Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Post Goes for Its Pulitzer

The Washington Post has anted up for a 2011 Pulitzer Prize with a sprawling, days-long series titled "Top Secret America." Its stories, written primarily by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, attempt to describe the size and scale of the American intelligence community, taking as a starting point the 854,000 or so people who hold top-secret clearances.

The series documents how the U.S. intelligence community's explosive post-9/11 growth has created waste and redundancy, and may now lie beyond any single person's ability to grasp. The series has started out well, focusing on the government's role Monday and contractors' role today, and while I don't know much about Arkin, I'll read anything Dana Priest writes the moment I come across it.

But the Post stories also describe how the sheer size of the national-security community causes it to have some banal, clock-punching characteristics, as in these grafs from Monday's article:
In Elkridge, Md., a clandestine program hides in a tall concrete structure fitted with false windows to look like a normal office building. In Arnold, Mo., the location is across the street from a Target and a Home Depot. In St. Petersburg, Fla., it's in a modest brick bungalow in a run-down business park.


In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.
While the Hollywood idea of intelligence agencies as tightly knit teams of supersleuths and assassins has particles of truth, the reality is that the agencies also contain huge numbers of workaday cube dwellers who look forward to each Thursday, when the cafeteria within their heavily secured installation serves that delicious carrot cake.*

* Ongoing thanks to Jack Boulware for lodging this enduring image of quiet desperation in my mind.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Exporting Their Way to Prosperity


In April I wrote about the pointlessness of the U.S. leading in the production of "specialty" steel when it's a loser in manufacturing nearly everything else that people around the world want.

In this morning's Post, columnist Harold Meyerson takes up this refrain and explains that Germany's and China's coherent industrial policies give them an edge in the manufacturing and export wars. Here he looks at the German example:

Germany has increased its edge in world-class manufacturing even as we have squandered ours because its model of capitalism is superior to our own. For one thing, its financial sector serves the larger economy, not just itself. The typical German company has a long-term relationship with a single bank -- and for the smaller manufacturers that are the backbone of the German economy, those relationships are likely with one of Germany's 431 savings banks, each of them a local institution with a municipally appointed board, that shun capital markets and invest their depositors' savings in upgrading local enterprises. By American banking standards, the savings banks are incredibly dull. But they didn't lose money in the financial panic of 2008 and have financed an industrial sector that makes ours look anemic by comparison.
Depressed yet?

Meyerson also notes that despite the self-perception of the U.S. as a high-tech leader, it's actually running annual high-tech deficits that reached $61 billion in 2008, quoting Clyde Prestowitz's new The Betrayal of American Prosperity. See Simon & Schuster's promo page for that book and notice the first stat: China's number-one export to the U.S. is now computer equipment, while our number-one export to China is waste paper and scrap metal.

Not rice, not aircraft parts, not Levi's, not Coca-Cola, not financial services. Junk.

Silver linings, anyone?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Prepping for the Pain, Part I


For very different reasons, Britain and Iran were in the news this week for macroeconomic decisions that cause their citizens pain in the near term while positioning each country better to face looming hazards.

In Britain, the Conservative-led unity government unveiled a budget that will cut nearly all public spending by a quarter over the next five years while re-jiggering the country's tax structure to spare the poorest and squeeze the wealthiest. The lone bright spot is a reduction in corporate taxes to encourage job creation in the hope of not sending the country spilling back into recession. The move helps soothe bond-rating agencies chary of a Greece-style meltdown in northern Europe, and puts the country onto a more solid financial footing in the future.

Meanwhile Iran has been rationing gas and increasing its refining capacity in response to potential U.S. sanctions targeting fuel imports. The new sanctions would probably have little effect on Iran, and none at all on Iranian leadership, but workaday Iranian citizens are undoubtedly grumbling. (The story above notes that Tehran may even use U.S. sanctions as an excuse to remove an economically inefficient fuel subsidy, which will turn the grumbles into screams, but will still improve Tehran's economic posture in the long run.)

Britain's moves may still hurt its poorest citizens while Iran's help continue the country's outlaw nuclear program, but both countries are acting to ensure their longer-term good.

One can only hope U.S. federal government—which like the UK is laden with debt, legacy wars and an aging workforce—will somehow find a way to take unpopular but necessary economic steps to get out of debt and right its sagging balance sheet.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Love Letter to Northern China


Saw the remake of Karate Kid over the weekend. The plot is the same as the 1984 original: Young Jaden Smith, fresh off the plane from Detroit, embarks on a coming-of-age slash hero's journey after being bullied at his new middle school in Beijing. He needs to learn self-defense and who better to teach him than the gracefully aging, universally popular Jackie Chan?

Doubts are overcome, skills learned, discipline inculcated etc. with a merciful lack of the soundtrack-driven montages parodied so viciously in Team America: World Police.

But as Chan leads Smith hither and yon to learn the True Meaning of Kung-Fu, the movie's uncredited costar emerges: northern China.

Visually, the movie is a love letter to the north; the credits should have a notice from the China National Tourist Office thanking you for watching. A half-hour into the movie we've already seen Beijing's modern airport in all its glory, the Olympic "bird's nest" stadium, daring new buildings, construction cranes dotting the skyline, idyllic crowd scenes of Beijing residents doing tai chi, playing ping-pong and otherwise looking both peacable and industrious, and a potential Chinese love interest for 12-year-old Jaden.

Now, though, Chan and Smith take a train journey that leads them past rice paddies hemmed in by dramatic mountains, to training atop the Great Wall of China, to drinking from a "dragon fountain" at a mountaintop temple that's so photogenic you want to put down your popcorn and walk into the frame.

Combine those beautiful visuals with the movie's ending, where Smith's tormentors turn out to be okay guys--they not only present him with the winner's trophy but pay respect to Jackie Chan's character, implicitly renouncing their current, cruel sensei--and you've got a very nice boost for PRC soft power around the world.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Old Recipe: European Muslim Stew

Perhaps I was a bit hasty last December when I wrote that France is eager to welcome everyone.

While the country's official face is still welcoming, country officials are not, especially Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux. He wants to amend France's constitution to make it easier to strip (Muslim) welfare cheats of their French nationality and send them back to wherever they came from.

The recipe for coverage of European Muslims always, always, always starts with either a veil, a hijab or a minaret, and this morning's story in the Post is no exception. Throw in what reads like a green-card marriage and a healthy dose of polygamy, and you've got a meal.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Powers That Beijing


Yesterday's Post brought the occasionally tragic, occasionally hilarious "From China's Mouth to Texans' Ears," which documents Texan reaction to Chinese international broadcasting from a station in Galveston:

Cruise southeast out of Houston, past the NASA exits and toward the Gulf of Mexico, and you pick up something a little incongruous on the radio, amid country crooners, Rush Limbaugh, hip-hop and all the freewheeling clamor of the American airwaves.

"China Radio International," a voice intones. "This is Beyond Beijing."

Way, way beyond Beijing.

Sandwiched between a Spanish Christian network and a local sports station, broadcasting at 1540 on your AM dial, is KGBC of Galveston, wholly American-owned and -operated, but with content provided exclusively by a mammoth, state-owned broadcaster from the People's Republic of China.

Call it KPRC. Or as the locals quip: Keep Galveston Broadcasting Chinese.

The little Texas station may be modest, but it is part of a multibillion-dollar effort by the Chinese government to expand its influence around the world. As China rises as a global force, its leaders think that their country is routinely mischaracterized and misunderstood and that China needs to spread its point of view on everything from economics to art to counter the influence of the West.

Tragic because China is essentially using U.S. consumers' money to influence them (I know, I know, Hey Paul, enough already about Chinese economic dominance and trade surpluses) and hilarious because the PRC isn't exactly nimble about competing in the home of the First Amendment.

In their inimitable, Five Year Plan fashion, the powers that Beijing have decided to use coastal Texas as the springboard for achieving information dominance in the U.S. (What is it about superpowers wanting to influence oil-rich desert nations, which is how at least west Texans might characterize themselves?)

It's good to hear that someone besides the U.S. is having difficulty getting their foreign-influence story straight. Turns out that AM broadcasts from Galveston don't really reach metro Houston, which was the PRC's intention, and it also turns out that the tension between following the Party line in Beijing and reporting anything that anyone in the U.S. actually wants to hear is rather high, all of which sounds familiar to those who follow U.S. international broadcasting.

Friday, April 09, 2010

"Specialty" Steel and Economic Recovery


As I emerge from beneath a pile of work, I see I'd set aside "Geithner Asserts 'Critical Role' of Manufacturing" from last Thursday's Post. In it, the Treasury secretary visits Allegheny Technologies Inc., which makes specialty metal products in Pennsylvania and elsewhere for aerospace, automotive and other applications.

The story quotes Geithner thusly:

"This is a sector that will play a critical role in helping to spur our economic recovery and contribute to our long-term prosperity."

The story then notes that the company has remained profitable through the economic downturn.

All well and good, but Allegheny is profitable not because it makes things everyone wants and can use, but because it makes relatively exotic items that other countries can't produce yet; for example, titanium is notoriously difficult to work in anything more complex than a mountain bike and if other countries can't use it to make aviation parts, Allegheny has pricing power and thus profitability for the time being.

But this doesn't change the fact that, as the article also notes, there has been

"a steady loss of jobs as the production of textiles, consumer electronics and other products has shifted overseas."

This is a polite way of saying that the U.S. is permanently, completely non-competitive in making things that everyone wants, from t-shirts and shoes to cell phones and TVs to my Apple laptop ("designed in California" its packaging whines, as if that matters).

Try this experiment: Find a parking meter near you and read what's written on the steel post holding the meter up. If it was installed 20 years ago, the steel is probably from Korea; 10 years ago, from Thailand.

The U.S. can't settle for just being the best at making things no one else makes (yet); it needs to find ways to be the best at making things everyone else makes and thus everyone wants. This is what will actually contribute to U.S. prosperity in the long term: a decades-long reindustrialization where the U.S. turns the tables on its foreign competitors and uses their technologies as the basis for building new, even more efficient factories in the U.S.

Monday, March 15, 2010

U.S. Consular Official Killed Returning from Mexico


I'd worried in print three weeks ago about Mexican traffickers retaliating against U.S. targets, now that the U.S. is becoming more involved in Mexican efforts to target the gangs. Now it appears that a U.S. consular official, Lesley Enriquez, and husband Arthur Redelfs were intercepted by an armed gang and shot dead on Saturday afternoon.

The couple were returning home to El Paso from a child's birthday party across the border in Ciudad Juarez; the attackers spared the couple's own infant.

Random violence? Could be, except that a Mexican man driving a similar car--the husband of a Mexican national who also works at the consulate in CJ--left the same party that afternoon and he, too, was shot dead. His two kids are wounded.

The FBI is investigating. President Calderon will come by to show the flag on Tuesday, brimming with American support. The consulate will be closed the same day for a period of mourning. Meanwhile, folks at U.S. consulates in Mexico would be advised to stop driving white SUVs for the duration.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Philip Seib Critiques State's New PD Plan


USC CPD head Philip Seib describes State's new PD roadmap as "so lacking in imagination, so narrow in its scope, and so insufficient in its appraisal of the tasks facing U.S. public diplomats that it is impossible to understand why its preparation took so many months."

And he's just getting warmed up. Ouch.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Urgent Evoke

Alternate-reality game designer Jane McGonigal has a new one: Urgent Evoke, a World Bank-sponsored ARG that attempts to port the addictive qualities of games such as Mafia Wars and Farmville to the social-innovation realm. Planning to give it a look and take it for a spin, given that what I've read so far makes players feel that they're a sort of Mission Impossible super-agent, but without the international killings and kidnappings. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

U.S. Goes COIN in Mexico?


The U.S. and allies have moved to a counterinsurgency (COIN) focus in Afghanistan, which could be encapsulated as "protect the people from the insurgents." The same cannot yet be said for U.S. activities down Mexico way, judging from this morning's "U.S. to Place Agents Within Mexican Units to Aid Drug Fight" in the Post:

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO -- For the first time, U.S. officials plan to embed American intelligence agents in Mexican law enforcement units to help pursue drug cartel leaders and their hit men operating in the most violent city in Mexico, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.

The new mission is apparently a logical extension of the DEA's old-school decapitation strategy, a.k.a. counterterrorism a.k.a. CT, which could be encapsulated as "kill or capture top bad guys."

In the U.S. drug-war context, CT has failed utterly to affect U.S. drug consumption and its collateral effects, never mind the burgeoning business in domestic pot and imported narcotics; insert your own metaphor about the narcotics business as Hydra-headed monster. I don't know why a strategy that hasn't worked in the U.S. is projected to work in Mexico.

Now, in my last post in this space, I came out heavily for a CT mission and against a COIN focus in Afghanistan--but differences between the Mexican and Afghan contexts abound:

  • By more directly involving U.S. agents in Mexican operations, the U.S. may inspire notoriously thin-skinned Mexican cartels to strike across a porous U.S.-Mexico border on a scale that the Taliban et al. simply cannot. (Actually, this has already happened.) Mexico absolutely will not tolerate the deployment of U.S. troops into Mexico to counterattack following any such cartel action.
  • Unlike Afghanistan, Mexico has a relatively effective and increasingly democratic central government that can run a COIN operation on its own, or perhaps with U.S. cash such as promised in the story above.
  • Mexican stability is a vital U.S. national-security interest and deserving of more than half-measures such as a CT mission.

Taking these factors into account, I figure it would be cheaper for now for the U.S. to fund Mexican COIN efforts and simply continue its current cop-training and border-interdiction missions. The alternative is to venture down a slippery slope in which DEA and other intelligence advisors become military advisors become SEAL teams become ... what?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Against COIN, for CT in Afghanistan and Elsewhere


While I mostly use this blog to comment on soft power, sometimes I venture into hard power—and this is one of those times.

Over the winter break I had an epiphany about the interrelation of U.S. hard and soft power: I now oppose a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan and advocate a purely counterterror (CT) strategy (PDF link) there instead.

Blame history—or histories—that I've read recently, starting with Livy's works on early Rome (books I-V) last spring and Donald Kagan's The Peloponnesian War at the end of 2009. I've taken occasional dips back into Robert Kaplan's Warrior Politics and his source materials (Churchill, the Federalists, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and several others).

What I've taken from that reading is that the U.S. must pull back from its current efforts to remake Iraq and Afghanistan in the image of a Western democracy, or risk long-term political and economic exhaustion.

What follows is not an argument about morality, and readers may find much of it amoral. It is about making cold-blooded political and economic calculations about where U.S. national interests will lie in the next decade. They do not lie in an open-ended COIN mission.

The history of the Peloponnesian War is particularly relevant here. Athens began fighting Sparta with the resources of an empire and thousands of talents of silver in the bank—enough to fight expensive, far-flung naval and land campaigns for three years without lasting financial consequences.

Athens was rich, and if peace with Sparta had come by the end of the third year, Athens would have continued to prosper and rule over much of the Mediterranean. (Athens had a "hard"—conquered or cowed—empire as opposed to the "soft" empire of alliances and treaties the U.S. currently has.)

But the war with Sparta dragged on for decades, despite occasional peace overtures by both sides. By war's end—despite the spoils of battle and increased taxes and tribute extracted from its shrinking dominion—Athens was broke, depopulated by fighting and plague, bereft of its empire, and could no longer project power into the Mediterranean. Where its former interests ranged from Black Sea Turkey to southern Italy, it spent decades as a small-bore power and never regained its former strength or influence.

I worry that the U.S. is similarly locked into an open-ended commitment to democratize a nation that is of regional rather than global importance—a parallel to Athens convincing itself that it had to conquer distant, militarily insignificant Sicily.

"Winning" in Afghanistan
The U.S. could "win" in Afghanistan where victory is defined as a stable, legitimate central government that can project power within its own borders. I don't doubt that the U.S. and its allies could accomplish this given enough time and resources. But I think—as many COIN experts also do—that it will take at least another decade or more of blood and treasure to produce such a result, if ever.

Of course I'd like to see the results of a successful COIN campaign: a stable democracy, women's rights, and general prosperity for Afghans, who among all Asia's peoples surely deserve those things. I certainly want to end al-Qa'ida's ability to operate freely in South Asia and elsewhere.

The U.S. is the only country that would both conceive of these missions and attempt to carry them out. But goals beyond keeping al-Qa'ida on the run don't serve the long-term interests of the U.S., and I am more interested in regaining and preserving U.S. hard power than I am in the rewards that would come from "winning" a lengthy COIN war.

I fear the U.S. people and government becoming exhausted from the costs of a lengthy COIN effort, just as they are already exhausted from (and have largely forgotten about) the Iraq war. I worry that if this fatigue sits in, the U.S. will abandon foreign-policy leadership as it has done periodically throughout history.

This outcome would be worse than a resurgent Taliban, worse than Afghan women and men being further oppressed, and worse than al-Qa'ida having plentiful additional caves to plot in.

Here are some signs of an exhaustion of U.S. power: The U.S. is already overextended, with commitments in Iraq (shrinking for now), Afghanistan (expanding), Yemen (pending) and Iran (TBD). At home, the U.S. economy remains feeble and in the long term is increasingly hostage to other nations for goods and services it no longer produces (and increasingly, no longer can produce).

Even more worrisome is the U.S. credit situation. The wars, and much other U.S. government spending, are now heavily underwritten by other countries' purchases of debt the U.S. issues. It has borrowed trillions from foreign countries and especially China, which continues its steady, highly rational policy of promoting exports while freeriding under the American security umbrella (just as the U.S. once rode for free beneath Britain's).

Over time, those countries accrue enough debt to have a say in U.S. policies that may threaten the dollar's value, which is why you now see high U.S. officials flying to Beijing to soothe PRC nerves and explain why America keeps borrowing money.

At home, there are few resources to apply following a major disaster, such as a Katrina-style hurricane or a major earthquake.

The U.S. needs to start rebuilding its reserves—of capital, of credit, of political goodwill abroad, of military force—to be ready for these and more serious crises, for which we currently have few resources to spare. Such challenges may involve humanitarian crises (think Darfur, a Rwanda-style genocide, Indian Ocean tsunamis); Latin American instability (Mexico, Venezuela, post-Castro Cuba); rogue-state nuclear development (Iran, North Korea); or complex challenges from a rising power (China, a reinvigorated Russia).

What a CT Focus Means
Focusing on a counterterror-only mission means admitting that Afghanistan and Iraq—and Yemen and Iran—are not, and will not likely become, threats to the U.S. that require tens of thousands of troops. Individuals from those countries (as well as their alleged British, Nigerian or Virginian lackeys) may be threats, but threats that can mostly be handled by a CT strategy, intensified border protection, and other measures. The countries themselves will remain militarily negligible outside their own neighborhood.

A CT strategy would mean keeping a few heavily fortified bases in Afghanistan and Iraq to maintain the "B-52 effect" of being able to suppress large-scale fighting via airpower, while pulling all our other troops out. We would then keep up Predator decapitation strikes and occasional bombing of insurgent hideouts, while providing air support for the Afghan National Army and police.

We would also do what we could—and no more—to strengthen the Kabul and Islamabad governments. Sooner or later that will mean standing back while an unsavory strongman takes charge in one or both countries—someone who can maintain stability if not a Western-style democracy, although we can certainly pressure them to try.

Benefits of a CT Focus
Pulling the bulk of U.S. troops from the two active wars means military spending drops sharply, freeing up greatly needed funds for other uses: to stimulate the domestic economy, to aid in healthcare reform, or simply to reduce the need to issue more debt and thus begin paying down our current tab. (As an added benefit, China and others who want to extract wealth from a less-secure Afghanistan must then foot their own security bill.)

Perhaps we become less hated in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps not, but we get out of the nation-building business that President Bush used to deride and can use our political, economic and military assets elsewhere. At that point we begin to rebuild those all-important reserves without which a great nation cannot aid allies, warn off adversaries, and sway those in the middle.

Costs of a CT Focus
A pure CT focus has substantial drawbacks, particularly for those who favor a foreign policy oriented toward human rights.

The U.S. will move from the current twin focus on winning civilian hearts and minds while killing insurgent leaders toward a pure assassination model—not a morally pleasing choice.

Lots of Afghans who have worked with the U.S. will flee or else die when their areas revert to warlord or Taliban control. Women's rights will vanish almost completely, almost overnight. Afghan opium will continue to utterly dominate world markets. Only the B-52 Effect will prevent a resumption of frank civil war along ethnic lines, but myriad "incidents" will occur at the cost of thousands of lives. Brain drain will resume and quickly accelerate.

And the U.S. will still spend billions per year to maintain bases in and supply lines to Afghanistan, and to prop up the Islamabad government and underwrite its occasional punitive expeditions along the Afghan border. (These costs will still be far less than the expense of a full-bore COIN mission, however.)

I believe enduring these stomach-churning tradeoffs is worthwhile because making them enables the U.S. to rebuild its reserves in every area: political, financial, and yes, moral, since it can then use its clout to be a broader guarantor of human rights worldwide than it can by continuing to bleed itself in Afghanistan and Mesopotamia.

To paraphrase the line from Kaplan's Warrior Politics that changed my mind: At the end of the day, America's power to do good is strongest when American hard power is both abundant and largely held in reserve.

I believe the U.S. is of greatest benefit to the world's oppressed overall when it serves as a beacon to the idealists and a threat to dictators and criminals—qualities that the U.S. will not possess as long as it is tied down by one or more land wars in Asia.

Holbrooke: "It's Complicated."


Richard Holbrooke spoke at Brookings this afternoon on the topic of the Obama administration's challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He gave some fairly standard answers to some fairly standard questions; when asked how the U.S. deals with the winner of a clearly fraudulent election, Holbrooke doggedly insisted that Hamid Karzai was the legitimately elected president of Afghanistan and that the U.S. would deal with him on that basis--a pragmatic statement if not one that will endear him to fans of transparency and the rule of law.

A few other notes follow.

On why the U.S. is in Afghanistan: During the Obama administration's review of AfPak policy, the conclusion was that "basic national security interests were at stake in these countries," an attitude Holbrooke says was confirmed during subsequent visits to everyone he could name, including the UAE, Russia, Afghanistan's neighbors and Egypt, among others.

On the new day at USAID: With a new administrator finally in place, USAID can start to get more serious work done, although Holbrooke notes that the agency is badly depleted with (for example) "just four engineers [of its own] left in the water area." Contractors handle the rest, something Holbrooke and Secretary Clinton seem determined to change. Look out, AED, DAI, JAA, et al!

On earthquake relief in Pakistan, 2005: "This is what a great nation does for a country that is under so much pressure." Again, Holbrooke is being pragmatic and in this case, excessively modest about what the U.S. hoped to gain from throwing "hundreds of millions" in aid at Pakistan's quake-stricken hinterland.

Holbrooke also noted that Georgia is currently training a battalion in Tbilisi that, when deployed, will make Georgia the most numerous per-capita donor of troops to the Afghan mission until the new U.S. deployments are complete. Again, Holbrooke insists there is no quid pro quo here--implying that the Georgians are doing this out of the goodness of their collective heart--but anyone familiar with Georgian-Russian relations knows that Georgia is creating a chit to be cashed in later if Moscow comes knocking.
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