.

Finally, AirSea Battle runs the risk of inadvertent escalation, especially if the United States strikes the Chinese mainland. The fact that strategists are so concerned about land-based Chinese ballistic missiles suggests that these might well be targeted. U.S. planners may believe they can distinguish conventional from nuclear sites, but Chinese leaders might reasonably fear that the United States is attempting a preemptive strike against its nuclear weapons and associated command-and-control systems. In this scenario, Beijing might face a terrible use-it-or-lose-it dilemma.

The original CSBA monograph, which seems to be close to the “official” version of AirSea Battle, ignored the danger of nuclear escalation. Instead, it simply assumed that any war between the United States and China will remain at the conventional level because “agreement not to use or threaten the use of nuclear weapons would appear to be in both parties’ interests.” But strikes on the Chinese mainland might provoke an overreaction even if Chinese leaders would do better to show restraint. We should expect nothing less: states do not take kindly to attacks on their own soil. Other analysts recognize this danger and have offered operational concepts that attempt to mitigate the risk of escalation by stressing patience and less provocative plans. Given the stakes involved, defense officials should take these alternatives seriously.

For a longer version of this essay, see “AirSea Battle and Escalation Risks,” U.C. San Diego Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, Policy Brief 12 (January 2012). The views here are the author’s alone. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

Image: Defense Media Activity Hawaii

TopicsMilitary StrategyRising PowersWMDSecurity RegionsChinaNortheast AsiaAsia

What Motivates the Taliban?

The Buzz

For many, acting on a hunch is how one might choose between door one or two on a gameshow. For the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman, it’s the impetus to explain the Taliban’s lasting power.

Chapman posits that the Taliban has “greater motivation” than our Afghan allies. Thus, not only is winning the war for the Afghans hopeless, but we also can’t “give them what they need to win it for themselves.” No word on what that “need” might be. 

Unfortunately, the only backing Chapman has for the Taliban’s supposedly superior drive is the idea that they “manage to muster such a capable and durable fighting force...without a superpower’s help.” Yet throughout history there have been numerous powerful religious and ideological forces separate from any national affiliation. Some endure, most flounder. Lack of state sponsorship alone is a ridiculous reason to suggest that the Taliban is destined for success.

Are there other factors to consider? Chapman seems to have a feeling about it: “The insurgents don’t seem to get discouraged quite so easily...I’m not sure why that’s so, but I suspect it’s very important and beyond our capacity to change.” So he has a hunch that they’re very inspired and a feeling we can’t change it? Aside from the fact that the author has admitted there is no real basis for his argument, should a hunch be a tenable position in an op-ed? 

There’s no question that we have failed in Afghanistan, yet the reasons Chapman suggests for continued failure are so obtuse that they make his piece a howler.

TopicsFailed StatesPost-ConflictTerrorism RegionsAfghanistan

Obama Is Right about Hugo Chavez

The Skeptics

President Obama recently created a stir when he stated that Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez did not pose a “serious security threat” to the United States. Mitt Romney’s campaign pounced on that supposed verbal gaffe, criticizing Obama for being naïve about yet another foreign policy issue. But Obama is right about Chavez, and Romney’s failure to understand that point makes him the one to exhibit worrisome signs about a lack of foreign policy judgment.

There is no question that Hugo Chavez is an obnoxious, tin-pot dictator who has been a political and economic disaster for Venezuela. It will likely take Venezuela a generation or more to recover from the damage he and his corrupt cronies have inflicted. But even the fear that existed a few years ago that Chavez’s brand of leftist authoritarian populism might sweep through much of Latin America has proven to be exaggerated. Initially, other similar figures did come to power, most notably Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega’s resurgence in Nicaragua. But Chavez’s ambitious goal of a “Bolivarian revolution” throughout the hemisphere did not materialize. Indeed, Chavez’s own ugly police-state tactics and dismal economic performance in Venezuela probably served to inoculate other countries from the disease of authoritarian populism.

The Chavez regime has managed to cause some problems for neighboring countries, with the support for the Marxist insurgency in Colombia being the most prominent example. But the disruptive actions of Caracas have been more of an irritant than a threat to those countries, much less a threat to the United States.

To most American hawks, Chavez’s principal offense has not been his effort to export a Bolivarian revolution. Instead, it has been his flirtation with countries that the hawks hate. In particular, his agreements (limited though they are) in the economic and security spheres with Iran and Russia have provoked their wrath.

It is disappointing that Romney has apparently succumbed to the same exaggerated fears as the hyper hawks about Chavez’s associations with Tehran and Moscow. But it should not be too surprising that he has done so. His views on Iran are taken straight from the neoconservative playbook. And he astonished and appalled knowledgeable observers this spring when he described Russia as America’s principal global adversary—a position that only the most extreme hawks have adopted.

All of these developments raise troubling questions about his foreign policy judgment. So, too, do reports that he is inclined to go first to former vice president Dick Cheney and his acolytes for advice on international issues. Given the horrific foreign policy track record of the Cheneyites, that is akin to a presidential candidate consulting Jimmy Carter and the ghost of Herbert Hoover for advice on economic policy.

Hugo Chavez has been a catastrophe for his country and an annoyance to his neighbors. But those offenses are quite different from posing a security threat—much less a serious security threat—to the United States. Venezuela is a small country with very limited military capabilities, while the United States is a large country with vast military capabilities. Chavez is a gnat, not a rattlesnake.

It is more than a little worrisome that a man who stands a very good chance of becoming president of the United States after the November elections can’t seem to make the basic distinction between an annoyance and genuine security threat.

TopicsThe PresidencyRogue StatesSecurity RegionsRussiaIranVenezuela