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Sanders’ Past Isn’t All Radical

By Taylor Marvin

Bernie Sanders, 2015. Photo by Michael Vadon, via Wikimedia.

Bernie Sanders, 2015. Photo by Michael Vadon, via Wikimedia.

Earlier this week Michael Crowley reported in Politico that Bernie Sanders, in his days as a younger left-wing activist, urged that the CIA should be abolished. In 1974 Sanders, who as Crowley notes has often denounced the CIA-backed 1953 coup that restored the Iranian shah’s authority, deemed it “a dangerous institution that has got to go.”

Sanders’ past stance briefly became the controversy of the day. Crowley quotes Clinton campaign advisor and former chief of staff to CIA director Leon Panetta Jeremy Bash, who views Sanders’ views as naive and argues “abolishing the CIA in the 1970s would have unilaterally disarmed America during the height of the Cold War and at a time when terrorist networks across the Middle East were gaining strength.” At Slate Michelle Goldberg admits that Sanders’ opposition to covert action overreach was justified but sees his past radicalism as a liability in the general election, and the Intercept’s Jon Schwarz views the Politico story as simply Clinton campaign opposition research published as journalism.

On Twitter Jeet Heer – who later wrote a brief piece at the New Republic – and Robert Farley pushed back against accusations of Sanders’ naivety with an insightful series of points. (Unfortunately Farley’s tweets are not nestled, but are numbered: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.) Farley, who has written a book whose title calls for abolishing the US Air Force and transferring USAF aircraft to the Army and Navy, argues that Sanders’ word choice obscures a more nuanced position.

As Farley and others note, from today’s perspective it is easy to paint the young Sanders as a wild-eyed idealist unaware of the cold realities of Cold War geopolitics. But by the 1970s it was widely acknowledged that CIA covert action had become at least counterproductive, if not outright immoral. Today few Americans defend the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the 1953 coup against Iran’s Mossadeq, CIA orchestration of the 1954 coup against democratically-elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz, or the United States’ role in the 1973 coup that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende. As Jason Catlin ‏replied this somewhat confuses the CIA itself with national policy – the US campaign against Salvador Allende was directed from the Oval Office – but staking out a left flank, in my words, in the debate over the CIA’s role in covert action was not unreasonable at the time. In fact, leaving the ‘abolishing’ word choice aside Washington came around to Sanders’ views, as Crowley himself admits. While the opacity of the Obama administration’s drone campaign remains controversial (via Danny Hirschel-Burns) today there is a broad consensus that overthrowing democratic if ideologically unpalatable governments is wrong, and that covert action during the Cold War was counterproductive and shameful.

As I wrote on Twitter, another aspect of Sanders’ youthful defense policy activism has become, in a way, the conventional wisdom. As Crowley writes about Sanders’ 1974 statements:

At the time, the 33-year-old socialist was running for U.S. Senate on the ticket of the Liberty Union Party, an anti-war group that likened the draft to “a modern form of slavery” and called for reducing the U.S. military in favor of local militias and the Coast Guard.

Conscription is not chattel slavery, and this terminology is offensive – though conservative economist Milton Friedman once called the draft “inconsistent with a free society,” language not entirely removed from the Liberty Union’s words. (Crowley leaves it unclear if Sanders personally shared this view, though it seems likely.) When discussion Sanders’ radicalism, however, it is worth remembering that American society has largely come around to this view. Sanders represented the Liberty Union Party in 1974, after the 1969 Gates Commission recommendation that the US establish a volunteer military and the end of the draft in January 1973. At the time returning to the draft was not unthinkable. Today it almost certainly is.

While the Selective Service maintains the infrastructure to quickly draft large numbers of American young men renewed conscription is vanishingly unlikely. Despite the recent furor over the prospect of requiring women to register with the Selective Service reinstating the draft is unthinkable for anything short of a major war. Indeed, this prospect is made even less likely by the not unreasonable chance that a war serious enough to justified renewed conscription would also be serious enough to quickly go nuclear, perhaps negating the question all together.

To be sure, the rhetoric and philosophical justification for modern opposition to the draft differs from the Liberty Union Party’s radicalism – and especially its “cannon fodder” for US imperialism line. An all volunteer military, many argue, is more skilled and motivated than a conscripted force. However, despite these arguments returning to conscription would be fraught in and of itself. The Vietnam War was a larger commitment than any war the US has fought in the All-Volunteer Force era. But most Americans today would see renewed conscription for any war short of a full-blown national emergency – that is, a war much more pressing than Vietnam – as unjust.

As Michelle Goldberg notes, the Liberty Union Party’s call to abolish the standing US military in favor of “a return to the system of local citizen militias and Coast Guard” is radical, and is certainly not a mainstream position today. But like Farley remarks, it’s important to not let extreme rhetoric obscure how American society has changed in the last four decades. While today few would use the same words the Liberty Union Party’s stance has become, broadly speaking, mainstream.

Trump, Deportations, and El Salvador’s Violent Crisis

By Taylor Marvin

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia.

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia.

Donald Trump’s appeal is not entirely, or even primarily, due to his harsh stance on illegal immigration: prospective Republican primary voters value his belligerence and apparent business competence, and are perhaps influenced by the reality TV-fueled perception that “he’s commanding, he’s confident, he’s respected, he demands accountability,” in Kevin Drum’s words. However, calls to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall on the southern border are the centerpiece – literally; it remains the only issue detailed on the “Make America Great Again!” website – of Trump’s unconventional campaign, and a major part of his allure.

Deporting over ten million undocumented immigrants is an ugly prospect. As Ed Kilgore has pointed out, hunting down millions of immigrants would require an expanded police state and civil liberty violations that Americans – hopefully – find more acceptable in theory than in practice. Ending birthright citizenship is widely thought to require a constitutional amendment, and the muddled unstated implication that Trump will “keep families together” by forcibly deporting the US-born, American citizen children of undocumented immigrants is certainly unconstitutional, as well as barbaric.

Beyond its domestic impact, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants would likely have a severe destabilizing effect on their countries of origin, especially smaller Central American states. This dynamic has occurred before.

El Salvador has one of the world’s highest homicide rates,* with spiraling violence between the small Central American country’s two leading gangs producing a murder rate comparable to literal war zones. Last month the criminal organizations attempted to pressure the government by shutting down the country’s mass transit, killing eight bus drivers and transportation workers who violated the order not to work. Citing the threat posed to public safety and state authority, this week the Salvadoran government deemed the gangs terrorists, regardless of whether individual gang members have committed any crime (via Mike Allison).

What does El Salvador’s chaos have to do with Trump’s vision of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants? As a recent story in the Guardian and background articles by InSight Crime detail, El Salvador’s current conflict was in large part precipitated by US immigration policy.

Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fled the country’s destructive civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s. An inability to gain formal asylum in the United States – in the 1980s “approximately 2 percent of applications were approved while the majority found their applications were considered ‘frivolous,'” Sarah Gammage writes – led many refugees to remain in the US illegally, often in Los Angeles’ poorer neighborhoods. Members of the newly-arrived Salvadoran communities in these gang-ridden areas organized their own gangs, most notably Mara Salvatrucha. Then a minor player in the US gang landscape, the mara allied itself with the more powerful Mexican Mafia, or la M; today Mara Salvatrucha is commonly called MS-13, “M” being the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.

In the late 1990s the Clinton administration, influenced by some of the same tough on crime and anti-immigration attitudes Trump draws on, began deporting foreign nationals convicted of less serious crimes than had previously merited deportation. These deported criminals included members of Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18, another Latino street gang with origins in Los Angeles. The effect on the weak states of Central America’s “Northern Triangle” – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – was disastrous. As InSight Crime writes:

Central American governments, some of the poorest and most ineffective in the Western Hemisphere, were not capable of dealing with the criminal influx, nor were they properly forewarned by US authorities. The convicts, who often had only the scarcest connection to their countries of birth, had little chance of integrating into legitimate society. They often turned to what they knew best: gang life. In this way, the decision to use immigration policy as an anti-gang tool spawned the virulent growth of the gang in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Unsurprisingly El Salvador’s criminal violence has flown back into the United States, just as it did during the civil war. Many of the Salvadorans seeking undocumented entry into the US fear for their safety back home. Both Calle 18 and MS-13 operate in the US, and there are strong links between the gangs’ leaderships in El Salvador and branches in the United States.

US deportation policy is not the only, or perhaps even most important, cause of El Salvador’s crisis of violence. The Salvadoran civil war devastated the country and, again as InSight Crime relates, left a cadre of veterans experienced in violence, some of whom turned to crime. The wider roots of Latin American violence, like the drug trade, also apply to El Salvador. Additionally, the Salvadoran government has also pursued harsh “Iron Fist” strategies to combat the gangs, which despite their widespread support – “those people aren’t my brothers. I would burn them all,” said one Salvadoran woman recently quoted by The New Yorker’s Daniel Alarcón (again via Mike Allison) – have likely worsened the crisis. By throwing young people who have only joined gangs to survive or aren’t affiliated with gangs at all in fetid, violent prisons, harsh policing strengthens and perpetuates criminal organizations.

To be sure, there are legitimate questions about whether the US should be responsible for imprisoning non-citizens who commit crimes, and American officials and the public were not unjustified as seeing the deported convicts as someone else’s problem. But even through a narrow lens focused only on US interests, nearly two decades on it is reasonable to question whether deporting convicts who contributed to El Salvador’s destabilizing crisis has been a net loss for the US.

Of course, the main reasons to object to Trump’s deportation proposals is that many are flatly immoral, nonsensical, or unconstitutional. Migrants fleeing the Central American violence that US policies helped create should be treated as the refugees they are.

Beyond their immorality, commentators should remember that Trump’s policies could cause serious social problems in Latin American countries beyond the halted flow of remittances. Importantly, American deportation policies’ impact on El Salvador’s crisis centered on deporting convicts, and the vast majority of those deporting under Trump’s nominal plans would not be criminals. Even so, suddenly throwing hundreds of thousands to millions of deportees – some convicted of crimes, some with little knowledge of or no social networks in the distant country of their birth – into already strained societies would be disastrous. Since even extremely harsh enforcement is probably unable to seal the US border entirely, feeding economic and violent instability today will likely worsen the flow of undocumented migrants tomorrow.

Many Americans will not care about these consequences, or view them as much less important than the domestic impact of deporting millions of immigrants. But given the intimate economic, criminal, and social linkages between Mexico and Central American and the United States, these risks should not be forgotten.

*El Salvador’s homicide rate recently moved to the unenviable position of the world’s highest outside of wars, but there are reasons to question the accuracy of this ranking.

Cuba and the Price of Principled Stands

By Taylor Marvin

President Obama speaking with freed Cuban prisoner Alan Gross. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

President Obama speaking with freed Cuban prisoner Alan Gross. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

One of the most enduring realities of US-Latin American relations appears set to finally end. On Wednesday, President Obama made the surprise announcement that the United States and Cuba had negotiated the reestablishment of their diplomatic relationship, following mutual prisoner releases. While many questions remain — notably whether a Republican-controlled Congress is prepared to end the American embargo on the island or would instead block the appointment of an ambassador to Havana — Cuba’s extreme isolation from the United States is drawing to a close.

Many conservative commentators have, unsurprisingly, questioned this policy change. While Tom Nichols writes that there is a conservative case for accepting normalized relations with Havana, the National Review Online’s Daniel Foster isn’t convinced (via Joshua Foust). Citing pieces by political scientist Dan Drezner and Charles Lane, Foster worries that normalizing American relations with Cuba will strengthen, not weaken, the Castro regime. If an eventual ending of the embargo is unlikely to hasten the regime’s demise, Foster asks, why should the US abandon “a half-century-old, principled stand, and reward human-rights-abusing evildoers, for that little upside?” Foster concludes that America’s dealings with other human rights violators — notably Saudi Arabia — strengthens the argument for preserving the Cuban embargo:

“You strike an alliance with a Saudi regime with a less-than-stellar human rights record because it’s surrounded by strategic threats in a region vital to U.S. interests. Cuba, by contrast, is parked in the middle of an American lake. We’ve had the run of the hemisphere for 120 years. If ever there’s a place where realist considerations leave room for taking a stand for liberty — even a largely symbolic one — it’s there.”

While remittance-spurred economic growth directly affects the lives of over 11 million Cubans and Obama’s move roused the passions of many Cuban-Americans who are either for or against the prospect of normalized relations, as Drezner notes ultimately the chances that increased ties will spur liberalization in Cuba are slim.

But it is wrong to suggest that the consequences of isolating Cuba can be neatly cordoned off from the rest of American foreign policy simply because Latin America is a stable region. First, as Drezner and others again note, isolating Cuba is an overwhelmingly unpopular policy among other states. Not only does normalizing relations with Cuba demonstrate to other American adversaries like Iran that US negotiating carrots are real, but maintaining the embargo furthers the general perception of the United States’ arrogance and that it does not respect the wishes of the international community.

Secondly, and more practically, Foster is wrong to dismiss a principled stand on Cuba — continuing the embargo — as costless. The Caribbean may remain “an American lake,” but Washington’s influence in Latin America today is likely the most modest it has been in a century, President Obama’s “moment of renewed leadership in the Americas” comment aside. China’s economic role in the region is growing, and while the ultimate influence of the BRICS emerging markets bloc — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — remains uncertain, large Latin American countries increasingly envision a future where economic growth and a multipolar will allow them to assert their interests outside of the United States’ hemispheric shadow. In particular, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) have repeatedly sought to demonstrate Brazil’s displeasure with US global leadership; Rousseff won reelection in October after narrowly defeating an opposition candidate who favored closer ties with the United States.

The United States’ Cuba policy is closely linked to its other relationships in Latin America. Despite its abuses the Castro regime is popular among many of the region’s heads of state, and this popularity cannot simply be hand-waved away. It isn’t only the more famously left-wing governments of chavista Venezuela and Evo Morales’ Bolivia that support the Castros. In Argentina, the leftist government of Cristina Kirchner — friendly with Cuba — was recently embarrassed by the revelation that the murderous right-wing Argentine military junta cooperated with communist Cuba; “for a dictator there’s nothing better than another dictator,” in El País’ translated words. And Brazil, which has famously — and controversiallyimported Cuban doctors, saw the prospect of normalizing US relations with Cuba as ending a Cold War anachronism, an impression echoed by Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz. Brazil also called for the prompt lifting of the embargo on Cuba.

Of course, America’s standing in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela will not improve much even if the embargo ends tomorrow. And “vulture funds” and Kirchner’s posturing over the Falklands Islands are far greater barriers to a solid US-Argentina relationship than Cuba policy. Similarly, America’s relations with Brazil were strained even before the revelations that the NSA had spied on President Rousseff’s personal communications.

But ties between the Washington and Brasília are an important, and neglected, relationship. Brazil is a country of two hundred million people, is already a major global market, and despite recent setbacks will likely be more economically and diplomatically consequential in the future than it is today. Even if the benefits of normalizing relations with Cuba are low, the half-century isolation of the island has done real damage to the US’ image in an important region. Simply dismissing Cuba — and Washington’s broader relationship with Latin America — as “symbolic” questions weakens the United States influence and furthers its reputation for arrogance, for little gain.

Update: The Christian Science Monitor has a report examining how relations with Latin America contributed to Obama’s policy shift.

A Thought Experiment on the Nuclear Triad

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber, via Wikimedia.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

The strategic nuclear forces of the United States and Russia are divided between what is termed a triad of nuclear-armed aircraft, ballistic missile submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. As I noted earlier this week, many argue that the triad system is an expensive and redundant relic, and that one or more of its legs could be eliminated with no risk to the credibility of America’s nuclear deterrence.

The Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are most often singled out as the least essential leg of the triad, for numerous reasons. The fixed locations of ICBM silos tempt an enemy to strike first in an attempt to destroy them on the ground, a destabilizing incentive towards a nuclear first strike; the threat of missiles being destroyed before they can be fired pressures decision-makers to “use them or lose them” and fire on just the warning of an imminent attack, increasing the risk of accidental war; and ICBMs encourage arms races, because the number of nuclear warheads necessary to destroy an opponent’s missiles in their hardened silos is far higher than needed to end civilization. Indeed, the entire concept of the nuclear triad is an after the fact justification of a three-branched strategic nuclear force that owes more to interservice rivalry than any sound strategic concept.

One of the most common arguments against eliminating ICBMs — or any one element of the triad — is the need to hedge against technological advancements that suddenly defang one means of delivering nuclear weapons. It is possible, triad proponents argue, that a revolution in undersea detection could make it much easier to find and destroy the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). These fears are overstated. As Benjamin H. Friedman, Christopher A. Preble and Matt Fay note in their paper “The End of Overkill? Reassessing US Nuclear Weapons Policy,” despite similar warnings during the Cold War after the dissolution of the USSR the US government learned that it had over, not underestimated the Soviets’ ability to detect US submarines. This will likely hold true in the future as ballistic missile submarines — which are termed “boomers” in US service — continue to grow quieter. “Remember that hawks have been warning about future US SSBNs’ vulnerability to enemy forces since the 1960s, and it has not yet arrived,” Friedman, Preble, and Fay write. “Moreover, the effort needed to achieve such technological progress is unlikely to be instant or unknown to US intelligence.”

In any case, a sudden technological advance that makes ballistic missile submarines much less survivable is no more likely than an extremely unlikely revolution that makes iron-clad ballistic missile defense possible and negates the entire concept of ballistic missiles.

But even if boomers suddenly became much more detectable, would this fatally threaten the deterrence value of a submarine and aircraft nuclear dyad? Imagine a world where, for what ever reason, submarines do not exist (say humans of this alternative reality are literally paralyzed with innate fear of the ocean’s deep).* In this world the naval leg of the nuclear triad are “ballistic missile cruisers” armed with 24 Trident II nuclear missiles, each carrying up to a dozen independent nuclear warheads. Besides being launched from the ocean’s surface rather than underneath it, these missiles are identical to those carried by US and UK SSBNs in our world. Perhaps these cruisers are also nuclear powered, again like SSBNs (the USN has operated CGNs in the past). Strategic deterrent patrols consist of a “cruiser strike group” composed of a ballistic missile cruiser, an air-defense cruiser, and two destroyers. As ballistic missile cruisers would be more affordable than a SSBN, the US Navy fields, say, twenty of them, with two thirds at sea at any given time.

A US nuclear-powered cruiser. Via Wikimedia.

A US nuclear-powered cruiser. Via Wikimedia.

Needless to say, these surface ships would be far more vulnerable than ballistic missile submarines, and in this world America’s nuclear deterrent is less robust. Ships can be tracked from the air or space, and destroyed with anti-ship missiles or other military weapons. The vulnerability of surface ships would create the same “use it or lose it” incentive towards a destabilizing launch on warning stance as land-based ICBMs. These cruisers would also be unable to sneak close to enemy shores to reduce missile flight times, one of the key advantages — or disadvantages, from a global stability perspective — of ballistic missile submarines. Cruisers would also share one of the same trip-wire problem of SSBNs, namely that a counterforce attack on submarines at sea does not carry the same weight (and hands-tying motivation for nuclear response) as one targeting ICBMs based on US territory.**

But would a fleet of ballistic missile cruisers alone constitute a credible deterrence? While far from ideal, I think that it would be. After all, destroying this “surface” leg of a triad would require killing at least a dozen heavily defended ships scattered across the globe, all before the US realized that a coordinated attack on its nuclear forces was underway and responded in kind. After all, the difficulty of pulling this off would be roughly comparable to sinking every US supercarrier more or less simultaneously, something that no one is worried about today. Even for a future adversary armed with intercontinental-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, this would be a difficult task. Certainly one not worth betting millions of lives on.

The point is that even after a sudden revolution in undersea detection that makes US boomers much more vulnerable they would still be more survivable than the ballistic missile cruisers of this alternative world. There will always be an undersea arms race between offense and defense. But this isn’t any reason to fear that submarines will suddenly become more vulnerable, and it certainly isn’t an argument against drawing down the Air Force’s ICBMs.

*Though perhaps in a world without submarines German unrestricted submarine warfare never prompts US entry into World War I, which Germany then wins, an isolated United States is not the first to develop nuclear weapons, and our ballistic missile cruisers belong to the imperial Hochseeflotte…

**This citation specifically references a comment by Tom Nichols; the format of the blog does not allow me to permalink to it directly.

Yes, America Should Eliminate Land-Based ICBMs

By Taylor Marvin

Minuteman III test launch, 2013. USAF photo by Lt. Col. Andy Wulfestieg.

Minuteman III test launch, 2013. USAF photo by Lt. Col. Andy Wulfestieg.

Once again, US Air Force nuclear missile officers are embroiled in scandal. In mid January news — emerging after an investigation into illegal drug use — broke of mid-level launch officers in the 341st Missile Wing cheating, or failing to report cheating, on monthly proficiency exams. These exams test officers’ ability to operate the service’s Minuteman III nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are a major component of the United States’ nuclear deterrent. As of January 30th more than half of the nuclear missile crew members at Malmstrom Air Force Base and 20 percent of the Air Force’s nuclear weapons corps were implicated in the scandal though, importantly, the cheating appears driven by a desire to achieve perfect scores amidst a climate of workplace “stress and fear” and not by an actual inability to operate the launch systems. The cheating scandal came in the wake of the October sacking of top “missileer” Maj. Gen. Michael J. Carey, commander the 20th Air Force, after an official trip to Moscow that saw Carey drunkly incoherent in public, flirting with Russian women, and publicly boasting about how he was “saving the world.” Carey also reportedly complained that members of the 20th Air Force, which is responsible for USAF ICBMs, “have the worst morale of any airmen in the Air Force.”

In late January Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered a review of the nuclear force, stressing investigation into “those issues that affect the morale, professionalism, performance, and leadership of the people who make up that force.” Following the scandal Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James claimed that nuclear missile operations suffer from “systemic problems within the force.” Last year embarrassing reports of failed safety inspections in multiple Missile Wings surfaced, attracting wide media attention.

Those familiar with the Air Force nuclear missile corps allege that it suffers from endemic morale and professionalism problems. While the USAF officer corps has always been famous for an unofficial hierarchy that put first bomber and later fighter pilots at the head of the pack, since the end of the Cold War nuclear launch officers have been near the bottom. With the dissolution of the USSR the threat of nuclear war grew much more distant, and urgency and perceived importance of the USAF nuclear mission diminished. On top of the inherent boredom and hardship of serving on the Air Force’s remote ICBM bases, the less-relevant nuclear missile corps became a dead-end duty for unlucky officers, with many opportunities to fail and few to be rewarded for success.

After this scandal the Air Force will reform its nuclear missile operations, and officers involved will be punished. However, it is unlikely that these reforms will lead to any real change, because this isn’t the first time the standards of the Air Force’s nuclear forces have been called into question. In 2007 an Air Force B-52 bomber flying between North Dakota and Louisiana was accidentally loaded with six live nuclear cruise missiles, with the weapons unaccounted for and unprotected for 36 hours. A later investigation revealed serious problems with the service’s handling of nuclear weapons, with then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates identifying “structural, procedural, and cultural problems” within the force. In 2008 Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff of the Air Force General T. Michael Moseley were both asked to resign, and a new Air Force nuclear command was later created. However, the creation of the Air Force Global Strike Command in the wake of the 2007 incident was evidently not enough to ensure the level of professionalism and safety operating nuclear weapons requires.

Secretary Hagel has ordered exploring ways to improve morale and incentivize success within the nuclear forces. Reforms will certainly help, but it is unlikely that this current scandal will permanently change the way the USAF nuclear weapons corps operates because reprisals and reforms do not address the core problem facing the service’s nuclear forces. In the post-Cold War era officers will still see the nuclear weapons corps as an unattractive posting ignored by the wider service and with little opportunity to distinguish themselves outside of exams, breeding complacency and carelessness. Of course, there will always be unpopular duties within the military. But the repeated, systematic failures of the USAF’s approach to nuclear weapons suggests that this is a tough problem, and one that will defy easy solutions.

In fact, these scandals are another good reason to eliminate the Air Force’s ICBM force entirely. ICBMs compose one leg of the US nuclear triad; nuclear bombs and cruise missiles dropped from aircraft and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) the others. The advantage of SLBMs is that they are the ultimate in second-strike capability — because nuclear ballistic missile submarines (often referred to in US service as “boomers”) are incredibly difficult to detect and destroy, states that field SLBMs (or submarine-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missiles) are guaranteed to be able to respond in kind to, and thus deter, a nuclear attack. During the Cold War it was hoped that the triad, with nuclear missiles split between the Navy’s missile submarines and the Air Force’s hardened ICBM bunkers, would present a more effective deterrent than a two or one-legged nuclear force.

But the entire concept of the nuclear triad owes just as much to interservice rivalries as anything else — the Navy pursued SLBMs in part to ensure they, and not just the Air Force, had a hand in the United States nuclear forces — and after the end of the Cold War many have argued that fielding a full nuclear triad is no longer necessary. Maintaing a massively-redundant nuclear deterrence force is no longer seen as necessary to ensure peace as it once was, and distributing a shrinking number of nuclear warheads across the same three delivery components is an expensive anachronism.

Nuclear weapons launched from aircraft are more flexible than ballistic missiles, and land-based ICBMs will never be nearly as invulnerable as missiles carried on the Navy’s boomers. The counterforce mission Air Force ICBMs were assigned in the late Cold War — launching waves of nuclear warheads at Soviet missile bases in the hopes of destroying their weapons on the ground — is less relevant today, if it ever was at all. If one leg of the triad is to be done away with, the Air Force’s ICBMs are the logical choice.

By all accounts the Navy ballistic missile submarine force does not have the same systematic issues as the Air Force’s nuclear weapons corps. This is likely partially due to institutional factors, but also the nature of operating a nuclear missile submarine — with more to do, boomer crews are apparently more motivated and perceived as more prestigious that the USAF nuclear corps. Institutions can be changed, and institutional rot within the 20th Air Force is not in and of itself a reason to draw down US ICBMs. But when there is already a strong argument for ending the United States’ outdated commitment to an expensive and redundant nuclear triad, well, a string of scandals among those responsible for the planet’s most destructive weaponry doesn’t exactly help.

Note: I should clarify that questions about the “relevance” of the counterforce mission relate to uncertainty about the plausibility of limited or “winnable” nuclear war, and is debatable.

Update: As of February 4th, the Navy is reportedly suffering its own cheating scandal involving its school for nuclear reactor operations. As Sydney J. Freedburg Jr. and Colin Clark report:

Regardless of how much the two service’s experiences may differ, the fact remains that this provides more evidence of what appear to be serious problems in some elements of America’s nuclear forces. While the Air Force’s failings involved those who would fire nuclear weapons and the Navy involves those who deal with reactors, they both involve personnel with intimate knowledge of and access to nuclear materials.

While this scandal appears very distinct from the USAF’s, this news is something to keep an eye on.

Bureaucratic Barriers and Local Knowledge

510px-CIA.svgBy Taylor Marvin

Writing in The American Conservative, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi strongly criticizes the “cultural ignorance” hampering US foreign policy and security agencies. Rotating assignments and an obsession with leakers and “insider threats” that discourages hiring first or second-generation Americans with foreign language and cultural skills have left American foreign policy, Giraldi writes, bereft of local knowledge and an understanding of alien societies. While American-born practitioners with deep local knowledge do exist “they are largely absent from government,” and counterproductively “organizations like the Foreign Service and the Central Intelligence Agency have a deep institutional prejudice against their employees ‘going native,’ rotating officers every two or three years to avoid someone’s becoming too identified with local interests and cultures.”

Giraldi’s argument is reminiscent of Rory Stewart’s essay “The Plane to Kabul” in the book Can Intervention Work?, co-written with Gerald Knaus. In the essay Steward, like Giraldi, argues that Western governments are unable to effectively carry out state-building and counterinsurgency missions because they lack the number of dedicated specialists necessary to truly understand the cultures these missions operate within. Steward even draws the same comparison to British Imperial administration as Giraldi; as both note, British colonial administrators were, in Giraldi’s words “expected to go out to foreign posts for extended periods, to learn the local language, and to acquire an understanding of the indigenous culture.” Today, this is not the case. As Steward extensively argues, few administrators involved in the multinational mission in Afghanistan can match the local knowledge British colonial officials once commanded. Casualty aversion restricts aid workers, diplomats, and administrators’ ability to travel through Afghanistan and meaningfully interact with locals, and few practitioners are fluent in Afghanistan’s languages. Unlike the British colonial administrators who would spend their entire career in the colonies, today’s practitioners in Afghanistan typically spend little time in the country and rotate out frequently, creating a “lack of continuity” that, quoting Stewart, makes political work difficult “because it stopped the development of trusting relationships with Afghan leaders.”

Both Giraldi and Stewart stress that many US governmental agencies and Western NGOs minimize the career value of acquiring regionally-specific knowledge and languages. The consulting culture embraced by both American governmental agencies and development NGOs, Stewart argues, emphasizes universal principles like conflict resolution, developmental economics, or public administration rather than specific knowledge grounded in local realities. Similarly, Giraldi notes that the CIA officers often do not possess advanced language and cultural skills due to the likelihood that they will soon be tasked with work on another region. “Senior Agency officers, who are disproportionately minimally language capable, generally excuse themselves by arguing ‘an op is an op is an op,’ meaning that spying is not culture specific.” But while this institutional generalist focus might be counterproductive, it is also somewhat understandable: individual practitioners and the organizations they work for have an incentive to stress universal skills that remain in demand when attention moves on from one crisis region to another.

9780393342246_CanInterventionWork_PB.inddIn a reaction to Stewart’s essay, I challenged the idea that the lack of local knowledge Stewart rightly sees as hampering the effort in Afghanistan can be remedied by future “smart” interventions benchmarked around preexisting country-specific knowledge. The British colonial administrators both Stewart and Giraldi approvingly cite could commit themselves to acquiring a career’s worth of local knowledge because they had good reason to believe that the British Empire, and perhaps more importantly the job they’d spent decades training for, would exist by the end of their career. This logic is no longer the case. Indeed, the modern strain of liberal intervention is explicitly benchmarked around the idea that crisis areas can be stabilized by the application of military force and subsequent state-building efforts, again explicitly establishing that, if successful, intervention does not create permanent employment for specialists. Of course, this does not mean that there will not always be a need for dedicated regional specialists — but successfully prosecuting limited-term military interventions obviously requires a temporarily larger cadre of these specialists. There’s simply no way to avoid this surge problem in anything but the most-limited military interventions. While Arabic is a major global language and the Middle East will remain a focus for American foreign policy, there is already a perception among career-minded students that learning Arabic is no longer as useful as it was a decade ago.

Given the time horizon inherent in liberal interventionism, military officers, State Department staffers, and NGO workers have less incentive to heavily invest themselves in acquiring the local skills that will be in less demand in the future. While acquiring these skills will not hurt young practitioners’ future prospects per se, they do carry heavy opportunity costs. Unless an individual practitioner or organization is very dedicated to a specific region, and can count on being promoted on that dedication, it is better to invest in more universal skills without a built-in shelf life — those that justify the believe that ‘an op is an op is an op.’

The problem is that there is no obvious means of addressing the institutional cultural ignorance that both Giraldi and Stewart detail. Of course, Giraldi’s smaller-scale focus on the lack of local skills within American intelligence agencies and the Foreign Service can be in part remedied by focusing less on insider threats and overcoming the so-called institutional prejudice against “going native”. But as long as the American government is tasked with operating in nearly all world regions, it will have trouble finding enough specialists to support ramping up intelligence, military, or even development activity in any given one. Even if practitioners within intelligence agencies or — no less importantly — the wider foreign policy industry are not rotated from specialization to specialization, in-demand regions will shift. Again, it isn’t unreasonable to suspect that the US foreign policy establishment will require less Arabic speakers in the future than in the 2000s, and people make decisions about which skills to acquire based on these expectations.

The problem isn’t only that bureaucratic disincentives make it difficult for organizations to acquire the locally-knowledgable practitioners necessary for state-building or counterinsurgency to work. Stewart stresses that decisions in favor of military interventions should be based on “detailed, country-specific arguments” that do or do not suggest that a successful intervention is possible. But while military interventions may be wars of choice, their locations are not. The United States did not choose to strike Afghanistan in 2001; it was forced to take action by an unprovoked and largely unpredictable attack. While it was not forced to embark on a state-building mission or even to invade Afghanistan, again it is not clear that this was a really a choice at all — as many have noted, the United States cannot realistically smash foreign government and then entirely absolve itself of the unpleasant consequences. While other examples of military interventions may be less dramatic and less costly, the same logic applies. France may have lobbied for military action in Libya and later Mali, but it did not “choose” the events that prompted calls to intervene. This inherent uncertainty about where calls for military interventions will occur makes it difficult to preserve the deep institutional bench of country specialists required to wisely implement policy — and “smart” strategies that rely on their availability problematic. Even when potential crises are suspected, this knowledge is often not enough to prompt bureaucracies to foster the relevant language and cultural skills: as I previously relayed, while the UK knew through the 1970s that Argentina aspired to take the Falkland Islands (though they did not deem it likely), during the war British forces included very few Spanish speakers.

Of course the decision to militarily intervene should be based on specific local knowledge, and an honest assessment about whether military and civil organizations can acquire skilled practitioners quickly enough and in sufficient quantities to be effective. But given the bureaucratic barriers to maintaining a deep bench of specialized practitioners, many potential intervention efforts will not be able to leverage the human capital effectively prosecuting them requires.

Update: Edited for clarity. 

Thoughts on Snowden, Civil Disobedience, and Cowardice

By Taylor Marvin


NSA leaker Edward Snowden apparently intends to seek refuge in Ecuador, a country, like Snowden benefactors Russia and the PRC, not exactly noted for its free press and civil liberties. As many have noted, there’s a certain irony to Snowden fleeing to countries with much, much worse records of repression and civil surveillance than the United States. At best this is hypocritical, and many allege that Snowden’s desire to evade US justice weakens his credibility as a whistleblower. Like many others, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews went so far as to call Snowden a coward for fleeing punishment, and others claim his flight make him a traitor.

First, I a very skeptical of PRISM, surveillance of routine communications, and the general government culture of secrecy. Moreover, the security bearucracy’s natural tendency is to grow if unchecked. In a perfect world whisleblowing would not be necessary, but we obviously don’t live on that plane of perfect oversight and moderation. That said, I am also wary of endorsing Snowden’s actions. Much like Dan Nexon recently wrote, I believe that security clearances are very serious, and low-level employees should not be able to unilaterally decide what should, and should not, be secret. As Kevin Drum noted, with too many Snowdens it would be impossible to run any intelligence service at all. I also feel that Snowden sacrificed credibility by apparently attempting to avoid having his material thoroughly vetted (though this is notably better than going to WikiLeaks, which has proven itself entirely irresponsible and unable to responsibly release secrets).

That said, it’s perfectly natural for Snowden to try and avoid punishment for his actions. Kevin Drum sees Snowden’s flight as a reasonable desire to avoid punishment for civil disobedience if that punishment is a lifetime in prison. Suffering legal penalties can’t be separated from legitimate civil disobedience — this willingness for self-sacrifice demonstrates commentment and strength of belief, and is an important part of the public performance inherent to civil disobedience. However, Snowden’s actions aren’t civil disobedience per se. It appears that Snowden’s goal was simply making PRISM public; of course, his public announcement and media embrace is self-aggrandizing, but isn’t inherent to his goal. It’s true that Snowden escaping legal consequences will encourage future leakers by suggesting that releasing classified information has no penalty (though it’s also arguable that never being able to return to the country of your birth is a penalty in and of itself). But as Snowden appears to see it, unlike many other civil disobedients there’s no real value in his public martyrdom. As long as the information is made public, suffering extreme legal penalties adds nothing to the discussion. If he can leak classified information and escape US justice so much the better. Without condoning Snowden’s actions, this isn’t cowardice, it’s simple self-preservation.

Update: This originally read “good sense,” which in retrospect doesn’t convey the sentiment I was aiming for. Additionally, while accepting punishment isn’t an integral part of Snowden’s performance, it is true that putting himself in Chinese and Russian custody is a best enormously irresponsible.

Why the Broken Red Line Didn’t Force the Administration’s Hand in Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Last week the Obama administration decided to expand the “scope and scale” of American assistance to the Syria opposition and begin arming rebel forces. Concluding that the Bashar al-Assad regime had indeed violated the “red line” prohibiting the use of chemical weapons against rebel forces, the administration announced Thursday that it would begin supplying the Syrian rebels with small arms and ammunition, though the White House maintains it has no interest in imposing a no-fly zone at this time. While reporting from this April suggested that the administration was slowly moving towards a consensus in favor of arming the rebels, the news still comes as a major shift in President Obama’s Syria policy.

In a statement Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes framed the administration’s decision as a response to the Assad regime’s alleged chemical weapons use, arguing that “while the lethality of these attacks make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria, which now stands at more than 90,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades.”

However, its rhetoric aside it is difficult to argue that Obama was compelled to act by Assad’s apparent breaking of the international red line prohibiting chemical weapons use. Instead, the administration’s decision to arm the rebels can only be understood as a deliberate choice.

First, as many others have argued, there is no compelling reason why the murder of 100 to 150 Syrians by chemical weapons demand international restitution more than nearly a hundred thousand by conventional means. But despite arguments that chemical weapons are uniquely terrible it is incorrect to claim, as Rhodes does, that strong norms against chemical arms use have existed for decades and requires enforcement. Instead, it’s more accurate to say that chemical arms — which are difficult to handle, subject to dispersal by weather conditions, often just as likely to incapacitate friendly troops as the enemy, and widely stigmatized – are rarely used because of their few practical battlefield uses and reputation costs, rather than any enforced international norm. Indeed, the United States has turned a blind eye to chemical weapons use when it is politically convenient, ignoring Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War and only nominally punishing his chemical massacres of Kurdish civilians decades later. Given that the norm against chemical weapons use is strong in spite of, not due to, international enforcement efforts and few leaders have incentives to use chemical arms anyway, it is unlikely that Obama administration officials were compelled by the belief that the norm against chemical weapons needed to be upheld.

Secondly, it is similarly unlikely that the administration was forced to act by its previous rhetoric. Red lines sanctioning chemical weapons use are inherently fuzzy. Unlike, say, nuclear weapons, there is nothing inherently intolerable about chemical weapons use. If Assad had used chemical weapons to kill thousands of civilians in a single, high-profile attack, the United States would likely have been compelled to act. However, Assad did not; instead, he apparently used chemical weapons in limited, isolated attacks. Indeed, the fact that it took the US government nearly two months to officially verify his use of chemical weapons is indicative of just how limited this use was. Perhaps Assad’s limited use of chemical weapons suggests that he lost political control over them rather than ordering their use, or that he was deliberately testing the strength of the international red line. Whatever the reason, though, this inherent fuzziness made it difficult for the Obama administration to issue an obviously credible red line prohibiting any specific degree of chemical weapons use, and it similarly could have ignored Assad’s limited provocation if it really wanted to.

Third, the Obama administration had deliberately avoided binding itself to act if Assad did violate the red line. Red lines often suffer from a fundamental credibility problems, because their targets can often not distinguish a credible threat from a bluff. Since leaders rarely like being forced into unpopular wars, red lines work best when the actor issuing the threat constructs mechanisms to force their future self to respond if their bluff is called. However, the administration had used shifting semantics and ambiguities about what the red line actually entails to avoid rhetorically binding himself to action, suggesting that Obama wished to avoid an iron-clad public commitment he might later regret — exactly the kind of commitment device he’d value if Obama valued credibility over flexibility.

All these factors suggest that, contrary to its own rhetoric, the Obama administration is not being forced into the Syrian conflict. Despite the administration’s red line, President Obama could have avoided further intervention in the conflict if he truly wished to. Arming the rebels is growing less, not more, popular among Americans, and Obama is unlikely to face any significant domestic political costs for inaction. Finally, it is immediately obvious that the Obama administration is doing the least it can to punish the Assad regime’s transgressions. Small arms supplies are unlikely to turn the tide in the rebels’ favor, and if anything the Obama administration’s present actions send a reassuring signal to potential human rights violators: as long as you abstain from chemical weapons the international community tolerates massacres, and even if you do use chemical arms, it will only half-heartedly begin arming your enemies. As Sara Bjerg Moller recently wrote, “rather than redeem American credibility, the lesson other states are likely to draw is that (at least in the short term) they can get away with crossing well-established red lines while the US government conducts a multi-month internal policy debate on what to do next.”

While the Obama administration’s decision to begin arming Syrian rebels is unlikely to quickly end the conflict, it is a major shift in Obama’s Syria policy. Despite its public justifications, however, it is a mistake to see the administration’s decision as a forced reaction to Assad’s chemical weapons use. Instead, the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war more decisively than ever before is a deliberate policy choice that reflects his own views on liberal interventionism, the precarious position of the secular opposition, and international responsibilities.

Racism and Preferred Definitions

By Taylor Marvin

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has an excellent piece critiquing the definitional basis of studies that attempt to find a link between race and IQ, an obsession thrust into the news by former Heritage Foundation staffer Jason Richwine’s recently-unearthed Harvard dissertation. Critics are right to doubt the correlation between IQ and what we commonly think of as “intelligence”, Coates writes, but these studies’ real deficiency isn’t that we have a poor idea of what intelligence actually signifies, or how it can be measured. Instead, it’s the malleable definition of race that means only what society wants it to:

“I am not being flip or coy. If you tell me that you plan to study ‘race and intelligence’ then it is only fair that I ask you, ‘What do you mean by race?’ It’s true I don’t always do math so well, but I understand the need to define the terms of your study. If you’re a math guy, perhaps your instinct is to point out the problems in the interpretation of the data. My instinct is to point out that your entire experiment proceeds from a basic flaw — no coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists.”

Research into race and IQ’s defenders often suggest that their critics are motivated only by a politically-correct desire to prohibit research whose conclusions they may not find palatable. While I find this objection largely irrelevant — given human history I find it perfectly reasonable to stigmatize even rigorous research into race and intelligence — I believe Coates’ piece gets at the heart of the matter: “race” is such a flexible term that it’s impossible to disentangle from its social context. That’s what makes race and IQ research so suspect.

The desire to impose racial hierarchy is inseparable from racism. As Coates notes, what constitutes a “race”  is determined by the society that assignes racial distinctions — the definition of race is much more a social tool of inclusion and exclusion than any description of the external world. Today white Americans typically identify East Asians as a single race, while the average Chinese person would likely dispute a racial category that lumped them together with residents of Japan or Korea. Conversely, the standardized tests I grew up with were specific when it came to identifying East Asian ethnic origins while lumping people of European, North African, and Middle Eastern descent into the broad “white” category. As Coates writes, “when the liberal says ‘race is a social construct,’ he is not being a soft-headed dolt; he is speaking an historical truth.”

Just as racial classifications have varied by time and place, so have the racial hierarchies racists have sought to impose. Most famously, in the 20th century the American definition of privileged whiteness grew to encompass the previously-excluded Americans of Irish and Eastern and Southern European descent.  Jason Richwine’s dissertation argues that the highest IQ among modern American racial groups is found in American Jewish and East Asian populations, followed by whites. Given the preferred racial hierarchy of Richwine’s own society — modern America — this conclusion is too perfect.

Today’s American racism seeks to entrench the privilege of white Americans and further disenfranchise Black and Latinos, so it’s no surprise that these groups would be “found” to be less intelligent than whites. But Jewish and Asian-Americans are both often perceived by racists as “model minority” groups allied with white Americans, and anyway, both groups are too small to present a real obstacle to furthering white privilege. In short, finding that American Jews and East Asians are more intelligent on average than white Americans is exactly the research findings you’d want as a superficial cover against allegations of racism, while not changing the social implications of your research.

The point is that racists’ preferred racial hierarchies are transient, and a produce of the time and place in which they’re devised. Contemporary American society extends privilege to non-Muslim “whites” and seeks to especially exclude those of African and American descent, but this definition of privilege isn’t universal. Isn’t it suspicious that the purportedly-global genetic link between race and intelligence argued by researchers like Richwine exactly matchs the transient biases of their own society? Isn’t this powerful evidence that their findings aren’t trustworthy, and certainly shouldn’t inform public policy?

The Wrong Lessons from Iraq

By Taylor Marvin

The tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq continues to draw revealing reflections on the lessons of the war. Ezra Klein attributes his (admittedly, college-age) support for the invasion to the influence of Ken Pollack’s The Gathering Storm and warns against trusting what “everyone knows”, while failing to mention that numerous IR academics presciently warned against the invasion.

Elsewhere, Daniel Larison fears that many Americans have failed to learn from the war, and still view preemptive invasions as a “legitimate form of self-defense.” Stephen Walt voices similar concerns over policymakers’ continuing failure to consider tangible American interests when proposing foreign military interventions, a clear rejection of both neoconservative and liberal interventionist policy. Both Larison and Walt make valid points — while the abject failure of the Iraq War seems to have conditioned many Americans to reject boots-on-the-ground military adventurism, it doesn’t appear to have sparked a popular rethink of the purpose and limitations of US foreign policy as a whole.

Like Larison, my fear is that future observers will attribute Iraq War’s failures to factors specific to the conflict itself, rather than general limitations on the United States’ ability to successfully use force to remove and replace foreign regimes. These implicated determinants can be specific to Iraq — the country’s sectarian and tribal divides, for instance — or the incompetence of the Bush administration. It’s this incompetence that has the potential to be truly blinding. While the decision to pursue war with Iraq itself was misguided, the Bush administration’s initial missteps were so mistaken that they draw the analytical spotlight:

  • Invading with a post-Revolution in Military Affairs force that was ultimately too small to provide security after the overthrow of the Hussein government and secure the weapons depots that would later provided insurgents and IED makers with armaments.
  • The decision to base the astoundingly lightly-sketched visions of post-Hussein governance around Ahmed Chalabi, an exile who enjoyed no legitimacy within Iraq. Chalabi had every incentive to mislead Bush administration officials, and it should have been extremely obvious that he would not be a viable leader of post-Hussein Iraq.
  • Paul Bremer’s disastrous order to the disband the Iraqi Army, which — to the horror of US military officials — dumped thousands of unemployed and angry armed men into already unstable Iraqi society. “There was simply no upside to firing hundreds of thousands of young men who knew where the guns, ammunition, and explosives were kept,” Steve Saideman recently wrote, terming it, not the decision to invade overall, the single worst US foreign policy decision ever.
  • Bremer’s similarly-misguided policy of de-Ba’athification, which removed Hussein-era Iraqi elites from civil society and demolished state governing capacity.
  • The Bush administration’s tragically comic policy of turning the Coalition Provisional Authority administration over to young American graduates, nearly all of which had zero relevant administrative or cultural experience.

All of these decisions were indefensible at the time, and reveal both arrogance and astounding general incompetence on the part of the officials responsible.  But the scope of these errors has the potential to obscure the Iraq War’s real lessons. David Ignatius explicitly qualifies his condemnation of the invasion with this logic, remarking that “we’ll never know whether the story might have been different if better planning had been done for ‘the day after,’ or the Iraqi army hadn’t been disbanded, or several other ‘ifs.'” But this qualification misses the general point. The invasion wasn’t “risky”, because it had little hope of meeting its stated goals in and of itself — even if none of these decisions had been made it’s still difficult to imagine the invasion’s aftermath proceeding according to plan.

The reality is that there never was a plausible case that invading Iraq would lead to the at least-nominal goal of installing a stable democratic government. The 2003 US military was entirely unprepared to fight a counterinsurgency, and no matter how much administration and military leaders pretended otherwise there was never justification for the assumption that Iraqis would go along with the administration’s post-war plans.

Instead, the clear lesson of the Iraq War is that US strategy should not be benchmarked around predicting the behavior of an indigenous population. Every initial, binding mistake of the war comes back to this assumption. Sufficient troops to secure and guard weapons depots would not be necessary, because post-invasion resistance would be limited to regime dead-enders. Troop numbers necessary for the high counterinsurgency threshold were excessive, because ethnic conflict was not expected. The CPA’s counterproductive policy of de-Ba’athification would not be problematic, because the Ba’ath party was a hated, tiny minority.

But the problems inherent to human behavior-assumptions don’t appear to have been incorporated into today’s interventionist theory. Most advocates of US or Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities base their proposals on the ludicrous assumption that an unprovoked attack on Iran will not permanently damage perceptions of the US among Iranians and empower Iranian hardliners at the expense of moderates, or, most fantastically, strikes will cause Iranians to rise up against the regime. This dumbfoundingly optimistic assumption grimly echoes Jeffrey Goldberg’s pre-war assertion that “people with limited experience in the Middle East” wrongly believe “the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.” Americans may, as Dan Drezner recently argued, have internalize a more realist post-Iraq outlook. But this really only extends to boots on the ground interventions. Given US policymakers’ perpetual temptation to leverage airpower and unconventional forces into low-commitment military interventions, this argument is almost peripheral to the general debate.