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

Hard Times for Loyal Opposition

Paul Pillar

Notwithstanding the attention we understandably give to whoever is in power or on the way to attaining it, the health of a democracy depends just as much on a strong and credible loyal opposition. A loyal opposition should demonstrate in the fullest sense the meaning of both the words in that term. It is an opposition in that it feels entirely free to speak, vigorously and openly, against the policy of the day. It is loyal not just in the sense that members of the opposition are patriots but also in the sense that they recognize members of the government are as well. It is an arrangement in which everyone understands that sharp and even intensely expressed differences can exist within a political framework to which everyone is loyal.

The advantages of such a political structure parallel the economic advantages of a free market. Spirited competition in which competitors accept each other as legitimate assures that consumers (i.e., voters) will have a credible choice. That in turn strengthens the incentive of rulers to govern in the interest of the ruled. Even without an actual change in power, the possibility of one keeps those in power on their toes.

From this perspective, some of the most conspicuous political events since the beginning of this week are not good news.

There are the elections in France and Greece, which, even if they help to push European economic policy in a direction in which it most needs to go at the moment, have certainly not helped the clarity and strength of political competition in those countries. After Nicolas Sarkozy's loss the French Center-Right will struggle to muster the electoral strength to challenge the socialists without buying into positions of Marine Le Pen's Far-Right National Front. In Greece, the political map is a mess after fringe parties on both the Right and the Left inflicted severe losses on the two mainstream parties that for years had alternated between government and opposition.

Then in Israel is the surprising move by Shaul Mofaz to bring his centrist Kadima Party into Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition. There are many possible implications one could draw from this; David Makovsky's take is as well-informed as anyone's. A possible positive implication is that Mofaz may have some moderating influence on the government and lessen Netanyahu's reliance on the most hard-line members of his current coalition. But the dominant effect will likely be to strengthen Netanyahu's political position and leave him freer to do what he wants to do without worrying much about challenges from the opposition. Government parties now control 94 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The official leader of the opposition is no longer Mofaz but instead the leader of the Labor Party, which has been in steady decline over the past few decades. More than ever, Netanyahu is now seen by many Israelis as the only plausible national leader. Kadima was facing its own loss of seats if an election were held this year, but Mofaz probably had been the most credible alternative to the incumbent prime minister.

Back home in Indiana, Richard Lugar's long and distinguished career in the U.S. Senate is being brought to an end by a primary-election defeat at the hands of a Tea Party-backed candidate. This result means the loss of a senator who, when not in the majority, embodied the characteristics described above of a loyal opposition. His departure is another step toward dominance in the Republican Party of views that do not display those characteristics—i.e., views that question whether Barack Obama and the “Democrat Party” are even legitimate competitors. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has been slow to distance himself from those views, such as on Monday when he failed to challenge a woman speaking at one of his campaign rallies in Ohio who said President Obama “should be tried for treason.”

If there has been even a slightly bright spot on this subject this week, it was in Russia, where Dmitri Medvedev received the necessary parliamentary vote to become prime minister and complete his job switch with Vladimir Putin. Some minority members whose parties had done well in an election in December decided to act more like a loyal opposition by respectfully voting against Medvedev. “We want to consolidate Russian society, but only on the basis of our own social democratic platform,” said a member of the Just Russia party. “That is why our faction today has decided in the selection of the prime minister to vote against the leader of the party that we consider our political and ideological opponent.”

You know you are stretching when you have to look to the Duma for optimistic signs of vibrant democracy. It remains to be seen just how vibrant democracy there will be. A scowling Putin, not hiding his displeasure over how many votes were cast against his protégé and no doubt having different ideas about what loyal opposition means, said ominously, “I am sure that the work of the government and the parliament will be constructive despite the well-known opposition of some deputies in this hall.”


TopicsDomestic PoliticsElections RegionsIsraelRussiaFranceGreeceUnited States

Khamenei's Psychologist

The Buzz

According to Con Coughlin, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is a veritable laughingstock. 

The author’s latest offering in Standpoint argues the Iranian supreme leader has always “had to contend with the nagging doubt that he is simply not up to the job.” Khamenei was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s second choice as successor. When his first choice became too radical, Khomeini instead tapped Khamenei, a comparatively low-ranking cleric, for the job. (Coughlin neglects to mention that Khamenei was president from 1981–1989, a fact which might help explain Khomeini’s decision.)

Apparently, Khamenei was “deeply scarred” by questions raised about his qualifications, and in order to “overcome the nagging doubts that, as a minor cleric, he does not enjoy the legitimacy to occupy such an exalted position,” he has adopted an “increasingly combative approach towards the West.” Not only does Coughlin fail to explain why such an approach would boost his religious legitimacy, he also puts forth as fact some unproven claims—that Khamenei personally authorized “the recent wave of terror carried out by the Revolutionary Guard units, including last October’s failed assassination of the Saudi ambassador to Washington,” for example.

More fundamentally, Coughlin’s familiar caricature of Khamenei as guided by some irrational, unpredictable drive—often labeled religious fervor but here blamed on a sort of inferiority complex—disregards the reality that the supreme leader has repeatedly pursued Iranian national interests in a calculated, logical manner. As Reza Marashi noted in these spaces: “If Khamenei is presented with the makings of a deal that he perceives as addressing the Islamic Republic’s core interests, historical precedent suggests he will pursue it.” Myriad examples exist of Khamenei cooperating with Washington, from his agreement to share intelligence on Afghanistan to his more recent acquiescence to talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Khamenei is hardly a friend of the United States, but neither is he some irrational actor driven by “deeply paranoid behaviour.”

Coughlin’s armchair psychology, effective as it is at imparting a sense of superiority to the reader, muddles the facts and presents a wholly inaccurate view of a man the West will never come to understand through such howlers. 

TopicsAutocracyPsychology RegionsIran

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

The Overblown Chen Case

Paul Pillar

Much commentary has been offered about Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and how U.S. officials have handled his case. It was inevitable that the Chen affair would become fodder in the U.S. election campaign. But many commentators beyond those motivated primarily by partisanship have devoted attention to this affair as if it were some kind of test or touchstone for the policies and strategies of the Obama administration. Additional perspective is in order, for which I offer the following observations.

First, the United States does not own the issue of human rights in China. Yet many of the comments about Chen's status and similar cases sound as if it does. It is almost as if the United States had the special responsibility of a former colonial master, which of course it does not. To regard human rights as an important value and to incorporate it into U.S. foreign policy is one thing; to bear the burden of owning the issue as it relates to China or any other foreign country is something quite different. Denial of human rights, insofar as it is a concern for those outside China, is a concern for the entire world community. It is no more logical for the United States to bear a special burden stemming from that concern than it would be for, say, Japan to bear it. It may seem that the United States bears a special burden because dissidents have a habit of showing up at the doorsteps of U.S. embassies. (Walter Pincus recalls in Tuesday's Washington Post the details of a similar incident with another Chinese dissident in 1989.) Americans should feel flattered that their embassies are picked out over other embassies, but they should feel no need to respond by taking up sole ownership of the case at hand out of some sense of human-rights noblesse oblige.

A second point concerns the role of Chen himself. He certainly offers much to admire, including his open advocacy of honorable causes even when doing so guaranteed he would run afoul of Chinese authorities. His physical image, with his visual disability and then a fracture in a foot sustained while he was fleeing house arrest at night, add further elements of sympathy and even mystique. There is no denying, however, that much of what made this case a frustrating no-win situation for U.S. officials stemmed from Chen himself and the choices he made. Beyond his showing up at the U.S. embassy, this particularly involved his change of mind regarding whether or not he wanted to leave China. This is someone who is asking favors from the United States, but he has done the United States no favors. The affair would have been much simpler if he had asked for asylum as soon as he first met with U.S. officials. Given that the whole story would have been significantly different if this one dissident had made different personal choices, how can we say that the story says much about the U.S. administration?

Third, how U.S. officials handle any matters such as this—and despite the publicity in this instance, it is basically a difficult consular case—rarely says anything larger about the direction and policy of an American administration. The officials involved are endeavoring to manage a situation that has been thrown in their laps without advance notice or preparation. Every case is different, and the handling of any one case is not an application of strategic tenets in Washington. A single case of this nature does not provide any larger lessons about how foreign policy is being run unless it is representative of a dysfunctional pattern such as subjugating competence to political loyalty in the appointment of officials or misinterpreting a situation by viewing it through ideological lenses—but no such pattern seems to apply to the current situation.

The Chen case says much more about China and its leadership than about the United States or its leaders. It is, after all, their country, their citizen and their suppression of civil rights that are involved. If the Chen affair presents a test, it is a test of the Chinese regime's ability to satisfy a growing popular demand for the rule of law notwithstanding the threat that consistent application of the law would pose to the regime's continued rule.

TopicsAutocracyDomestic PoliticsHuman Rights RegionsChinaUnited States