Monday, November 11, 2013

"Highway to Hell" - Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 3

This story originally appeared in the Journal of Military Experience on 11 November 2013.

So we were sitting outside the TOC, on call to take officers from the Puzzle Palace to wherever they needed to go in the mean streets of Baghdad to help us win hearts and minds. We were in high spirits because we were short: a week and a wake up or so until we were on the long road back down to Kuwait. A year is a long time. Me and Burt, my gunner, were smoking nasty local Royales and D, my driver, was trying to piss me off by playing Backstreet Boys out loud on his
MP3 player.

That’s when the Sergeant Major’s gunner came out of the head shed, looking both sad and pissed off. “Y’all ain’t heard?” he asked.
“Heard what?”
“Man,” he said. “I ain’t gonna be the one to say.”
Our Captain came out of the frat boys’ lounge and saw the looks on our faces and came over. “Suppose you guys’ve heard the news by now.”
“No, sir.”
“They’re saying we’re being extended. It’s on CNN. But I don’t think so. I still give us 50-50. Think they’d have given us orders first. What do you guys think?”
“CNN? I think we are fucked, sir.”
And we were, stuck in Iraq for three more months. It was almostas if the gods of war were trying to see how hard they could push us,how far we could go, how many obstacles they could throw up in our path before we would crack. I had shied away from the Iraqi bathtub gin that could be had because my crew and I were on 24-hour call, but I decided I really needed a drink. I hadn’t had a drop since my R&R back to Germany in February, some five months before. The cooks were shooting dice for cash and drinking cherry MRE Kool-Aid with Iraqi moonshine and listening to a mixture of Jimi Hendrix and Young Jeezy. I sat in on the session for quite a while until well after midnight, whereupon I discreetly vomited behind the building and then watched the omnipresent red tracers shoot across the night sky while I smoked Marlboros.
I had been asleep on my cot in my roofless broom closet for an hour when Burt came and shook me awake. We had to take the K9 team back to Brigade because their mission got scrubbed. It was 0200. We were loaded up and parked in front of the Puzzle Palace in less than ten minutes. I was still feeling the drink. We lined up in the middle of our four-Hummer convoy, called up the report, and rolled out. At night, the city of Baghdad can be a strangely quiet and beautiful place. Old men in white dishdashas habitually finger their prayer beads and patiently lead donkey carts along the street. Women in black Abayas shuffle quietly down alleyways with their groceries. The fishermen sleep in the cool open air along the banks of the Tigris in the hot summer. Kids prod sheep down the city streets. Other times it turns into some sort of loud and hellish cartoon episode, with fingerless, toothless beggars affected by a tropical disease from a medieval triptych and reaching out to you like lunatics. Gunfire comes from out of nowhere, sending red or green tracers ricocheting off into the night sky. The loud whoosh of an RPG becomes familiar and explosions erupt spontaneously and aimlessly.
A ride to Brigade promised to be short and sweet along the outskirts of the Green Zone and through Al Kindi to the checkpoint. We did it almost every day. At 2 a.m. the traffic was sparse and we
drove as fast as our built-by-the-lowest-bidder war-wagons could carry us. I stuck my head out the window like a dog to get the fresh air and sober up.
Burt put on “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Öyster Cult, and we roared down the empty highway, this small section now blocked off by huge concrete barriers─the U.S. military’s own personal highway. We turned onto the streets of Al Kindi, neon lights from the hookah bars and late chai cafés and kebab restaurants blurring along. We shouted and waved at passing Iraqis on the sidewalks with laughs and smiles on our faces and they waved and smiled gladly, more used to us tearing-ass around in the daylight wearing sunglasses and ugly expressions. Everyone was in a good mood.
When we got to Brigade, they had another job for us. We had to get up to the Baghdad International Airport─BIAP─and bring back a truck of new arrivals and a couple guys coming off R&R. The party atmosphere vanished. This was a more serious proposition. The road to BIAP from downtown Baghdad was the most dangerous in the world at the time. It was bad in the daylight, but just plain spooky at night. There were lots of high windows and rooftops along the way. There were stretches where the streets were well lit, which made it easier for the bad guys to see us and harder for us to see them. Other stretches would be pitch dark except for our headlights, which meant the Jihadis would have plenty of notice we were coming along in our loud diesels. We all put on our game faces and geared up again. There was no music this time.
About halfway there the lead vehicle called back about an obstacle, which turned out to be a half-built wall of old tires. We increased our speed and swerved around it. You never know if the bad guys want you to go to one side or the other or straight through the middle so they can blow you up. You also can’t stop to figure it out because they might ambush you, especially at night. There’s a way to die no matter what you do. Our tactic was to blow through the area as fast as we could. We got to Division HQ at BIAP and rounded up all the guys who were coming with us. A couple were coming back off emergency leave and had been hoping they wouldn’t have to return, but the game had now gone into OT for us all. Another ten or so of the guys were new in country, mostly Privates, who had also been hoping for a reprieve. Luck didn’t go their way. Mac, our convoy leader, decided he was going to have some fun with these guys. The rest of us listened and smoked cigarettes on the other side of the truck and exchanged smiles.
“Welcome to the suck,” he said. “If you fuck around out here, you get your face shot off. You do what you’re told and don’t ask any questions until we get to the FOB. We’re going to be driving at a very high rate of speed so keep your asses glued to the floor of the truck with your rifles pointing out so you don’t accidently shoot each other. Don’t stand up for nothing. Don’t shoot at nothing unless you got
something to shoot at. Don’t do nothing, don’t touch nothing. You just keep your head down and we’ll get through this and about fifty percent of you might make it back to the FOB alive.”
We had to stifle our laughter at the last part. The faces of the newbies showed no amusement. They got onto the back of the five-ton with their rucks and duffels piled along the edges of the bed. The truck pulled into the middle of the convoy and we left. It was about 0300 now.
The roads had been relatively empty on the way up, but they were dead empty now and that was not a good sign. The convoy leader urged us to pull our heads out of our fourth point of contact, which we had done already. The big five-ton truck, the back open to the sky above, was rolling in front of us as fast as it could go, which is to say not fast at all. It was more like a fat beetle on wheels. In the beam of our headlights I could see the round helmets of the new guys bouncing up and down comically as the truck barreled over huge potholes in the beat-up pavement. And far up the road in front of us, right along our route of travel, a huge shining light came into view. As we got closer it became apparent what it was: a wall of burning tires in the middle of the highway.
The lead-vehicle commander called for us all to punch through like we had on the way in, but the wall was across the entire roadway now and it was on fire. There was no way around as there were thick metal guards along both sides of the road. It takes a lot to get tires to burn, but once they do they really go, and the smoke was forming into an ominous black thunderhead. The first and second Humvees managed to make a good sized hole through the wall, but whoever built the thing knew what they were doing because much of it was still standing.
As we entered the edge of the dark cloud, the five-ton barreled through the wall and cast flaming tires and chunks of rubber and ashes out in all directions. I told Burt to get all the way down out of the gunner’s hatch as D mashed the gas pedal and we ploughed through ourselves, having to lean inward and away from the tongues of bright gold flame licking in through the windows. A wave of smoke and fire washed over the truck. I checked on everybody and watched in the rear-view mirror as the last truck broke through in a shower of burning rubber. Flaming tires rolled into the darkness across the median and down into the drainage culvert along the road.
The adrenaline rush ebbed and we all three began to laugh and yell out the windows. There had been no IED and no ambush. We were sure that the new guys in the back of the five-ton in front of us were shitting themselves. Maybe the wall builders thought we would stop, in which case they were sitting in the dark sorely disappointed, or maybe it was just a prank by some bored Iraqi teenagers. Either way, we cursed them up and down for it now like a high-speed caravan of foul-mouthed stable boys on parade.
As we rolled on through the darkness of the quiet city, somebody started yelling, “Viet-fucking-nam!”

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Destroying Syrian Chemical Stockpiles Won't be Easy

This article originally appeared in The Daily Beast on 6 September 2013.

It is now clear that the Syrian government used sarin nerve gas to attack suspected rebel forces in Damascus on August 21. There is no doubt that the “red line” was breached. With the American public delivering a clear consensus against committing ground forces, the Obama administration will almost certainly limit any intervention to remote attacks. In the best circumstances, destroying chemical weapons is a dangerous and intensive task, but trying to destroy them from the air without spreading their deadly agents makes it even more difficult.

Drawing from my experience serving 9 years in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense (CBRND) for the U.S. Army, here is a rundown of the options available for destroying chemical weapons with a look at the feasibility of different methods and the complications that each entails.

An air campaign could focus on eliminating chemical munitions, military chemical units, chemical weapons production facilities, any or all of the above. The first step is to identify the targets and fix their locations. Since the first mentions of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in July 2012, U.S. intelligence has been tracking the movements of Syria’s chemical assets. There is a ready supply of human intelligence from rebel forces and refugees, a steady stream of signals intercepts from Syrian government forces, and near constant visual surveillance using aerial imagery platforms. Social media and news reports from inside Syria also provide open-source intelligence.

Syria is reported to have one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world. Locating all of these munitions, even with the best intelligence available, will not be easy. Syria is also known to store chemical agents in“binary” form, where two components of the chemical agent are stored separately and only mixed before being loaded into munitions. This makes transport safer and simpler but can vastly expand the number of targets that need to be located and destroyed and makes them easier to conceal.

Syria’s chemical weapons-production facilities are reported to be located near major cities such as Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs, while munitions are stored at as many as 50 different sites. As the U.S. prepares for an attack, the regime is likely spreading munitions across cities throughout the country, making detection more difficult, necessitating more strikes, and increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties.

Some intelligence reports indicate that the Assad regime lacks the ability to produce certain necessary precursor ingredients, but Syria stockpiled chemicals from European suppliers before export controls became effective. It also doesn’t take much to create many of the chemical agents used; they can be produced by anyone with an advanced chemistry degree given a moderately equipped refinement facility. Targeting Syria’s production facilities is possible, but will be difficult. Tracking movements of Syrian military chemical units and weapons platforms capable of firing chemical munitions would be an easier task.

The hardest part comes after the munitions are located. Once the targets are acquired they must be destroyed without releasing the deadly chemical agents— it’s possible but a bit like bombing a paint factory at long range and expecting not to have any splatter.

Syrian chemical units and their launchers can be targeted using airstrikes, drones, or cruise missiles launched from naval vessels. However, given the likelihood that the Syrians have intentionally moved these weapons systems into populated areas, even precise strikes on them could lead to civilian casualties. On a larger scale, there is also the danger that an attack on launchers loaded with chemical munitions could spread toxic substances as far as Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan or into the Mediterranean Sea.

America must face the possibility that in carrying out attacks to prevent the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons it risks unleashing those deadly agents on a civilian population.

Other than weapon systems and facilities, Syrian soldiers working in chemical units are another likely target for attack. The troops in these units are usually outfitted in identifiable protective gear for their own safety, a clear indicator of the presence of chemical agents and their impending use. But attacking these soldiers presents a similar set of problems—their likely proximity to chemical weapons means that targeting them risks hitting the munitions they are guarding or operating and releasing them into nearby populations.

The care America takes in eliminating its own chemical weapons reflects how dangerous the process is, even when it’s done in a safe and controlled environment. Since 1986, the protocol has been to incinerate the agent at temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit or to neutralize it using hot water and a caustic compound. After the destructive phase, the next step involves extensive monitoring and testing of air, water, and soil to ensure no residual release.

Simply dropping a conventional bomb on an ammo dump is not a solution. Besides the initial deadly effect of dispersing chemical agents, their release into air, soil, and water can have severe health effects for years down the road.

A chemical rocket or artillery round does not explode like conventional munitions. They contain a propellant to get the munitions on target and only enough explosive to rupture the round and release their agent, either bursting in the air above a target or upon hitting the ground. This is why there were several rockets found semi-intact after the August 21 attack on Ghutah which were subsequently sampled by U.N. investigators.

The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency has conducted extensive research into anti-chemical strike options. One weapon they have studied is the non-explosive CBU-107 “PAW” which releases 3,700 extremely dense metal rods into a high-altitude free fall that acts like thousands of daggers, penetrating and shredding a target without the use of explosives. This weapon is less likely to cause an explosion at production facilities but it will rupture munitions, releasing their chemical agents and making casualties of anyone in the vicinity.

Thermobaric explosive weapons, like the BLU-119/B “CrashPad” are another option. Thermobaric explosives, essentially the most powerful non-nuclear devices in the U.S. arsenal, work by sucking in all the oxygen in the blast radius and using it to fuel an intense, high-velocity explosion reaching over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In theory, such devices have the potential to suck in and incinerate chemical agents, however, no conclusive testing of such devices on live chemical agents has yet been conducted.

While they may have a better chance of destroying chemical munitions without releasing their agents, the blast and heat generated by thermobaric weapons are intensely deadly. Structures near the blast will be destroyed and persons not killed by the initial explosion or flying debris will suffer lethal damage to internal organs caused by the pressure wave it creates. The effect of their use in a populated urban area would cause casualties comparable to a small nuclear explosion or a chemical attack. Using a nonexplosive penetrator or a thermobaric device in a city such as Damascus could cause more civilian casualties than the regime’s attack on Ghutah, which is just the reason Assad’s forces are likely relocating their chemical assets closer to urban centers.

The ability to safely destroy large stocks of chemical agents with airstrikes is still unconfirmed, though it is theoretically possible. Testing that method now requires accepting that even relative success may mean killing thousands of the very Syrian civilians we would be acting to protect. As the American people and Congress consider the proposals for action made by the president and his cabinet they should be aware of the chances for success, the risks, and the potential cost in lives.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why Chemical Weapons are a 'Red Line' the World Must Enforce

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 4 September 2013.

Echoing President Barack Obama's remarks of a year ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry has called the use of chemical weapons a "red line for the world", asserting that evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt the Assad regime used Sarin nerve gas against its own people. Failing to act now would push that red line back and send a message that the use of chemical weapons will be frowned upon, but that nothing will result other than stern international admonitions.

This would reverse the tide that has been rolling back the use of chemical warfare for the last 25 years. Chemical weapons are a world red line, and action is necessary to protect hard-won international progress against chemical weapons proliferation.

The long war against chemical weapons use

The first world war was the first occasion on which chemical weapons were used on a large scale in war. The results of these attacks, mostly on British and German soldiers, were so horrendous that a prohibition of their use was included in the 1925 Geneva Protocol – subsequently ratified by 138 nations. This was the first formal recognition that the use of chemical weapons is a red line for the world community.

The US and USSR took another step against chemical weapons by agreeing to cease production and set up an inspection regime in the1989 Wyoming Agreement. Then, in 1993, the world again pushed forward the red line to halt the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The rest of the world has kept these agreements, and the reduction of chemical weapons has progressed steadily ever since. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the enforcement agency of the CWC, has reported that 72% of the world's declared stockpiles have been eliminated, as of 2011. The rest are scheduled to decommissioned within the next few years. These are mostly located in Libya and Iraq, but crucially, they are secured and will be eliminated with co-operation from other CWC signatory states. The US has eliminated 90% of its chemical weapons and Russia over 60%.

There are reports of chemical weapons use by Russia, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Saddam Hussein notoriously used chemical weapons against Kurds around Halabja, and during the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. However, there have now been no proven lethal chemical attacks in 25 years. Worldwide, the use of chemical weapons in war has virtually ceased since the 1993 adoption of the CWC.

Only Syria has continually chosen to ignore the world's red line on chemical weapons; it is one of only seven nations in the world that refuses to ratify the CWC. (It is joined only by Angola, North Korea, Egypt, and South Sudan; Israel and Burma/Myanmar have signed the CWC, but not ratified it.) At a time when the rest of the world was eliminating chemical weapons, Syria was actively stockpiling precursor chemicals and building what has become one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world.

In July 2012, an official Assad regime spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, declared it was Syrian government policy that chemical weapons would not be used against Syrians, but reserved the right to use them against any external forces. So, Assad could not even keep his own declared red line on chemical weapons use. Unleashing nerve gas on noncombatants in Damascus was a big step over the line.

What about other conflict-zone 'red lines'?

Throughout the last century, the world has borne witness to violence throughout the world, including violent political crackdowns, ethnic cleansing, religious conflict, assassinations and border wars. In virtually every one, international law, norms and values – "red lines", if you will – have been stretched or broken. Victims and refugees caught in these conflicts have repeatedly called for intervention by outside powers. Most of these calls have been made on the United States and other western powers.

Sometimes, we have answered; most often, we have not. So what makes this "red line" different and why should we act this time?

The world order has been in turmoil since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 upended the geopolitical bipolarity of the previous 50 years. Former Soviet satellites in eastern Europe and the Caucasus continue to struggle for their own identity and to remain independent. The Arab Spring uprisings are tearing apart the old political order in the Middle East, while the rise of China is making its Asian neighbours nervous and attracting American attention. South American nations continue their journey out of poverty and away from repressive regimes.

Meanwhile, the US is coming to the end of over a decade at war, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Finally, we have already witnessed over 100,000 deaths in Syria.

Not all of the benefits the world was promised when the US and its allies prevailed in the cold war anti-Communist struggle have materialised. In some parts of the world, things seem to be regressing, rather than improving. That is why it is important to preserve and jealously guard what progress has been made in working toward a more peaceful world – even if that means turning to military action against rogue states in order to do so. The steady worldwide reduction of chemical weapons is a prime example of that progress – one that we cannot allow to be eroded so easily.

A failure to act after the Assad regime has crossed that red line would be akin to the world retreating and setting a new, weaker standard without a fight. No state other than Syria has dared to cross the line of chemical weapons use in a quarter-century. If we do not act today, we have set a new world precedent that says the use of chemical weapons is frowned upon, but there will be no serious consequences. We should not retreat so easily without serious consideration of what we would be sacrificing for the future.

Until this moment, the world was on the cusp of eliminating one of the unholy trinity of weapons of mass destruction. Quietly, steadily, we had been approaching the point where we would one day be able to say we had eliminated chemical weapons.

This is progress toward a safer world we can only hope to achieve with nuclear or biological weapons. Worldwide, proliferation of nuclear weapons has increased. Since the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel have developed new nuclear weapons. Other states, such as Iran, may be trying to join the nuclear club. Meanwhile, the nature of biological weapons makes tracking or controlling them difficult and there is no major international agreement specifically to enforce their prohibition. Though it receives less attention, the Chemical Weapons Convention is a real success story in comparison.

Syria is the last country in the world with a large stockpile of chemical weapons that refuses to eliminate them. Now, the Assad regime has used them on its own people. And Syria has threatened to use them against any outside forces which threaten the Assad regime. No other country in the world has dared do that since 1988.

President Assad is the last major roadblock to achieving a world free from the horror of chemical weapons. That is why the world, led by the United States, must take action in Syria.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Military Teaches Soldiers Strength; the VA Teaches Veterans to Beg

This article originally appeared on The Daily Beast on 30 August 2013.

I come from a family of combat vets. We have all been fortunate enough to make it home, from WWII, Vietnam, and for me, Iraq. Military service is a family tradition, as is bitching about the VA. Dinner conversations include horror stories about wait times, neglect, and endless red tape. Often lost in the cycle of stories about VA screw-ups and VA reforms (inevitably followed by more stories of VA screw-ups) is the demoralizing affect that the process has on individuals by taking the very values the military teaches—integrity, hard work, accountability—and undermining them by making veterans act like beggars.

The term “red tape” in America actually derives from Civil War veterans’ records being bound together in the stuff. The story of veterans getting stiffed by the government is an American tradition going back at least 150 years. In the present day, while bill payments can be done online and any song ever recorded is instantly accessible, we are still using a paper-based VA system that has the upshot of being noncompatible with the Department of Defense system used for tracking active-duty soldiers.

Veterans are proud characters, used to standing on their own feet. And while self-sufficiency is a central part of the military ethos, reintegrating into civilian life can be difficult and require some assistance, particularly for those with injuries and mental traumas incurred during their service.

Only 0.5 percent of Americans have served in the post-9/11 era, compared with 9 percent during the height of WWII. The burden of fighting for the country continues to fall on the shoulders of the few. When veterans have to fight for the benefits they are owed, it alienates them even further from the rest of the country that did not serve.

Following multiple tours, veterans can come home and feel isolated in their own communities. It’s difficult enough discussing their time overseas with friends and neighbors; most are in no rush to introduce a new uncomfortable topic: problems with the VA over disability ratings and payment. The outcome is that they become further estranged and often bitter both toward the government that fails to honor its commitments and the civilian population that has not fought harder to force the issue.

How can insurance companies and banks—also large organizations processing thousands of compensation claims daily—succeed in processing within reasonable time frames but the VA cannot? The answer, simply, is a lack of political will and accountability.

The VA once had to close a facility because the huge number of files piled up made the building structurally unsound and unsafe to work in. Recent congressional testimony revealed that the Baltimore VA office was late on 81 percent of its claims, though speed may not be the answer, given the additional revelation that errors were made in 26 percent of claims processed by that office.

Asking for help is hard enough; making vets act like supplicants with their hands out is an insult.
As soldiers, veterans were used to counting on the government. Paychecks came on time and family health care was readily available. Everything they needed to do their job was made available—if not immediately and in perfect order, at least predictably and with a system of accountability for when things went wrong. Imagine the position of a veteran who leaves that sort of environment, finds that the benefits promised as job payment are suddenly unavailable, that the government reneged on its word and the only option for recourse involves automated systems and faceless bureaucrats.

It often goes like this: You visit a VA facility, file a claim, and wait months for an acknowledgment by mail. You submit relevant medical evidence, service records, and statements supporting your claim and wait months for another acknowledgment. Repeat this process several more times as you’re asked for additional evidence.

Your claim file may be shuffled between different VA facilities in different cities or it may be lost completely—keep in mind that none of this is digitized. The VA and the post office: the last two true paper pushers left in America.

Meanwhile, your life goes on. Your service-related injuries may become worse. The VA can’t cope with changes in contact details or conditions, so God forbid you move or have a new development not documented in the papers you submitted months ago. After dealing with all of this, often the VA will reject the claim outright and the process begins again with an appeal. Even if it is approved there may be an unexplained delay or error in receiving payment.

You are not entitled to be kept informed about the progress of your claim; calling their office won’t help. You may write to the VA, but you will either receive no reply or an automated response. You may try to use the VA’s eBenefits online system to check your status and submit evidence, but it is never updated. You will find, if you were told something in a previous communication with the VA, that it may be wholly untrue but there is no special effort made by the VA to correct mistakes.

The VA, despite repeated claims of its reform, remains mysterious to those who depend on it and the process can makes veterans feel small and powerless. For many the idea of asking for help is hard enough, but making them feel as if they are supplicants, with their hands out for a favor, is an insult. Add to this the thinly veiled accusations by some that the system is filled with false claims and veterans are “freeloaders” and the insult becomes unbearable.

Now, in the wake of Congress’s self-imposed sequestration, some think-tankers, career civil servants, and congressional staffers on both sides of the political spectrum are pushing for trimming veterans’ and military benefits. Veterans’ benefits have been spared from sequestration directly but are being eyed indirectly by bean counters who seem unbothered by asking vets to sacrifice even more for their country.

Veterans’ benefits are not over-generous entitlements. Entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are open to every citizen who pays into them, and even some who do not, and troops pay these taxes like everyone else. Veterans’ benefits such as VA health care are earned through years of service and designed to care and compensate for injuries and losses incurred while serving. These benefits are not a luxury or the thanks of a grateful nation; they are part of a service contract.

Being a veteran in America has never been an easy road. We win the wars but come home to see our own battles lost every time. From the red tape of the Civil War, the WWI veterans’ bonus march, Agent Orange in Vietnam, and the newest generation’s continuing fight against post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, unemployment, homelessness, and suicide, justice for American veterans is slow to come. It’s an American tradition overdue for change.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Egypt Unrest Blame Game: August Edition

This article originally appeared on The Truman Doctrine on 16 August 2013.

Who is to blame for the unrest in Egypt? If you listen to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, Israel and its Zionist ally America are to blame. Iran has also adopted this line. There are some in the United States and Europe who also believe America is to blame as we have given billions of dollars in aid every year to Egypt under Mubarak and are likely to continue to do so under any new government in order to maintain influence. Others, mostly on the political right, have blamed the violence solely on President Obama. The real answer is that Egyptians are to blame for the violent unrest in Egypt. It is an unfortunate human reality that national systems do not experience major changes at rapid pace through peaceful evolution, but rather through violent revolution. Egypt is in the throes of a violent process in which there are no easy or clear answers.

The moment reports the military’s raid against Muslim Brotherhood protesters had turned violent became public the presses were already hot with the next round of the blame game. Who is pulling the secret strings behind the scenes? America is always the first culprit. Even Americans love to blame America. That the US has given an average of a billion dollars annually to the Egyptian military is cited as evidence that America has out-sized influence on Egypt’s military, especially its popular commander, General Abdel el-Sissi. Supporters of the ‘blame America’ school hold we should have used our influence to prevent this latest outbreak of violence and should withdraw our aid and support. America has been blamed for both supporting and opposing Egypt’s coup at the same time.

But hold the phone. US government policy communications regarding Egypt from the beginning of the Arab Spring up until today are filled with calls for the Egyptian military to use restraint. Every major US officeholder and appointee from President Obama on down has called for a peaceful transition from Mubarak and, now, a peaceful transition to democracy following the military coup. And we’re swinging our only big stick. It has been communicated that if restraint is not shown or violent crackdowns continue, the US may withdraw its $1.3 billion aid package. Essentially, America has done what all of its critics are saying it should have done. Yet, here we are.

The problem is that many critics of America share something in common with those diametrically opposed to them who believe emphatically in American greatness—namely, a false belief that America has much more power to shape and influence events in other states than it actually has. America has called for restraint in Egypt. America has threatened to withdraw its billions of aid dollars. It may not have any effect. Here’s why.

America is not the only country in the world writing checks to other governments in exchange for influence. Taking 2010 as an example, the US contributed 19% of all development aid to Egypt. Germany, France, Japan, Kuwait and other Arab states contributed between 10-15% each. If economic aid is supposed to equal a requisite amount of influence, than each of these other states are in the same boat with America. Why aren’t they being blamed equally for failing to act to stop the violence?

Recently Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have agreed to give around $12 billion in financial aid to Egypt, dwarfing the US package of $1.3 billion in comparison. These states, especially those with monarchies still standing, have no wish to see an Islamist government in Egypt and they’re willing to pay lots of money to prevent it—and they care little about the possibly violent consequences. Yet the blame still falls on America’s shoulders.

The US should also tread carefully as it has had to with Pakistan when it comes to the threat to withdraw aid. Continuing to give aid may look like collusion or acquiescence to the actions of the military and interim government, but withdrawing aid may mean the US no longer has any leverage or audience with the powers that be. It is a double-edged sword. If aid continues, the Egyptian military rulers may still continue to do as they please. Withdraw aid and they may do the same thing.

The US and its aid dollars are not to blame for violence in Egypt, nor are the aid dollars of any other outside state. Money did not compel people into the streets again and money could not prevent this recent violence. The Egyptian people overthrew Mubarak by taking to Tahrir Square. The Egyptian military stood down and allowed it to happen. The Egyptian people voted Mohammed Morsi into office as their new president. The Egyptian people took to the streets again to depose him and the Egyptian military allowed it, again. Though the violence is regrettable, many Egyptians are cheering the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and General el-Sissi remains the most popular figure in the country.

Though the violent images and hundreds of casualties among Muslim Brotherhood members are absolutely terrible, no one else was there pulling the strings. It was, once again, the Egyptian people and the Egyptian military that set this chain of events in motion. It is only hubris to believe that the US or any other state has enough influence to have stopped these events or to cause them to happen.

Terrible as they are, they are part of a process of rapid political and social revolution. The Russian, French, American, and British revolutions were bloody as well. The difference is that there was not Twitter, 24-hour news or the internet to send the pictures across the world in real time. As much as the violence is regrettable, Egypt is deciding for itself the form its future will take.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Egypt Coup Was Necessary to Preserve Democracy

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 8 July 2013.

Mohamed Morsi has been removed as the elected President of Egypt following a military coup d'etat widely supported by the Egyptian public. Violent clashes continue between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, as Egyptians — and not America or the West — are control their own fate. Independence and stability must come before democracy can take root.

The military takeover has given rise to cries from some among the media intelligentsia. For example, The Independent's Robert Fisk blames President Barack Obama for not denouncing the coup, and claims it shows Egypt is not on the path to democracy (as claimed). Whether called a coup or not, history shows that the road to democracy begins with such violent events, and the military may be the only stable national institution to turn to in times of crisis.

The history of every major democracy in the world starts with a violent war or revolution or even several of them. From Britain's Magna Carta to the American and French revolutions, it has become a rule of history that those asked to give up absolute power won't give it up without a fight. It is wrong to think things are any different in the 21st century. This is a lesson of America and Britain's misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan —democracy doesn't grow on trees.

Though the West claims to believe in democracy above all else, the truth is that democracy doesn't work overnight or on its own. The proper groundwork must be laid. This includes, among others, the trust and confidence of the people, rule of law, freedom of speech and press, a stable economic system and a system safeguarding the physical security and order of the citizenry.

Egypt under President Morsi had none of these things. His refusal to negotiate, failure to commit to improving the economy and assertion that his policy was supreme law brought the people into the streets, eventually leading the military to depose him. In Morsi's defense, he was only in office for a year. But we should expect the people of Egypt, hungry for change after Mubarak, to keep coming back to the streets until someone gets it right. It will be violent and bloody.

The French Revolution would have sent Morsi and his Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to the guillotine — fortunately the Egyptian military has only arrested them, giving several days advanced warning. It may take years of struggles before Egypt stabilizes. America struggled with violent uprisings throughout the first years of its independence. The struggle for sustainable democracy will take longer. Britain's oft-violent struggle for democracy took place over centuries and the UK still has no written constitution. Just because we have 24-hour television and Twitter coverage of the events today doesn't mean that things are any different.

It is a mistake to categorically reject this Egyptian coup as an assertion of military rule and a rejection of democracy. It is a misunderstanding of how revolutions often work. There are many recent historical precedents, particularly in Southwest Asia, which show that the military can act as a national safeguard, providing stability until civilian institutions can get it right in the eyes of the people.

Throughout the modern history of Turkey, the military has acted as a national safeguard. In 1960, 1971 and again in 1980, the Turkish military deposed the civil government. In each case the country had been gripped with economic, social and political turmoil and in each case the military quickly returned the country to civilian rule. Ethnic and political strife has made Pakistan hard for anyone to rule, leading it to be called a "compromise state." The Pakistani military has been the only institution with the strength to rule, supporting coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999, though it has not always been as quick to return to civil rule. The military has also played a vital role in the stability of Thailand, stepping in when the government was deadlocked, most recently in 2006 over the allegedly corrupt rule of millionaire Thaksin Shinawatra.

One only need look at the conduct of the Egyptian military itself during the initial stages of the uprising against the Mubarak government. While the military was brutally suppressing protests in other regional states such as Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen, Egyptian troops generally remained calm observers. Though there were complaints following the fall of Mubarak, rule was quickly returned to civil hands. Now, again following the deposition of President Morsi, the country is nominally in the hands of a civilian interim government, headed by Supreme Court judge Adly Mansour and international diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei.

To denounce this coup as an attack on democracy in Egypt paints a false picture, as does depicting it as a return to military dictatorship. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians support the action should not be brushed aside. States in turmoil often turn to stable institutions such as the military to safeguard the national interest in times of crisis. The Egyptian military is already taking steps to turn the country back over to civil, democratic rule. Those who are sending up cries of foul had better return to their history books and look at events on the ground. Independence and stability first—then comes democracy.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Contracting Out U.S. National Security

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 2 July 2013.

Despite the cheers and jeers at leakers such as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden over the last few years, it would seem access to such information is less protected than ever. Serving intelligence officers are allowed to sell their skills to corporations. High-level intelligence work, once closely guarded, is farmed out to contractors, who leak information like a sieve.

The Obama White House has conducted more leak investigations than any previous administration, now including the leak of a cyber-warfare campaign against Iran by a top US army general, James Cartwright. We are selling our national security in an effort to save a buck – and we will continue to pay for it in other ways.

In 2010, Eamon Javers reported on CIA's controversial "moonlighting" policy, which allowed active intelligence officers to seek permission to work in the private sector on the side if they made full disclosure and it did not conflict with their duties. Generally, the same standard applies to all federal employees who are not political appointees.

But not all federal employees are CIA officers. No statistics of how many took advantage of the policy were forthcoming, but the policy itself was disturbing enough to lead to questions before Congress.

Why is this allowed? Defenders hold it is important to stop the "brain drain", where the best and brightest depart the agency for better pay. Supporters argue the level of compensation at CIA doesn't stack up against other federal or private-sector employment. This "discrepancy" leads talented employees to look elsewhere – for roles in which their skills fetch better prices. The CIA thus finds itself in competition with the private sector to keep personnel on whom it has expended a great deal of money and effort in training.

Demand for intelligence work has ballooned since 9/11, though government belt-tightening in recent years has had an effect. Washington has decided, rather than expanding intelligence services in a permanent sense, to farm out the increased workload to private contractors. This has advantages, as for any business seeking to outsource operations. When the need for the work reduces, it is easier to allow a contract to expire than it is to lay off excess federal employees or to keep them on, under-employed.

But there are drawbacks as well. Rather than paying solely for the service, the price also reflects the contractor's own costs – their HR, finance, management and marketing departments' wages, office costs, even redundancies. It is questionable if contracting saves anything at all. One doesn't have to look hard to find stories of wasted costs, foul-ups or even corruption in security contracting.

Just last week, USIS, the contractor responsible for performing background checks for security clearances – including Edward Snowden's – was accused of misleading the government as to the thoroughness of their investigations. Lawmakers have been told that thousands of background checks may have been improperly conducted. (The firm has made no comment, but issued a statement saying it was co-operating with an investigation.)

Private intelligence contractors look to hire employees who already have active clearances and intelligence experience – requirements not easily obtained elsewhere than an intelligence agency. The problem becomes circular. Farming out intelligence work to contractors creates its own demand. Agency employees leave for jobs with higher pay because the government itself has created a market for them, creating the very "brain drain" it seeks to stem. This is because bean-counters are worried about the effect on the budget – namely, of salary, benefits and pension obligations to employees. In the CIA's defence, these decisions are made in Washington, DC, not Langley, Virginia.

A second argument is that no harm is being done and these individuals have dedicated years to the country and are entitled to "feather their nests". However, the US military shares the same commitment to the country – yet service personnel get paid even less, and veterans are coming home to high unemployment rates.

While the job has its risks, most CIA employees still have desk jobs. The more academic nature of the job does not automatically entitle analysts to higher pay. There are also brainy folks at the Department of Interior or Forest Service who are overworked and underpaid. Many other less fortunate Americans would be happy to have such pay and benefits as CIA officers enjoy.

That our national security apparatus feels it must compete with the private sector to attract the best talent now means attracting the wrong kind of talent. Those who work in such a vital role should not do so for the salary, even if that is a great recruitment tool. One recruit who signs up for the right reasons is worth five who sign up for others. This should be familiar to US intelligence officers from the CIA's chief architect, Allen Dulles, who believed the most dependable sources are those not in it for pay.

The net effect on security is that it has become impossible for America to keep secrets. Security information is being handled by private companies poaching the intelligence community's talent and selling it back to the government, who paid to develop it in the first place. Government budget cuts and a failure to invest in intelligence infrastructure have created this problem.

National security challenges do not simply go away because we are having budget fights. If we are not willing to pay for this now, we'll pay for it later – in another, more sinister sense. Some things are worth paying for; our national security is one of them.

Friday, June 21, 2013

High Time for a US-EU Trade Agreement

This article originally appeared on The Truman Doctrine on 20 June 2013.

Despite our differences, many of which have come to a head in recent years over the War on Terror, the United States and its allies in the European Union share overwhelming common interests. Beyond shared values, culture, and military and political systems, these interests are also the result of diplomatic design and modern history. The U.S.-EU free trade negotiations recently announced at the G8 summit in Enniskillen are a natural progression of this relationship and are an important step for both blocs in responding not only to today’s problems, but tomorrow’s problems as well.

WWII left the European continent devastated for the second time in only 30 years. The labour force was decimated, production had ground to a halt and national treasuries were empty, with crushing inflation and debt. Determined that European states should never go to war with each other again over resources or ‘balance of power’ politics, European leaders formed the European Coal and Steel Community, which evolved into the European Union of today. The EU is the world’s largest common market for goods and services. Though often misunderstood and even demonized, the EU is in great measure responsible for the continental peace that has followed its creation. Economic integration has created overriding mutual interests among EU states. Those who trade together, stay together.

The Marshall Plan helped to rebuild Western Europe’s economy. Continuing cooperation between intelligence agencies has been vital to both sides of the Atlantic. The joint military structure of NATO ensured that the U.S. and Europe remained engaged in each other’s national security. NATO is still a vital tool through which America and Europe engage with the world in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 era. The U.S. and its western European allies recognized the need for intelligence and military cooperation to confront the Soviet Union and the spread of communism during the Cold War and again in the fight against terrorism.

But an over-arching agreement on transatlantic trade has been missing for many decades due to national protectionist instincts that often kick in on both sides. Many Americans blame ‘globalization’ and trade agreements such as NAFTA for the loss of jobs. Many Euro-sceptics wrongly blame the EU for the same. Britain often finds itself at odds with the EU, most memorably in relation to weights and measurements when Imperial units became a nationalist rally point. France has been guilty of setting emissions standards that strangely only Peugeots and Citroens could pass. Even in this most recent agreement announced at Enniskillen an exception, pushed for in France and Poland, was made for the European film industry, which fears it would be driven to extinction by Hollywood blockbusters.

A bilateral U.S.-EU trade agreement would give American and European businesses access to millions of new customers for goods and services. The increased competition and elimination of tariffs should lead to better prices for consumers on both sides. The opening of new markets will create new jobs, something sorely needed in both Europe and America. It will also help cut through a lot of the red tape for importers and exporters already in the transatlantic trade.

But there are also bigger strategic reasons to hail such an agreement. Both sides of the Atlantic have suffered attacks and face the continuing threat of international terrorism. The 2008 economic downturn was fuelled by questionable lending policies by major banks in both America and Europe and are where the effects have been most acutely felt. U.S. and EU governments have faced similar struggles regarding foreclosures, government austerity, ‘bailouts’, bonuses and tax evasion. Both the U.S. and Europe continue to require fossil fuel energy. Despite better efforts than America to increase use of renewables, Europe must often depend upon Russia for oil and gas, giving Moscow a larger share of leverage than they may ordinarily be due. War and instability in the Middle East and Africa have shown the folly of America’s continued dependence on foreign oil, an issue the Obama administration has set out to tackle to the opposition of many in Congress. The world’s insatiable appetite for energy is growing at an even faster rate. The rise of China and India and other smaller tigers mean that the dominance the U.S. has enjoyed since the end of WWII may be challenged. This increase in global competition for energy resources may lead to conflict sometime in the near future.

This is no time for the EU or the U.S. to call ‘every man for himself’ and turn to their own tasks. The two blocs face the same challenges and the success or failure of one side is of great consequence for the other. China and India did not grow themselves in a vacuum. American and European consumers, investors and business out-sourcing have fuelled their growth. The same capital employed there could have flowed back and forth between American and European states, but the want of cheap labour and materials, less or non-existent regulation and reduced government red tape caused it to flow eastward instead. The U.S. and EU have been fuelling the growth of their own competitors at a time when both are in dire need of economic growth.

Hopefully that will change or slow with a successful U.S.-EU trade agreement. It is high time for one.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Quick Primer on Chechnya

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 19 April 2013.

Chechnya is a region in the large isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas north of the Georgia and Armenia in the North Caucuses Mountains. It can be said to stand on the gate between east and west, with Russia to the north and Iran and Turkey only several hundred miles south. Most ethnic Chechens, by far the largest ethnic group, adhere to Sunni Islam. Ethnic Russians, mostly of transplanted Cossack origin, are predominantly Orthodox Christians. The region is also home to other smaller populations of eastern Caucuses peoples. Chechnya was part of the Ottoman Empire and then the Persian Empire until the early 19th century when it was ceded to Russia following their victory in the Russo-Persian War in 1813.

Chechnya has been host to conflict for centuries because of its strategic position between Russia and far eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire and the Middle or Near East. It sits atop the natural barrier of the Caucuses Mountains between two seas. Chechnya has been the site of many instances of brutal ethnic and religious oppression by the Ottomans, Persians, Russian Empire, the USSR, and the Russian Republic, as well as by regional separatist or independence leaders, in an effort to control or keep hold of the region. As a result, inhabitants are quite divided between political, ethnic, and religious allegiances. Roughly speaking, Chechnya has a history similar to regions such as Bosnia and Kosovo, which are subject to much the same tensions.

Chechnya has been fighting on-and-off for independence from Russia for over 200 years. It was briefly independent following the Russian Revolution in 1921. Following the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1940, Chechnya again declared independence until Stalin re-established control in 1944, followed by a brutal purge and mass Siberian deportations. The years following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 were particularly violent as many Chechen groups fought again for independence from the Russian Republic, though the region has been under firm Russian control since 1999. However, this control has led some Chechen separatist groups to turn to terrorism.

Since 1999, Chechnya-linked groups have been involved in at least a dozen terror attacks, the majority of which have taken place in or been aimed at Russia. A Chechen group seized a grade school in Beslan, Russia in 2004, resulting in the deaths of 330 hostages, most of them children. In 2008, Chechen rebels took 130 hostages in a movie theatre in Moscow, all of whom died along with their captors following a botched rescue attempt by Russian security forces. In 2010, two female suicide bombers killed 39 in an attack at a train station near the Moscow headquarters of the FSB, Russia’s main intelligence agency.

There is evidence that some Chechen separatist groups may have links to Al-Qaeda. Many ethnic Chechen fighters fought alongside the mujahedeen, including Osama Bin Laden, in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Chechens also fought alongside the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan against the U.S. and Northern Alliance fighters in 2001. The Taliban government was one of the few in the world to recognize Chechen independence. Russia has claimed it holds direct evidence of links between Chechen rebels and Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Many question this link and cite it as a ploy to ensure the west sees Chechen rebels as terrorists and the west elicits no resistance in return from Russia when it pursues its own terrorists elsewhere.

The U.S. government lists the Islamic Independent Peacekeeping Brigade as a source for funding for Islamist Chechan rebels and has ties to Al-Qaeda. America also lists the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment and Riyadus-Salikhin Brigade of Chechen Martyrs as terror groups.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Antagonizing America: Our Enemies Depend Upon us

This article originally appeared on The Truman Doctrine on 28 March 2013.

There’s a theory that says when you’re the new kid in a rough neighborhood the first thing you should do is find the biggest, toughest kid on the block and punch him in the face. The sheer audacity of the act will make anyone else think twice about tangling with you, especially if you manage to go toe-to-toe for a few rounds before losing. Power perceived is power achieved–until the contrary is proven. America is the biggest, toughest kid on the block. There is value in antagonizing America.

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders … tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” –Hermann Goering

This is very much the idea that states such as Iran follow. The regime gains its power by focusing the minds of the population on a common enemy—America. The weekly anti-American demonstrations in Tehran, complete with flag burning, occur with such clockwork regularity that they have to come up with new gimmicks just to keep people interested.

It’s been said they pay people from the countryside to come into the city for a day to hold up signs and chant. Who wouldn't like to hop on a bus for a day in the city on the government’s dime? What university student would turn down a few bucks for burning a flag?

There’s nothing like an enemy to focus the mind of the people on external factors. The benefit is that while they’re worried about the enemy outside their borders they won’t give too much thought to life and problems within their own. Keeping the country safe from the enemy is a good justification for all kinds of internal security measures that would be questionable in other circumstances. A perpetual state of wariness exists on a pseudo-wartime footing.

Ironically, the Iranian regime and other dictatorships and theocracies like it throughout the world depend upon the United States. Their continued grip on power depends upon having America as an enemy to rattle their saber against. They derive their power from a manufactured need to bravely resist American imperialism that would destroy their culture and way of life. Every time commodity prices go up and put strain on peoples’ wallets, it can be blamed upon the enemy and their embargo, not on the regime and its actions or policies.

North Korea under the Kim dynasty has made an art of cycling between alternately opposing and folding to America and its allies. They develop nuclear weapons and elicit all manner of inducements from the West to get rid of them. The U.S. has delivered hundreds of thousands of tons of food aid, almost none of which made to ordinary Koreans.

After the Obama administration structured the aid to ensure it reached the people directly, the North called it off, going ahead with missile tests, beginning to rebuild its dismantled nuclear facilities and has recently threatened nuclear war against South Korea and the United States. There are signs the North is preparing for another underground nuclear test.

However, two or three years from now America and its P+5 allies will likely find themselves on the verge of another diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea. But once again, the North will snatch final victory from our mouths and the cycle will begin again. Iran follows a similar pattern in its own nuclear talks with America. Every time a breakthrough is reported through public or back channels and there seems to be progress, it runs off the rails almost like clockwork.

If Iran were really determined to build a nuclear arsenal, they could certainly have done so by now. Pakistan did so as a hedge against India and we couldn't or didn't do a lot to stop it. Some have been predicting a nuclear-armed Iran since the 1990’s. In reality, it isn't the nuclear weapons Iran is seeking; it is the confrontation and antimony with America that it wants and depends upon. Iran has had an open door to developing nuclear weapons for many years now and will likely sit on the fence for years to come.

None of this makes Iran or North Korea stuffed tigers. The Iranian regime has done actual damage to America going back to 1979 and the Cold War. Anywhere America becomes involved in the Middle East, Iran backs the other horse. It funds international terrorist groups, targeting Israel in particular. In Iraq, Iranian intelligence operatives were caught on the ground by U.S. forces and their footprint was easily seen in the training, weapons and explosives training funneled to the insurgency there. Iranian operations have likely killed thousands of Americans directly and indirectly.

The deep cult-of-personality that exists around Kim Jong-un and his father before him is grounds to wonder if North Korea will one day stop being a rational actor. Right now, Kim has decided that he is going to punch tough-kid America in the face to show the world and his people that he is made of sterner stuff. However, if he begins to believe his own propaganda and it turns to mania, he has his fingers on a lot of buttons.

Understanding this behavior is important. Unfortunately our response often seems to be to adopt the same model of these states in our own national political discourse on the topic. The war drums come out and red lines are drawn. Accusations are hurled back and forth and there’s a scramble to take up the patriotic mantle.

The Global War on Terror has been used to excuse many security measures in America wholly unacceptable in other circumstances. If we have learned anything in the last decade of conflict, it is that we should never sleepwalk towards war as inevitability without a full consideration of its necessity and aftermath and a wholehearted commitment to seeing it through to the end if we do.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Rand Paul is Wrong; International Development is Vital to U.S. National Security

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 18 March 2013.

It's not a stretch to say that there is a lot of dishonesty in our political discourse in America. One of the most brazen but overlooked examples comes from the wing of one of our major political parties that claims to believe in no or very little government, yet is led by figures who spend their entire careers working in government under the questionable claim that they do so to protect the rest of us. To expect figures such as Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to be good shepherds of government policy and programs they ideologically oppose is the same as trusting a cat with your gold fish bowl. Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans accept government has a role to play in our lives, especially regarding our national security. Unfortunately, blind ideological allegiance to slashing government in ignorance of this vital role threatens our national defense.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and we should not ignore the lessons we learned from our struggle there. I served two tours in Baghdad and often the best metrics we had to measure the impact of our security operations and reconstruction was to measure how many hours of electricity were provided each day, how many shops were open, if the water, sewage, and trash removal were working, and how long the gasoline lines were. We learned that we can never ignore the aftermath of military actions and simply hope for the best. However, we also should have already picked up this lesson following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, as made famous by Charlie Wilson’s War. Had we spent money on international development then, perhaps we wouldn't be fighting there now. It would be more than a mistake to make the same mistakes twice.

Our troops were forced into the role of international aid workers, social workers, and public works directors. Though they certainly rose to meet the challenge, such work is best left to professionals who are experienced in such matters so our troops can concentrate on winning the fight. Our military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan learned through experience on the ground that providing public works and educational and economic development is just as valuable as performing traditional military operations. They requested funding for such programs. CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis recently testified before Congress, "If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition." That is quite an endorsement and these hard-learned lessons should not be ignored now.

Unfortunately, small government zealots such as Paul are doing just that. Just recently here on PolicyMic and elsewhere Paul has lumped spending on important international development programs in with the massive amount spent upon the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as an example of out-of-control spending that needs to be cut. Rather ironically, it was Paul's own party that pushed hard for America to enter into these long and costly wars. It seems to be a dishonest attempt to capitalize on the misunderstanding the public have on the amount spent on "foreign aid" to lump these two very different categories together. It is just as dishonest for Paul and others to lump international development in with our trade and borrowing deficit with China, a wholly unrelated issue.

In fact, the U.S. spends less than 1% of its entire budget on international development. Spending on international development returns much more benefit than military spending. Those truly concerned about getting the best for taxpayer dollars spent should take heed. It costs over half a million dollars to put one soldier in the field in places like Iraq or Afghanistan for one year. The effect of spending an equal amount to build schools or water treatment plants or a new local market lasts decades longer than a soldier's one year tour and the effect multiplies as local conditions are improved. It also keeps our troops out of harm's way when it works. If Paul or others are concerned with how America spends its money, they should welcome these programs.

Though its benefit is harder to quantify than the number of terrorists captured or killed, it has a real recognizable impact and for a longer period. The question should not be "can we afford to build a school in Afghanistan and not in America," but rather "is it more cost effective to build a school there now to avoid possibly having to send our troops there later?" Those concerned with spending our security dollars in the most effective way possible understand this.

Such spending also builds a positive image for America, as opposed to conducting armed house-to-house searches that, though often necessary, receive a negative response. A national security operation that builds a positive image and costs far less than fighter jets and smart bombs should be a welcome tool. Our military understands why international development funding is important, but some in Congress are not listening to them. They cannot honestly claim to know better.

The world today is a complex place and America cannot afford to retreat within its own borders as isolationists. Sen. Paul and his followers want a "little America" that has a smaller role in world events and that willfully gives up its mantle as world power. Such behavior will not make threats and our problems go away and they'll show up on our doorstep sooner or later whether we like it or not. The world is a safer place with America active in it. We cannot afford to ignore the lessons our troops fought and paid so dearly to learn. International development paired with the proper application of military force when necessary is an effective tool America should fully fund and apply. We cannot afford to ignore these lessons or to relearn them again the hard way.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Shift to the East: American Foreign Policy Looking Forward

This article originally appeared in Small Wars Journal on 18 March 2013.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, a war that will perhaps never hold a sure place in America’s history. It is time to reflect on what we should have learned from it and to add these to the lessons our combined American history teaches us and apply them to our world today. Though the headlines are still gripped by news from the Middle East, in the bigger picture, we should be shifting our attention toward the Far East. Shifting our concern to China and the East is not an argument of moral imperative based upon violent oppression or extremism, nor is there a justification of self-defense. We’re not being attacked. We have a real competitor, a state of affairs America hasn’t faced yet in all of its years of post-WWII hegemony.

My grandfather fought in WWII, my father in Vietnam, and I fought in Iraq. WWII was a war of industrialized nations fought around the globe. Broadly, our enemy was Japanese and German fascism. Vietnam pitted industrialized America against an underdeveloped Vietnam over fears of the spread of Russo-Chinese communism in Asia. It is much harder to nail down the reasons for the Iraq War since many of them turned out to be false. In the broader scheme, the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns were/are a fight against Islamic extremism in response to 9/11. As time has gone on whom, why and what America fights for is becoming harder to define, as is deciding when we should decide to do so.

The days of war on the European continent are gone and aren’t coming back anytime soon. There are many reasons for this. WWII devastated virtually the whole of the continent and left the major economies—Germany, France, Britain--weak and in crushing debt. The only combatant to come out of the war in a stronger position than it went in was America and this is a position we have maintained with little world competition in the 68 years since. Europeans understood afterwards that they had more to gain from mutual cooperation with each other and with America than they had in competing and trying to strike and shift balances of power.

Out of this understanding came two of the most important organizations to European and American commerce and security—the European Union and NATO. These organizations ensure that European states remain engaged with one another and with America and vice versa. The EU recently—rightly—won the Nobel Peace Prize. Many who don’t know the history and original idea behind the EU and the common market and currency scoffed. What started out as a joint enterprise between West Germany and France involving coal and steel concentrated along their common border to ensure they never went to war over these resources again has evolved into the largest common labor and commerce market in the world, a 27-country block which carries heavy weight in world markets. NATO has and continues to be the security mechanism that ensures America and Europe remain mutually engaged and cooperate in each other’s security, throughout the Cold War and into today.

The attack on Pearl Harbor that finally drew the U.S. into WWII came from Japan and the fight in the Pacific was just as furious as that in Europe. However no huge mechanized U.S. divisions had to make the slog through continental Asia. The U.S. experience in the Korean War—a forgotten war—shows that this would likely have been a more difficult proposition. The atomic bomb ended the war before the U.S. had to make such a major shift. We can perhaps be thankful our enemy was the island of Japan and not on the mainland of Asia. Early American difficulties in Korea may be blamed on defense budget cuts and a general aversion to investing money, equipment, and lives in another war in Asia so soon after finishing a first. Technically, the Korean War is still not over.

Some of this begins to sound familiar. After ending Iraq and soon Afghanistan, America is war weary and will be cutting defense spending—some voluntarily, most via sequestration. Yet world events continue to call. See Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, and other lesser-known fights in places like Yemen, the Philippines, and the horn of Africa. What is different is that Europe seems to be waking up to the world again. European military and diplomatic contributions have been more forthcoming than at any time since WWII. Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, and Mali are proof.

The wars in Iraq and Vietnam are always a controversial parallel to draw. America fought them both virtually alone. They became very unpopular politically at home, unpopular internationally, and they suffered from unclear goals, ‘mission creep’, an enemy hard to define or pin down, and were aggravated by bigger states becoming involved by fighting a proxy war against America. Both wars also have those who feel a better result would have been achieved if America had fully committed and ‘stayed the course’. They’re not necessarily wrong.

It must be understood that every conflict America has fought in the post-WWII era has carried with it the potential to expand into much wider conflict—WWIII even. Even seemingly small events such as the Cuban missile crisis or the fall of the Berlin Wall all carried the specter of a much wider battle with the USSR if things had gone differently. America didn’t go ‘all in’ in Korea because it risked war with the Chinese and perhaps Russia. A larger commitment expanding further outside the borders of Vietnam risked the same and the reason the U.S. only made temporary incursions into Laos and Cambodia. The U.S. didn’t chase bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Afghan Taliban into Pakistan because it didn’t want wider war in the Middle East either. Though there is evidence Pakistan has been playing for both sides and that Iran fuelled the Iraqi insurgency, Americans would not support a fully-committed fight. Yet two years later America invaded Iraq on thinner pretense. We get ourselves into these things easily, but can’t finish them.

This hesitancy to fully commit and stay the course is also not wrong. Before America goes to war it should always decide if it is willing to go the distance. There are times when a small, limited, focused campaign can achieve results—see Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya. But this is the exception and not the rule. Lack of a clear mission with defined goals and commitment to full victory can lead to quagmire and drift as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The current administration’s hesitancy to become involved on the ground in the Arab Spring uprisings, Syria, and Africa seems to come from an understanding of this problem. One should not sleepwalk into wars or try to fight them on the cheap, as early on in Afghanistan.

Though controversial, drone strikes against targets in the Middle East and Africa are one of a few ways for America to act against opponents who don’t have a state or wear a uniform and doesn’t require U.S. boots on the ground or put troops’ lives at risk. The only other alternative, short of going to war, is to do nothing. As America, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. Doing something—ground combat, air interventions, drone strikes—is just as unpalatable as doing nothing and allowing extremists to control wider swathes of territory to the terror of the people that live there.

In order to maintain its position in the world, America cannot go back to sleep. Underneath it all, we’re not the lone masters of the universe anymore. Amid turmoil elsewhere, China is growing, flexing its muscles in the Pacific, in the markets, and in the cyber-world. Though the U.S. takes no official position, the arguments between China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines over uninhabitable Pacific islands is actually about the oil and gas deposits under them. China’s economy and military spending has grown by leaps and bounds since 2008. China is indisputably conducting industrial and state espionage against America on the ground and online. With these points in mind, it is clear to see why the Obama administration is making a strategic shift to the East.

As the 20th century has turned into the 21st, moral justifications for going to war have become unclear, politicized, and suspect. Yet, despite outcries, there has never been as much care taken in the military operations of Western states for avoiding unnecessary civilian casualties in combat as there is today. They are a consideration in every engagement. We have gone from indiscriminate day and night bombing raids on urban areas to using intelligence-driven surgical strikes on individual targets which may soon require a judicial process to approve them. As much as this is a laudable improvement, the enemy knows how to create media churn when innocents are killed. This despite that attacks by Islamic extremists often kill scores more innocent civilians for every Western soldier, diplomat, or civilian they themselves kill.

Will there ever come a time again when it is clear America must act or has our thinking become too morally relativist? It is right to always be skeptical of the use of military force. War is an ugly thing for everyone involved and it is always right to question it. My father and I are American veterans of wars that will never have a clear place in our history. Many Vietnam veterans feel America had the communists on the run after the 1968 Tet Offensive, but domestic political and public opinion had turned against continuing to fight. There is historical support for this view. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine that many veterans of that generation didn’t want the same thing to happen to their sons and daughters in Iraq and Afghanistan. This fear informed the ‘stay the course’ mantra of the George W. Bush era and other leaders such as Senator John McCain.

Both Vietnam and Iraq suffered because of a lack of clear ideas and communication to people at home what it was we were fighting for and how exactly we would know when we won, not to mention the huge costs in lives and money. Neither fight was ever short on cited justifications, but in neither case was there an answer in one sentence. In Vietnam, the enemy was communism. Yet we knew that we were never going to actually take on the real sources of communism directly—Russia and China. Similarly yet more confusingly, in Iraq the enemy was a WMD threat, Saddam Hussein, and the ambiguous enemy of ‘Islamic extremism’. There were no WMD. We deposed Saddam. There is no identifiable single source of Islamic extremism and America continues to reiterate constantly that Islam itself is not the enemy. The fight still goes on elsewhere even after killing bin Laden and rendering the original iteration of al Qaeda ineffective as an organization.

It was clear we had to fight WWII because eventually we would be fighting for our own continuing free existence one day. There was also the moral imperative to free other nations from an illegitimate foreign invasion accompanied by ethnic cleansing and holocaust. That is a pretty clear measuring stick. Does this mean that the circumstances must always be this clear before America turns to military force? What did German minorities, Chinese, Austrians, Czechs, Poles, Dutch, Belgians, French, and Britons of that era think? Did America wait too long to join the fight? There is some truth behind the argument that we waited until it really became our problem and that all was forgiven when we came as liberators—though too late for many. We invested tens of thousands of troops’ lives and billions of dollars in the war eventually anyway.

The onset of the Cold War and the atomic age presented new problems. Though clear lines were drawn again between NATO-West and Warsaw Pact-East, the ‘mutually assured destruction’ that nuclear weapons guaranteed ensured we would often come to the brink of WWIII, but never over the line. The West understood, in the words of George Kennan, that, “Soviet power . . . bears within it the seeds of its own decay.” By placing pressure militarily, economically, politically, and socially on the USSR, we were able to hasten its demise, though it did take forty-five years.

In many ways, America continues to apply this strategy to other states today. We’ve pressured states such as Iraq, Libya, Iran, Syria, and others in a similar fashion, attempting to affect change by identifying, creating, and exploiting cracks in their internal systems’ foundations. But these states, especially the Middle Eastern variety, have something the USSR never had—oil and gas wealth and religious, social, and ethnic unity. Even amid regional clashes based upon sectarianism, tribalism, and ethnicity, the people of the greater region often conclude, temporary alliances aside, that their differences with America are bigger than their differences amongst each other.

During the Cold War, the West could offer its foes religious, cultural, political, and economic freedom or liberalization. These were things dissidents wanted and called for and the Soviet state had to suppress. But it is not the same case in the Middle East and Maghreb. Though the people there do strive for political freedom from totalitarianism and more economic freedom, they often still reject the Western culture that is seen to come along with it. This presents people of the region a choice between the lesser of two evils; change their deeply-embedded culture in the name of progress or keep their traditions and suffer advancement at a snail’s pace. They’re not ready to buy what we’re selling, at least not as much as the East block was, or at least not yet. We’re in the position of trying to give something to them they’re not ready for and we want them to thank us for it. It isn’t working.

But it may work elsewhere. Asia certainly has its cultural differences from the West, but the differences between the two do not set us so far apart. America has excellent relations with India, a state that may just end up eclipsing China in decades to come. Japan has every opportunity to regain the economic power it had in the 1980’s. South Korea is also experiencing tremendous growth. America has normalized relations with Vietnam and strong relationships with the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan, among others. Many of these states are seeking an alliance to balance against Chinese regional pressure. Though the region has pariah states in Burma and North Korea, most Asians are looking for the kind of political, economic, and cultural liberalization that America and the West has to offer, albeit with their own cultural twist. A shift to the East is certainly a good idea.

It is perhaps wrong to look at China as an enemy of America in the Cold War sense of the word. It is clear that China is the number one competitor with the U.S. for world hegemony. Moral relativism dictates that this shouldn’t matter and if we walk around with a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Yet it is America’s dominance in the world that allows Americans to enjoy what it is we love in our society. One thing that is clear about Americans is that we will not happily accept a decline in our standard of living so that others elsewhere can have more. We don’t like bumps in the road. Despite fighting two long and costly wars in the Middle East over the past decade, the average American hasn’t felt a bump at all. There is no draft, no rationing, and only 1% of the population serves in the military. If competition means a decrease in security or living standards or increases in costs, Americans will not accept it. Morality aside, this is a facet of the American character.

The truth is that states such as North Korea and Iran do not pose a real threat to American hegemony for all of our concern over their weapons programs. They never have. They do have the ability to harm and kill a large number of Americans or our allies and, in the case of Iran, have done so. I witnessed first-hand the results of Iran’s proxy involvement in the Iraq War through arming and training Iraqi insurgents. Yet there is no scenario in which Iran could overtake America militarily, economically, or diplomatically. Though we should always remain concerned and watchful of such states, the amount of attention devoted to them should be proportionate to the true threat they represent, especially when there are bigger opponents in the game.

China is the only competitor who may present a real challenge to U.S. dominance. It is big enough, land, population, and resource-wise. Its economic growth has been impressive, as has the growth in its military spending. It is no secret that many of the military technologies China has unveiled in the past several years have often been based on pirated U.S. technology. China unveiled its own stealth fighter, having allegedly paid top dollar for pieces of a downed U.S. stealth bomber in Bosnia and from the crashed stealth helicopter used on the bin Laden raid in Pakistan. Recent reports show that China-based hackers, likely from a Chinese military unit, have infiltrated the computer systems of almost every major U.S. government institution, large media and law firms, and major corporations. Chinese agents on the ground in the U.S. are buying our military and civilian trade secrets and technologies.

But cultural and social change is coming along with China’s state-controlled opening and economic prosperity. The Chinese state seems to be making an attempt at a version of totalitarian capitalism and may soon wander into Russian-style ‘managed democracy’. They’ve been able to keep the brakes on any undesirable side effects to this point. But if history is any guide, economic liberalization brings political and social liberalization with it. In China’s case, this may become an uncontrollable, possibly bloody affair that makes Tiananmen Square look small in comparison. When people begin to want more freedoms in life, they begin to question the state as to why they cannot have it. America knows this from its own history. These are questions the Chinese government may not like to hear.

The question of whether or not China should be looked at as a competitor is an academic one. China clearly is a competitor. It remains to be seen if China is a foe. Chinese would likely argue that they’re not doing anything that America isn’t doing itself. They’re not wrong. We still spend more on our military than the next sixteen nations combined. We spy on China as well. From the point of view of moral relativism, it would be unfair to decry them for doing the same things we’ve been doing for decades. But the moral relativist doesn’t pick a side.

Choosing America’s side, China presents an unclear case. China has never really had imperialist ambitions and rarely involves itself in events outside its own borders, yet reacts jealously to actions it sees as taken against its interests or involvement in its domestic affairs. China may not have ambitions against America, but the question is if the competition they present will be a threat to the United States’ hegemony. Moral relativism would hold that they’re just as entitled to it as we are and if they can beat us at our own game then they deserve to win. These sound much like the words of George Kennan speaking on confronting and defeating the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We cannot just say they’re as entitled to it as we are and throw the game wide open. We’re still playing.

What should America do? We’ve always been good at forging long-term mutually beneficial alliances, something many other states have been unable to do, or at least not as successfully. Our enduring security relationship with Europe through NATO and the connections forged with former enemies using the Marshall Plan are examples. America should attempt to build and strengthen similar institutions that build multilateral cooperation in Asia.

Despite rhetorical accusation from the far left, America is not and never has been an empire. This argument does sell books though, as does reports of America’s premature demise. We do use our economic and military strength to push our interests forward, but this is a far cry from Rome, the Ottomans, and colonial powers like France and Great Britain. Though many may grumble America usually seems to get its way like the big kid in the schoolyard, countries that build cooperation with the United States find it is a mutually-beneficial relationship. Compare this with the exploited positions of European colonies or satellite states of the USSR. Even in the overwhelming majority of states where the U.S. has troops stationed or deployed, they are there by agreement, not invaders, and provide an economic boon.

If America is going to continue to compete, we need to give Asian states reasons to choose our side. Ensuring China isn’t allowed to push around its smaller neighbors is a good place to start. If we do, we will have to assure them that we are interested in the area for good and are not just fair weather friends who will abandon them, leaving them to suffer the wrath of their much bigger neighbor China. The U.S. must be ready to make as much a long-term commitment to our Asian allies as it has to our European partners.

Some will argue this will draw Chinese ire and increase friction, but allowing sometimes-ridiculous Chinese claims to territory and waters to stand may look like appeasement and only encourage further infractions. At the current level of Chinese espionage in the United States, they cannot honestly complain of U.S. involvement in their domestic affairs with clean hands. America refraining from playing at China’s borders should be dependent upon them refraining from playing too much within ours.

At the same time, continuing to trade heavily with China will continue its growth and, theoretically, the liberalization that will come with it. However we should encourage and incentivize China raising its product safety and labor standards. This will in turn increase the cost of Chinese goods to a level comparable with the rest of the world and support improved conditions for average Chinese workers to raise their wages to a comparable level as well—and demand more freedoms that come along with them. America should continue and expand military and educational exchange as well to grow a better mutual understanding of one another’s system and culture. America has always been an open book; China has not been.

In our meandering, unclear, adventurist, and sometimes-profligate relations with the rest of the world in the post-Cold War era, we shouldn’t lose sight that there are still sides to be chosen. Our position in the world is not assured by ‘American exceptionalism.’ It is always proper to question whether the choices we are making are morally correct. Yet this questioning must not translate into hesitancy or a failure to understand that we may have to take action, even military action, for the things we want to keep as a country or what we believe in or even for our very existence. When that time comes again—history tends to show it will—we will have to be prepared to compete or even fight with clear objectives in mind and accept no less than victory.

This is the kind of country my grandfather grew up in and the kind of war he fought in, though arguably the lines were much more clearly drawn then and there was a clear and present threat to our country. Things are more ambiguous in the modern world. Many Americans have become too comfortable with our position. Some believe unquestioningly in the absolute creation myth that this is a God-chosen nation that is the unique pinnacle of human development--a belief that ignores the hard work and sacrifice that built this country and keeps it where it is.

On the opposite side, other Americans have come to question so much about our position and dominance in the world that they seem to welcome the idea of the U.S. being taken down a notch and feel little connection to the country despite the advantages and benefits life here affords them. Both of these viewpoints are quite naïve and dangerous, yet represent the sides that divide America today—one believes in American infallibility, the other in unjust American imperialism. Both of these positions are wrong and neither is tenable.

America is moving out of its adolescence. In many ways we’re not fighting to advance anymore; we’re just fighting to hold on. This struggle is most present in the great American middle class, with the children of the baby boom generation facing the likelihood of having a lower standard of living than their parents. The men and women coming home from years of war in the Middle East are struggling to find a place in the workforce and society. In many ways, it seems that America has lost its way. One side holds that our best days are already behind us and it is to these idealized glory days we must return. The other believes we should seek some sort of utopian equilibrium with the rest of humanity that has never existed and likely never will.

America has to find its point again. For us to maintain our good standard of living and spread opportunity to the majority of citizens it must be recognized that we have to do it from a position of strength that continues to put our interests first. This also means accepting that the face of America itself is changing—ethnically, socially, and economically. This does not require an America that believes blindly in its own righteousness and rectitude and always presses its advantage to the pain of others. The world doesn’t need another empire. It needs a power that can provide stability and sound judgment in the rest of the chaos. For the last 75 years America has provided that stability.

There is no shortage of paranoid regimes that seek to wield their influence. Imagine American power in the hands of Iran, North Korea, or Russia. Despite our historical mistakes, America has always refrained from grossly abusing the full power it has in the world. It is true that there has never been a nation as strong as America. It is also true that there is no other power that has shown as much restraint in using it. To those who believe we should use it to our full advantage, know it is this very restraint that has allowed us to maintain it. For those who believe we have used it too often, know that America has used its power more justly than any other great nation before it.

Knowing the balance between when to exercise power and when to hold back is vital to maintaining America’s strength. Our adventures in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq should teach us that. We should have foreseen from the beginning and now in hindsight that these fights were against larger enemies that we either lacked the understanding to recognize and/or the will to take on fully. Lacking that understanding or commitment, we should not have started anything we were not going to finish. That does not mean blindly ‘staying the course’ once chosen, rather it means if we are not willing to pursue the fight from the beginning to the outcome of nothing less than total victory, then every minute, every life, and every cent spent upon it is wasted effort.

America itself is not immune from the strategy it applies against the rest of the world. When al Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11, they did so knowing that America would have to respond. It was what they wanted. It has worked. As a consequence, America has been embroiled in war in the Middle East for over a decade at the cost of thousands of troops’ lives, over $1 trillion spent, and great domestic and international political turmoil. Despite the cost and effort, very little has changed in the region. Islamic extremism remains a threat and new organizations have sprung up every few years.

Our opponents have found cracks in the foundation of our system and are attempting to exploit them. This is a trick we know well because it is our game. When George Kennan wrote of communism containing the seeds of its own destruction he also wrote that American-style capitalism does as well. We must answer to the pressures put upon us by our foes, but do so in a way that does not waste effort, resources, or time. This is no time for America to become complacent. America worked and fought hard to obtain its place in the world and keeping that place will require just as much work and fighting.

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.