So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Well, this blog has now been inactive long enough that I think I have to make a decision one way or the other. And what I have decided is to stop blogging altogether. Indeed, this is part of a general move I have decided to make in regard to all social media. As with this blog, my Twitter Feed (@bernardfinel) and my Facebook page, are all, in a similar fashion, going to remain purely in archival mode.

It has often been a pleasure communicating with readers and friends, but also, frankly, probably has done me more harm than good in various professional and personal ways.

Most fundamentally, when I started my Twitter feed, I made explicit what had, sort of, always been my underlying philosophy about blogging as well. I expressed an observation and a wish: “I’m an opinionated boor… but hopefully not a bore.”

Turns out… I am a bore!

I’m in good company in that regard. But be that as it may, I am not sure that anyone really needs me to add to the mass of boring punditry and analysis out there.

Do have a Happy New Year. Maybe we’ll meet again, hopefully in person and over a beer, rather than online.

Collateral Damage

Refer to this if you need a reminder of the characters.

Unless some new information arises, it seems that General Allen, at least, is just collateral damage in the Petraeus situation. Clearly he exercised bad judgment in his relationship with Jill Kelley, but associating with a loon is not a national security concern. I still can’t quite get my hands around his decision to intervene in her sister’s custody dispute, but whatever. None of that should derail the guy’s career.

Broadwell has already paid a huge price in terms of her reputation. My suspicion is that she’ll face additional problems over mishandling classified info, unless those stories are inaccurate. But at this point, I, at least, wish everyone would just leave her alone.

Shirtless FBI guy needs to be investigated.

Kelley is, um, a piece of work. But she’s a private citizen. It’d be nice if she were left alone as well.

Which leaves a few things:

(1) Petraeus himself. As I’ve said many times, forget about the sex, and focus on his abuses of power and position. That is the real story here. A man so wrapped up in his own myth that he continually transgresses norms. Even if he were the savior of Iraq (and he wasn’t), his refusal to play by the rules is the problem. It is also worth shedding some light on his defenders, and in particular asking why they remain so gung ho to excuse his conduct at every turn. And the reason is clear, a tangled web of conflicts of interest.

(2) The FBI investigation. It looks to me like the investigation was legit, although unduly aggressive. There are questions about leaks. But the real story is, I think, just how vulnerable we all are to this sort of snooping. As a practical matter, I think that it is more productive to look at this issue in terms of the privacy rights of the millions without high-level clearances rather than the thousands with such clearances who ought to be under higher scrutiny. But look, I’ve talked about this before. We need to develop a robust “use” regime to counter-balance the technology-driven collection regime we all live under.

Throwing his weight around in circumstances he barely understands…

Over at Balloon Juice, in a thread on the Petraeus situation, one of the commenters condemned his behavior:

Getting involved in someone’s custody dispute shows seriously bad judgment—throwing one’s weight around in circumstances one barely understands, with potential implications for innocent parties.

She was talking about this, but really is their any better description of our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan?

throwing one’s weight around in circumstances one barely understands, with potential implications for innocent parties.

A perfect epitaph for our decade of war.




The Collapse of the Afghan Mission

From the WaPo:

KABUL — U.S. troops in Afghanistan have been ordered to significantly scale back operations with Afghan military and police forces after a spike in fratricidal “insider attacks” that has seriously undermined U.S. trust in their local allies.

The decision, officials said Tuesday, is also linked to concerns that American field troops have become more vulnerable to attacks because of Muslim outrage over a controversial anti-Islam video.

The orders from Gen. John R. Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, represent a major shift from the long-stated U.S. philosophy that American and NATO troops are here to work “shoulder to shoulder” with their Afghan partners.

Just so we’re clear, this is a huge story and yet another demonstration that our approach in Afghanistan is failed. First, the whole population-centric COIN concept collapsed under its unexamined assumptions about the sources of legitimacy and the potential for rapid state building in Afghanistan. Now the whole transition strategy based on partnering with the Afghans to prepare them for the lead responsibility is coming apart as well.

The good news is that we’re largely out of options now. All we can do is work to get out as quickly as possible. The bad news is that we could have done the same in 2009 (or before) and left Afghanistan in roughly the same condition as it is now… well, actually that is not true. Had we pulled out sooner, we’d have better relations with the Afghans. All the 2009 surge accomplished was to poison the well of future cooperation.


Diplomatic Posts Remain a Security Vulnerability

The armed assault on the consulate in Benghazi that took the life of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens is a good reminder that our diplomats abroad remain vulnerable to attack. After the 1998 Embassy bombings, we spent billions redesigning our embassies worldwide, focusing on vehicle traps, set backs, and so on, mostly designed to foil car or truck bombs. But the reality is that most posts abroad remain vulnerable to armed assault. They have a small contingent of Marines, but not enough to defeat a full-blown assault by a well-equipped or trained force. Defenses that stop car bombs are easily breached by men with ladders and wire cutters. And safe rooms are only safe until the attackers are able to set fire to a building.

But unless you’re going to set up minefields, machine guns, and/or deploy massive security forces, there is little to prevent the sort of attack we saw in Benghazi.

I wish I had some insight about how to fix this situation, but I don’t. And unfortunately, I fear this type of attack could easily be repeated elsewhere.

Setting Red Lines for Iran

Bibi wants em:

In a blistering response to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement that the United States is “not setting deadlines” for Iran and that negotiations coupled with sanctions are the best approach, Netanyahu said that if no “red line” is established for Iran, it will continue a program that Israel says is intended to build an atomic bomb.

Actually, the issue isn’t a red line per se, but apparently which red line. Obama has repeatedly stated that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is “unacceptable.” That is a pretty clear red line. But what Natanyahu wants is some sort of ultimatum to Iran to dismantle its nuclear program altogether.

I’m pretty skeptical of the peaceful intent Iran’s nuclear program, but the reality is that there is no legal basis for denying the right to a nuclear program. Right now the issue is whether Iran is in violation of reporting requirements under the non-proliferation treaty. That is what the UN Security Council resolutions are essentially about. I don’t see how that justifies a military attack, much less an extended conflict.

Israel basically wants a preventive war. And not just a preventive war, but a war to deny Iran a right it possesses under international law. Regardless of the character of the regime, this position is not going to garner a lot of international support. So the costs would go far beyond just the immediate consequences of the strikes and any Iranian retaliation.

I don’t see how any American leader looking at the cost-benefit calculus could support Israel on this… and yet, just watch the right-wingers squawk about Obama’s refusal to grant Natanyahu a private audience.

Was Ft. Hood (or Aurora) Preventable?

I’ve written that Ft. Hood (and Aurora) were indeed preventable, noting:

Now, basically, the question he is posing is this: Service members take an oath when then join, and oath breaking is frowned upon. So he’s asking whether members of the armed forces can still be considered Shahid, if they kill fellow servicemen in the name of Islam despite breaking their oath? Shahid is basically jihadi-speak for, do I still get the 72 virgins?

Now, I’m sorry, but that has to trigger a full investigation. It just has to. What the hell is the point of spying on people and collecting all this email traffic if an Army officer can write to a radical cleric on our watch list and ask whether it is permissible for members of the armed forces to kill fellow servicemen and women without triggering a full investigation?

We have a massive surveillance regime in place, and yet here is a case of a perfectly preventable attack that was missed. Depressing.

A couple of recent blog posts have also address this. DGR and Lauren Morgan wrote to challenge the notion that Hasan’s communication with Awlaki was “fairly benign.” They argue:

The initial defense of Hasan’s emails as “fairly benign” is simply not defensible. The only explanation for why officials might reach that conclusion is that they simply did not know what they were looking at.

To review, Hasan repeatedly expressed what can only be described as a school-girl crush on Awlaki, who was known as a radicalizer in actual cases where Americans were driven to violence. Hasan even expressed a desire to send Awlaki money, tried to set up a $5,000 essay contest on the topic of “Why is Anwar Al Awlaki a great activist and leader,” and inserted Awlaki’s name in a laudatory manner into a Qur’anic verse. Hasan clearly expressed the view that Western forces were at war with Islam. And he sought Awlaki’s counsel on such questions as whether suicide bombings were acceptable, whether collateral damage was permissible in the course of a suicide attack, and–in his very first email–whether Hasan Akbar, who murdered fellow U.S. soldiers, might have been considered a martyr.

Um, yup. But over at Intelwire, J.M. Berger counters:

Anyone who has spent time with raw intelligence knows that you have to triage leads. For every intercept that states “I’ve bought the fertilizer and I’m loading it in the truck tonight down by the lake,” there are literally thousands and thousands that say “I hate America,” “I love Al Qaeda,” “I’d like to kill those bastards,” “I swear to God it’s time for action and not words,” “If I was James Holmes, here’s how I would have done it better,” “You need to start mentally preparing now to kill your neighbors when the revolution comes,” and “Would you consider someone like Hasan Akbar to be fighting jihad, and if he died would he be a martyr?” (All of the above are paraphrases of actual extremist content I’ve reviewed.)

But when you place the content of Hasan’s messages alongside all the other raw intelligence that counterterrorism investigations generate, it’s extremely hard to argue from a subjective, non-psychoanalytical reading that they represented a red flag.

Yes, that is true as well. The issue, of course, is that we don’t seem to have a better way to fuse these yellow flags into red flags. We still seem to largely rely on some sort of bright, blinking indicator to give warning. And worse, we don’t seem to have a system of relatively low-cost options to check out threats that don’t seem to set off alarms. Nor do we have a way to shut off those alarms when an investigation turns up little or nothing.

The issue, it seems to me, is that we’re still not good at putting pieces together. Think of Aurora. So Holmes has psychiatric issues. Well, you can’t have full time surveillance of everyone who is having psychiatric issues. Nor would you want to. But he was also buying vast amounts of weaponry. Well, you can’t have full-time surveillance of everyone who is buying weapons legally. But the overlap of those two sets… well… even if you can’t do full-time surveillance, maybe you can have a police officer drop by and knock on the guy’s door just to check in. I mean, isn’t that a principle of community policing? Getting to know potential threats in your area?

Same with Hasan. You can’t do full-time surveillance or everyone who goes onto a Jihadi website. And you can’t do full-time surveillance of every military officer. But, you know, officers who go onto Jihadi websites maybe should prompt a little personal attention? Not full investigation maybe, but something.

And yeah, maybe that isn’t enough. Maybe the cops knock on Holmes’ door, and he comes off fine. Maybe a superior has a chat with Hasan, and then he still goes out and shoots up people. But at least some things will be prevented and some other deterred.

Nothing is 100%, but we do clearly need to do a better job at fusing together low-priority indicators and using existing policing and supervisory channels to check out and head off threats.

The flip side of this is that when we do focus on someone, we seem relentless in making a case against them, even if, you know, they are just a bunch of clowns who probably should just be given a warning and otherwise forgotten about.


The China Scenario and Defense Budgets

Crossposted from

The China Scenario and Defense Budgets

By Bernard Finel August 3rd, 2012

One reason progressives, historically, have found themselves on the losing side of defense budget debates is that, on the whole, progressives don’t spend enough time in engaging in strategy debates, focusing instead of programatic debates and/or macro budget debates. But for all the talk that defense spending is driven by domestic politics and the military-industrial complex, the reality is that substantive strategy decisions have a very profound impact as well.

I am not trying to suggest that the process is some sort of rational, objective analysis uncorrupted by greed and pork. It isn’t. But if you want to understand the defense budget, I think it is important to see it as a series of largely autonomous dynamics that interact periodically, but nevertheless significantly.

Strategic assessments of China are a good example of this, and there was a fascinating piece in the Washington Post yesterday about “Air Sea Battle,” and its implications for both U.S.-China relations and defense spending.

The article tracks the emergence of the following syllogism: China is a rising power and behaving aggressively towards its neighbors, particularly in the South China Sea. Responsible defense planning requires us to consider worst case scenarios, such as those which might require us to project power into the Western Pacific. Projecting power will require the capacity to defeat Chinese anti-access capabilities. The best way to do so is to develop and maintain systems capable of penetrating Chinese defenses, and neutralizing their anti-access systems, particularly new, modern anti-ship missiles.

But this argument is reinforced by a deterrence argument, namely, even you don’t believe a war with China is a plausible scenario, the best way to prevent it from occurring is by convincing the Chinese that they could not win this sort of conflict, and therefore we might not only deter them from aggressive actions in the South China Sea or against Taiwan, but we might also be able to divert them from the path of building anti-access capabilities in the first place.

It is these sorts of arguments that drive/drove acquisition of fifth generation fighters (F22 and F35); of expensive land-attack destroyers (DDG-1000); of new basing and forward deployment arrangements; and so on.

In the progressive community, we often dismiss these types of discussions are irrelevant. We tend to focus sequentially on either specific weapons program or debates about defense budget toplines. But in doing so, we ignore the dynamics that flow from strategy. I know this seems a little abstract… so let me give a concrete example:

In April 2009, Defense Secretary Gates made a decision to cap F22 purchases at 187. Progressives rejoiced, and immediately mobilized to support Gates’ decision. F22 was a big, expensive program, and a bit of  a poster child in progressive circles for an overpriced, unneccessary purchase. So far so good. But what was the strategic context of Gates’ decision? He wasn’t just saying the F22 isn’t worth it. He was saying, more F22s aren’t worth it in a era of grinding land wars and occupations.

As I tried to explain at the time, and no one listened, siding with Gates wasn’t just about killing the F22, it was also about prioritizing counter-insurgency. The F22 decision was not stand-alone, in short. Supporting it involving buying into (as a matter of practice if not of conviction) the idea that U.S. military power ought to be geared toward occupation and reconstuction of places like Iraq and Afghanistan rather than planning for high-tech war against China.

So, when Congress voted to support Gates and stop F22 production in July 2009, progressives all over the place popped open champagne. And then four months later, when Obama ordered yet another increase in troops for Afghanistan, bringing the total number of American forces to around 100,000, and committing us to several years of war at $100 billion a year in costs and thousands of lives… well, there was a lot of gnashing of teeth, and a new commitment to end the war in Afghanistan. But, of course, we’d lost the strategy debate in early/mid-2009, although we were so busy celebrating our victory over the evil military-industrial complex in the F22 case that we didn’t notice the price.

Anyway, back to the article. There were clearly a lot of people with long knives contributing to it, and if you read it, it seems like just a weird story. A lot of people will take away that there are some crackpots in the Pentagon and think tank world pitching a wild scenario. The article even mentions Andrew Krepinevich’s salary in a way that makes him seem like a pure mercenrary. And the Pentagon’s head of the Office Net Assessment, Andrew Marshall, is noted to be 91, in a way that is designed to make him seem vaguely senile.

But here is the reality. Krepenivich (who is actually a thoughtful and careful analyst, even if he is wrong in this case) and Marshall are both tremendously well respected in the strategy community. Air Sea Battle and the China focus (embraced by Obama with his pivot to Asia), is an important factor in driving defense programs and budgets. Once the strategy is in place, all decisions on programs will need to be justified in terms of the strategy—which is why the Marines and Army are fighting it so hard.

Right now, it all seems abstract. I mean, who cares? We’re going to see either a flatline or a decrease in defense spending as a matter of general austerity. And most progressives I know are more interested in gaming out ways to see sequestration go through. And yet, sequestration is a temporary blip, with no strategic consequences. Debates like Air Sea are going to shape what we actually buy and how we actually conduct ourselves for years to come. Indeed, if the Asia pivot and Air Sea become dominant, that will create the intellectual foundation for arguing a need to increase spending. Why? Because as a matter of rigorous analysis, that strategy cannot be implemented without more resources. If we ignore the strategy debate now, then we’ll be fighting future battles over defense budget toplines at a fundamental disadvantage because while strategy is not the be all and end it, it does matter.