July 04, 2005
China's War Odds and Negotiation Theory, or the Battle of the BATMA
Brad DeLong's latest lunge at the "China hawks" hints at a point that deserves to be said out loud. If China's leaders were to go to war, it wouldn't be because war was fated, but because war seemed to them like a better choice than peace. So the easiest way to prevent war with China may be simply to keep China's leaders confident in the political payoffs of a China at peace.
As Daniel Nexon points out, wars are a horrible waste. Just as most contract disputes are better settled out of court, there's almost always some peaceful (if deeply uncomfortable) agreement that would leave each country better off than the likely result of going to war. Brad DeLong replies correctly that a lot of preindustrial wars were justified for the rulers, even if they were horrid for the people, because wars can make leaders stronger even when their people can only suffer by it. Unfortunately, that kind of political war still occurs even today: Argentina's junta opened war with Britain over the purely symbolic Falkland Islands in 1982, Sadat led Egypt to attack Israel with no expectation of winning in 1973, and China sent its divisions to clash with the USSR's border forces just to prove a point in 1969. In the past and today, national leaders sometimes go to war for political advantage, even when they know it won't materially help or may even ruin their citizens.
We've noted before that China in particular has a record of making war as a political gesture. So why wouldn't China's leaders repeat this pattern? What can we do to head off a future where China's Politburo decides to invade Taiwan so that China's leaders can make themselves look like heroes?
Brad DeLong's answer seems to be: help China's leaders become heroes through peace instead, by bringing their citizens economic growth. After all, there's a comon theme to the "political wars" of the 20th century: they've been started by leaders who're trying to take their people's minds off a record of economic failure. Sadat in 1973 Egypt, the junta in 1982 Argentina, even the German Parliamentary leaders cutting the deal that gave Hitler the chancellorship in 1933: all were leaders who gave power to a belligerent platform after (and only after) economic decline had eaten away their authority. So as long as China's citizens are getting rich, perhaps China's leaders will see more glory for themselves in keeping economic growth going than in turning to war.
Of course, Germany in 1914 chose war despite a prospering economy. But by then "war for glory" was an established tradition, even a custom, for German leaders: under the Prussian kings and under Bismarck, the Prussian/German state had expanded and secured itself over and over through deliberately chosen wars. By contrast, China has no tradition of "glorious" war: war is just a tool of statecraft for traditional Chinese foreign policy, and a second-class tool at that -- right now China's leaders tend to see America as much more war-prone than themselves. So if China's leaders can continue to hold power by giving their people rising incomes, they have no reason, and no tradition, to pull them toward war.
Negotiation theorists like to talk about each side's "best alternative to a negotiated agreement," or BATNA. For China's leaders, perhaps we should talk about their "best alternative to a military approach," or BATMA. As long as China's leaders have a strong BATMA -- as long as "let's give our people economic growth" seems like a workable way to stay in power -- they're unlikely to seek a politically convenient war. So we should do our best to make it easy, not hard, for China's leaders to deliver economic growth to their people.
Conversely, the time to worry about China risking war with America is when the leaders' BATMA has collapsed -- when an economic crisis (and there will be one, sooner or later) has sapped their authority, and led them to think of desperate measures.
Let's hope that when that crisis comes, the "desperate measure" the Chinese Politburo thinks of is holding elections -- not waging war.
Now, if we could figure out a way to make holding free elections an attractive and not merely desperate option for China's leaders, that would be a BATMA worth smiling about.
June 29, 2005
Bureaucracy Versus Modernity, in China and the rest of the Third World
Bureaucracy exists to prevent surprises; that's why bureaucracy doesn't cooperate with economic growth. One of the world's most interesting riddles is how China, the world-historical champion of big fat bureaucracies, ended up with a government that's comparatively lean and mean and growth-friendly where the governments of India and most of Latin America and Africa are complex and bloated and growth-hindering.
There's little evidence that Chinese officials are less corrupt compared to other developing-country officials, and in fact in many Chinese provinces it seems you can't get any business done without paying off the local Communist Party boss. The difference is that China doing business in China requires fewer officials to be placated, evaded or bribed. Buy off the party boss, and you can get down to business without any more legal niceties. Indian business visitors to China sometimes cite this "what the party boss says, goes" authoritarian environment as a feature that's very convenient for business, but very creepy to Indian (and Western) mindsets of individual rights and business regulation. China's "one-stop shopping" approach to bribing the local government seems to be a sordid but significant part of what makes China an attractive place to develop new business. And it's new business investment, more than anything, that's driven China's economic growth.
But all this leaves me wondering at the underlying question: how did China, of all places, end up with less bureaucracy than India, Peru, and Nigeria?
June 22, 2005
In China, the Best Elections Money Can Buy
The Washington Post reports on how in one Chinese village the Communist Party candidate nakedly bought and bribed votes to win the village election. At first glance that sounds like familiar bad news -- corrupt elections in China, how predictable, what a shame! But a closer look at the article shows up several points that say real democracy in China may be closer than we think.
Number one, the Communist Party candidate had to buy his votes, and couldn't just order or declare himself a victory. Even American elections were often bought during the corresponding period of early American industrialization -- just look up the stories of Tammany Hall. Number two, the Communist candidate victory followed repeated Communist defeats, in which the other candidate won and held office, just like in a real democracy. Number three, the vote-buying in the village was noticed and condemned not just locally, but by officials from higher levels of government in the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
All this points to a big Number Four: however weak China may be in democratic practice, the idea of democracy is very strong in today's China. In the words of the rival candidate for village leader on his various successes against the Party:
"They could not stop it," Zhang said. "Everyone knows the power of democracy."
Remarks like that tell us something about China's future. At the end of the Cold War, Russia flirted with democracy and free markets before turning back under Putin to old-fashioned dictatorship, while countries like Poland and Hungary have become basically successful capitalist democracies. A big part of the difference is that ordinary Russians had very little living memory of democracy or free markets, while many Eastern Europeans had a lot more "buried experience" of democracy and market economics. China today is openly a market economy ruled by Communist oligarchs. But below the surface, there's growing experience in and enormous respect for democracy. That suggests that if and when a crisis shakes the Communist dictatorship, the answer won't be chaos -- it'll be elections.
It may not even take a big crisis to turn China democratic. Zeng Qinghong, Jiang Zemin's sometime hatchet man and arguably the second most powerful person in today's China, has a record of pushing for experiments with "inner party democracy," that is, holding free elections for more of the positions within the Communist Party. Even though the Communists' dictatorship seems secure, the value of democracy has been idealized more thoroughly in Chinese politics than in almost any other of the planet's remaining dictatorships. Right now, China has few free elections above the village level. Yet today's Chinese people have more mental commitment to the ideals of democracy than most people in Russia -- or Iraq. It's not certain, but it's possible that democracy will steadily filter up through Chinese government until the country is truly democratic -- without anyone ever declaring a revolution.
June 21, 2005
The Face of Future War: Brainy Missiles Versus Tiny Guns
Guns and missiles are trading their historic roles on the battlefield. It used to be that attackers relied for their breakthroughs on masses of big guns, whether the particular guns were used for the naval broadsides of 18th-century sea combat, the artillery barrages of World War I, or the tank spearheads of World War II. Meanwhile, the first serious military rockets and missiles got their value as a handy tactical defense against an attacker's superior guns, as when Egyptian Sagger antitank missiles surprised and blunted the assaults of Israeli armored forces in the 1973 October War. But these days, most heavy attack missions are being taken over by big and brainy missiles. And on the tactical defense, it looks like our best new tools are very, very small guns.
In naval warfare, guns are already well out of the picture, with the last American battleships scheduled for retirement. The last major use of battleships was for naval bombardment of enemies on land; now, cruise missiles do that mission so well that it's possible to argue that even aircraft carriers should be replaced by missile barges. The same passage to missiles is now happening in land warfare. The new Crusader tube artillery system got canceled as not useful enough for the cost, even as the artillery's Multiple Rocket Launcher Sytem is getting a GPS-guided upgrade. The newest infantry weapon is a long-ranged smart grenade launcher that comes as close as you can get to pocket-sized missiles without putting little rockets in every rifleman's backpack. And what about tanks? The most powerful tank gun isn't a gun anymore, it's a missile: the LOSAT (Line Of Sight Anti-Tank) missile, which can approximately be described as a sharpened telephone pole with a rocket engine on the back. It's fired out of a Humvee-mounted tube as sort of a hypermodern ballista, and it goes through even our own Abrams tanks like, well, a rocket-propelled spear through butter. The guns we still have are very useful, but the writing is on the wall: all the new big guns aren't. Aren't guns, that is. They're missiles.
Meanwhile, the new trend in defense is not to settle for shooting your enemy, but also to shoot your enemy's shells, rockets or missiles before they can hit you. And how do we do shoot down enemy projectiles? Why, with guns! Robotically-aimed guns firing tiny bullets will shoot down the enemy's explosive before it can hit you! It sounds very Rube Goldberg, and it arguably is very Rube Goldberg, but it seems to work. We're now protecting tanks from RPGs with tiny grenade launchers; we're protecting troops from enemy artillery with a robotic Gatling Gun nicknamed R2-D2; and the Army hopes eventually to be able to protect Future Combat Systems units with Active Protection Systems that can fire an intercepting explosively formed projectile to neutralize an incoming enemy tank shell in flight. Everywhere you turn, the innovations in weapons for the tactical defense aren't missiles anymore: they're guns.
The hidden story here is that combat is being changed by precision. Guns are good when you have to fire lots of shots to hit the enemy. Missiles are better when the enemy's easy to aim at and the important thing is to make each shot count. Precision guidance has meant that any land vehicle is easy to aim at (unless your electronics are spoofed, which is another discussion), which leads to missiles on the offense. But that same precision now makes it possible -- for computers, at least -- to begin to aim at the missiles themselves in flight. It's still damn hard to aim at a flying rocket; you'd like multiple chances to scratch the target. That's why ballistic missile defense (where you only get one or two shots) is so difficult, and why outside of knocking out incoming nukes, you don't see anyone even trying "to hit a missile with a missile." But technology really has come to the point where you can sometimes hit a missile with a bullet.
We're gettng closer to a tactical future where the fundamental "soldier" in high-intensity battle is the missile or unmanned drone itself, and the humans who launch them are just the terrain the missiles are fighting each other to conquer. But the irony is that even as "real" war becomes less human than ever before, more and more of America's real wars are very human, personal, low-tech affairs, where our ability to train police is more important to victory than our ability to blow up enemy tank shells in midflight. Because we're so good at high-tech war that only a desperate fool would oppose us, we instead end up in low-tech wars, in countries that have been made so miserable that they're just full of desperate fools.
The irony shouldn't really surprise us. You can logically prove that no matter how good you are at war, nonetheless your wars will never be predictable. After all, no rational person fights wars where the outcome is a predictable loss. So if you get into a war, either the outcome isn't predictable, or at least one side isn't rational. And if one side is irrational, then even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion, the way irrational people fight their way to defeat is anything but predictable. You can take your pick which of these options -- or all of them -- is on display today in Iraq.
June 17, 2005
China Condemns Millions of Americans to Die From Bird Flu
...I'm not happy with the CCP today: it turns out that they've made the Asian bird flu virus resistant to the best antiviral drug we would have relied on to tame the next outbreak of avian-based flu in humans. They ignored the advice of the World Health Organization and had farmers drug their chickens with antivirals instead of vaccinating them. In effect, they evolved the virus strains for drug resistance. Now the antiviral is useless against the bird flu -- useless not just to poultry, but to humans.
When the bird flu epidemic comes, we'll have to use the second-best drug. Millions in the developing world may not be able to afford any drug (this one was the cheapest), and will no doubt pass on the flu to more victims, possibly more American victims.
Thank you so much, China! Such wonderful brilliance could only be brought to the world by the insightful, open-minded, selfless men of the Chinese Communist Party.
If the EU and the USA were in the habit of cooperating on China issues instead of undermining each other, we could teach China a lesson about not endangering the world community.
But we won't. China will get away with having done something that has endangered millions of lives. Congratulations to the almighty CCP!
June 14, 2005
In Iraq, Watch the Militias, not the Insurgents
Today we learn that Kurdish security forces are snatching up ethnic enemies (Arabs and Turkmen) off the streets of Kirkuk. This follows up earlier accusations that the Shiites' Badr Brigades have killed prominent Sunnis. This is the real story to watch in Iraq, folks. Not the insurgency, not the daily death toll of Americans -- watch the militias.
We've talked before about the power of paramilitary militias to save or ruin a country facing insurgency. If the Kurdish and Shiite militias really do turn into "ethnic cleansing" forces, then Iraq is headed for a hell that makes the past two years seem like a walk in the park.
Now, if the militias could be corralled to protect the government without targeting ordinary civilians, then the insurgents would to be totally outnumbered without any American troops required. But at the moment, that looks too optimistic. Iraq will have to rely on the Iraqi official government troops. And for all their defects, the new Iraqi soldiers seem to be doing a tolerably good job in places like the mean streets of Baghdad.
As far as Iraqi soldiers go, Thomas Friedman writes today that "training is overrated" when it comes to Iraqi pro-government forces: motivation matters, he says, not training. As usual for Friedman, that's half brilliant and half idiotic. The idiotic half of that: training doesn't matter? Training itself creates confidence and motivation -- ask any United States Marine fresh out of the Crucible. Training also multiplies the impact of motivation: our soldiers from Delta Force and the Ranger Regiment in Mogadishu in 1993 killed about fifty enemy militia for every American death, despite being cut off and surrounded by plenty of well-motivated Somali militamen with largely comparable equipment (although the Somalis' body armor was "human shields", not Kevlar): training, by itself, made the Americans fifty times stronger man for man.
But Friedman is right about this much: if any substantial number of ordinary Sunnis could be motivated to fight for this government the way that the Shiites and Kurds are fighting for (their piece of) it, the insurgency would be over. That's actually what's happened in Afghanistan: most of the Pashtuns (the former Taliban recruitment base) have been sold on the new government being better than the Taliban. That's not true in Iraq. Most of the Sunnis can't trust the new government to be better than Saddam Hussein.
That's a pretty lousy thing to have to admit.
So, what now? Praktike is right that we have to dismiss Daalder's false choice between "do exactly what we're doing right now" and "set up an excuse to pull out." The Administration has, unfortunately, handled post-Saddam Iraq awkwardly from the start, and there's still a lot of things we should be doing differently in Iraq.
Number one, we need to bribe the Sunnis. By any means possible. If we have any especially clueful reconstruction contractors, we ought to concentrate them in some particular Sunni city and prove, by example, that the new regime can deliver a better life for Sunnis than the old one. If we could actually get a few Sunni sheiks to raise a militia that would fight against rather than with the insurgency, that'd be wonderful -- for propaganda to fellow Sunnis as much as for anti-insurgent value. Literal bribes would help, too. Saddam's government ran as much on handouts to local leaders as on fear and terror. It's too late for us to be shy. If boxes of cash in Fallujah and Ramadi can get a whispering campaign going against the insurgency, then we should deploy boxes of cash in Fallujah and Ramadi. If they need good jobs in Anbar province, let's just go ahead and give every town council in al-Anbar authority to hire ten thousand Iraqis on America's payroll for whatever job the town suggests. It doesn't matter how we do it: bribe the Sunnis.
Number two, we still need to put more energy and more creativity into the training of Iraqi government forces. You can find plenty of sources to warn about slow progress, but slow progress is a lot better than no progress. Even if only one out of three units trained is immediately ready to fight, the cost of training Iraqis is far lower than the cost of fighting with Americans.
Number three, if the goal is to reduce American casualties, we can, at some risk to Iraq's long-term outcome, pull Americans back from independent patrols, and restrict American involvement to training, co-patrolling and reinforcing Iraqi government troops. America's most important role in Iraq has never been as a police force, but as a "stand-over" force to keep the Iraqi government forces honest. That doesn't actually require American troops to patrol Iraqi streets -- although Iraq won't get better until someone competent is patrolling most Iraqi streets.
And above all, number four: don't let the militias start ethnic cleansing.
[E1] See also Belgravia Dispatch for some considerations on how to make Iraq's government more attractive to the Sunnis, or more worth defending for the Shiites and Kurds.
[E2] Mudville OPL.
June 13, 2005
Do We Cure Wars with Democracy or with Alliances?
Ikenberry at TPMCafe complains that the President is trusting too much in the peace-making power of democracy and not investing enough in developing new pro-American international institutions. The cute answer is that governments find it easy to turn down American institutional proposals, but find it harder to turn down democracy.
But where do modern wars and terrorism really come from? Do leaders really turn to violence to win concessions from foreigners? Or do they fight foreigners to make themselves seem strong and effective in the eyes of their fellow citizens?
If wars are about practical international issues, then Ikenberry has a point: countries and movements will stay at peace if the international climate makes war seem expensive and unnecessary. Good international alliance/ dispute-resolution organizations make peace more practical than war. A world of lots of alliances and organizations makes aggression expensive (you may have to fight lots of countries at once) but also because they make war seem less necessary (you can get lots of "concessions" by peaceful means). You could argue that both the World Trade Organization and NATO probably have prevented wars just by existing. When it comes to preventing "practical" wars, the degree of democracy underpinning governments probably matters less than the quality of communications and agreements between governments.
But if wars and terrorism come out of domestic politics, then all the international agreements in the world won't help, because the leaders are looking for a fight whether or not it's useful for their country. Iran's mullahs don't agitate against Israel because they think they'd win an Iranian-Israeli war, but because it proves how manly and Islamic they are. Promoting war against Israel gives Iranian leaders political legitimacy they badly need, even if an actual war would be ruinous for their country. Likewise, Osama bin Laden never depended that much on the United States, the "far enemy," giving him what he wanted; his big concern was starting a political uproar in his home kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Warmongers whose goal is domestic politics can't be deterred by the international climate, because they aren't out to influence foreign governments nearly so much as their fellow citizens.
Democracy, on the other hand, is a tolerably good cure for "political warmongers." In a working democracy, even a successful war will only keep you in office a little while longer, while a losing war will get you thrown out. And if you're not in office, forming a political party is a much easier way to get your voice heard than going out and blowing up foreigners. Democracies' internal terrorists have either been mere branch outposts of foreign organizations (like the Soviet-backed Red Brigades of Cold War Italy, or the European Al-Qaeda cells of today), or fringe cult groups with more tabloid impact than real power (like the Weathermen in the USA, or Aum Shirikyo in Japan).
We'd like both, of course -- both a peaceful, "institutionalized" international climate, and as many countries as possible being working democracies. But in the context of the War on Terror, it's hard to blame the Bush Administration for focusing on promoting democracy. With the possible exception of the Palestinians trying to bomb their way to independence from Israel, most terrorist groups today are political, not practical. When terrorism is rooted in domestic politics, democracy is a better answer than international institutions.
June 10, 2005
We Could Have Had Turkey
The Duck of Minerva is another international-relations blog that you IR fans should be reading, especially since one of its writers is Daniel Nexon, and we all know that the best foreign policy bloggers are always named Daniel, right? Anyway, Daniel-not-Drezner-not-Starr-but-Nexon observes a few weak points in a recent post from yet another good new IR blog, the foreign-affairs blog at TPMCafe, which features various accredited folk dishing out a steady supply of thoughtful if melancholy commentary on our President's foreign policy.
Basically I agree with Mr.Nexon's point: the "unilateralism" charge is harder to make convincing than a lot of people (including Mr.Daalder at TPMCafe) seem to think. On the other hand, I will happily pick a nit with my fellow Daniel on what happened between America and Turkey in the runup to our war in Iraq.
Daniel Nexon suggests that Turkey, like France and Germany, may have been determined all along to not cooperate with America on Iraq. But I think Turkey's cooperation was a winnable bit of diplomacy, and the Bush Administration has to take the blame for not getting Turkish cooperation.
Turkey, incidentally, has been one of the few recent cases where an American diplomatic failure cost us an obvious painful price. Because Turkey wouldn't let our troops pass through into northern Iraq, we took much longer to get heavy forces into the Sunni Triangle. By the time we did, Saddam's friends had gone to ground. Secretary Rumsfeld has declared that failure gave a key early boost to today's insurgency.
So, was Turkey winnable? You can never prove "what would have happened." But we know four things that should make us strongly suspect that a more diplomatic Administration could have gotten Turkish approval to pass troops through.
First, Turkish Islamists had strong reasons to want credit for seeing Iraqi Muslims free of Saddam Hussein, while Turkish nationalists had strong reasons to want to give Turkey leverage to veto any would-be Kurdish state. Turkey could not simply stand by and be uninvolved the way "Old Europe" could. Turkey stood to lose much more than France and Germany if the Iraq war happened without it and was a big American success.
Second, the Iraq war was no more unpopular among Turks than our war in Kosovo was among Greeks. And America was less popular in Greece than in Turkey. Yet during Clinton's Administration, the Greeks were persuaded to sign on to Kosovo.
Third, America never brought out the diplomatic heavy hitters for Turkey: no Cabinet official visited during the months of negotiation, and Bush himself had never been to Turkey at all. In the prior Administration, Clinton visited Turkey in person, more than once. So it's fair to say the Bush Administration left a lot of personal-prestige ammunition unused.
Fourth and most importantly, the key Turkish parliamentary vote was extraordinarily close. A 4-vote shift out of over 500 present members would have given approval for troop passage. Are we supposed to believe that better salesmanship couldn't have gotten us even one percent more?
You can always find a way to blame any cause you like (divine humor, Muslim solidarity, the French, Bill Clinton) for why the past happened one way and not another. But by far the simplest explanation of our failure to get Turkish cooperation on Iraq is that this Administration made mistakes in its diplomacy with Turkey.
But let me finish by more or less siding with Mr.Nexon and arguing with Mr.Daalder again: I think unilateralism is a straw man. The problem isn't our unilateral goals, it's our clumsy and hasty negotiating approach that knocks us into unilateral outcomes. President Reagan went after plenty of things that allied populations or else allied leaders didn't like in the least -- putting intermediate-range nuclear missiles on West German soil, skirmishing with Libya, pushing South Korea and the Philippines' dictators toward democracy. But Reagan's team was only rarely blindsided by lack of allied cooperation: either we got them to go along with us or we knew not to try in the first place. Yet Bush's team keeps publically backing projects only to be rejected by surprise. See, for example, our latest South American democracy-promotion initiative, going down in smoke.
If we were going it alone because we knew we had to, that might just be an educated choice. But when we can't even see the rejections coming, that tells us that Bush's diplomatic team is simply less competent than Reagan's.
Which is a pity, because our goals today -- democracy promotion, antiterrorism cooperation, antiproliferation -- require a lot more sustained diplomacy than Reagan's.
June 09, 2005
"Swarming" Tactics: Brought to You by Iraqis, Mongols, and RAND
There's an excellent new RAND-sponsored dissertation by Sean Edwards on "swarming" tactics. These are the "come out of seemingly nowhere, tear 'em to pieces from an unfair position, and disappear" tactics used against clueless medieval Europeans by Mongols in the 1200s, against American infantry by Iraqis today (and, more famously, by Somalis against our troops in Mogadishu in 1993), and against Russians by Chechens in Grozny. It's the favorite current approach of improvised enemy forces defending against Americans and other industrialized armies, which already makes it interesting. But more than that, "swarming" quite possibly represents the tactics of choice we ourselves will use ten years from now.
If you're a military-analysis geek, go read it for yourself. (Or a military history geek: he has a great list of cases of historical swarm tactics in the appendices.)
I want to read over it again first, but in a couple days I'll put up a short summary of Edwards' excellent look at the history of swarm tactics, plus what thoughts I can offer you on the really interesting angle of swarming: where it's going next, both for our enemies and for us.
[E1] Mudville OPL.
June 06, 2005
Science to the Rescue: Vaccines for Ebola and Marburg
The New Scientist passes on a report of successful vaccines for Ebola and Marburg, two of the scariest diseases on the planet. See also this report and an NYT article. The scientists have tested it in monkeys, and they expect success in humans:
"The data would suggest that instead of 100 percent chance of dying, they would have an 80 percent chance of survival," Jones told reporters.
It's almost impossible to express how horrible these viruses are. Ebola and Marburg each convert "virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles". Along the way, whatever part of you isn't virus slime bleeds: your skin itself pours out your blood through its pores, and finally you die. And anybody who touches your blood-dripping body gets infected. And everybody who gets infected, dies.
There's no cure. And, until now, no immunity. Just a 90 to 100 percent of dying, once you get it.
Everybody's nightmare has been an airborne (instead of just contact-borne) strain of Ebola or Marburg, with deaths in the millions. (And not just in Africa; if one infected person got on an airplane to America or Europe, it'd be epidemic time for us all.)
But now, there's a vaccine, at least one that works for monkeys (our close cousins, and I trust close enough for the vaccine to carry over, although that's not guaranteed). The vaccine was developed by genetically altering another, less dangerous, virus so that it expressed some of the distinctive proteins of Ebola or Marburg, giving the body a "fingerprint" matching the deadly viruses for the immune system to watch out for. If the vaccine carries over to humans, two of our worst nightmares will vanish off the charts, thanks to a few scientists (and their government funding!) in Canada, France and the United States.
I love the twenty-first century.
June 02, 2005
Now I Believe Our Military Really Is Overstretched
They're cutting flying time for Air Force pilots. That's flying time, as in "training time," as in "make sure our pilots can do their job and help our guys and not get killed time."
That's pretty damn serious.
What the heck is going on with our budget process?
No Crisis + No Confidence = No European Constitution
Here in America, our first "constitution," the Articles of Confederation, was a miserable botch. The United States Constitution as we know it only took hold because the AoC system was so bad. Even then it took nine of the thirteen colonies being ready to unite and leave the others behind for everybody to sign on to the Constitution.
So it's not surprising that the French and Dutch population have turned down the constitution that would have pulled them so much closer to the "United States of Europe". Unlike in 1700's America, Europeans today have no great crisis requiring them to act as one. What's more, the European leaders who were selling the EU constitution were already national failures. France, Germany and several other European countries are suffering from low economic growth and miserably high unemployment, plus a looming pension crisis that makes America's Social Security reform debate seem like pocket change. If France's leaders can't handle France's economy, why should the French, much less the Dutch, trust France's leaders with a rewrite of the whole system of government?
Democracy's dirty little secret is that we mostly judge leaders' proposals by our confidence in the leaders. There are plenty of Republicans who will support any policy President Bush backs simply because they trust him, and plenty of Democrats who have vowed never to trust anything Bush suggests, no matter how reasonable it sounds. A booming France would have supported the EU Constitution; this France, troubled, struggling, did not.
But while it's fun to see the "let's make trouble for America" French leaders fail, we shouldn't gloat over the failure of the European Constitution. On most global issues, a united Europe would make a better partner for the United States.
Outside Japan, the Europeans are the only other really powerful group of believers in peace and democracy. We could get a lot more out of China, Iran, North Korea and the rest if the Europeans had the unity to put real pressure of their own on those countries. And while France and Germany as individual countries are never going to take over our burden of being "the world's policeman," a united Europe would be a lot more likely to step in and put out some of the brushfires that we don't have time for.
I don't have much good to say about the European Constitution that just got rejected, or the European politicians whose failure led to that voter rejection. But if a united Europe is the price of getting Europeans to take a bigger role in keeping peace in the world, then sooner or later, a united Europe will be in America's interest.
May 28, 2005
The Problem with Being a "Liberal Hawk"
Yglesias, Praktike, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and others are ruminating on "liberal hawks" and the Iraq War. But there are really only three basic American stances on the Iraq War, and they go something like this:
1. Invading Iraq was a good idea, the casualties and setbacks have mostly been either inevitable or unforseeable, and Bush deserves credit for a good decision well executed.
2. Invading Iraq was a good idea, but poor choices by Bush Administration officials have led to a whole lot of casualties and setbacks that needn't have happened. Bush deserves credit for a good decision, but also blame for terrible execution.
3. Invading Iraq was a bad idea, and Bush deserves blame for a bad decision as well as terrible execution.
Most Republicans believe #1 (good decision, good execution); most Democrats believe #3 (bad decision, bad execution). Most of the "liberal hawks" are just Democrats who believe #2 (good decision, bad execution). And they're screwed, because neither side trusts them.
"Liberal hawks" are doomed to seem disloyal and untrustworthy to other Democrats, because saying invading Iraq "was the right decision, just with the wrong execution" sounds much too close to most Democrats to saying "Bush was right, and the problems aren't his fault". Now, it's not true that liberal hawks don't think the problems are Bush's fault; they just think that what he's to blame for is how he handled war with Iraq, not that he went to war in the first place. But that's just too close to an excuse for most Democrats to accept.
And that's a pity, because the Bush Administration's most damaging foreign policy errors have indeed tended to be failures of execution, not failures of concept. Bush has coopted traditional Democratic idealism in his speeches. Democrats are going to have a hard time fighting Republicans on foreign policy on principle alone; they really need to learn to fight as well on the practice. "They're messing up and not delivering" is a simple enough sentence. You'd think a Democrat could campaign on it.
I'd really, really like to have two parties in the ring on foreign policy. But as long as the Democrats are fissured this way, the Republicans will be the only game in town -- and it's hard for either party to do a good job without the pressure of competition.
May 27, 2005
The Latest Scorecard in Our Twelve-Front War
Usually "grand strategy" is something that happens over decades, but America's new grand strategy of spreading democracy seems to be going at tenfold time for both good and bad news. In just the last few weeks we've seen major good and bad news for democracy in a double handful of significant countries. Which should please you whether you're a Bush booster or a Bush critic, since in a twelve-front war, you're bound to always be winning somewhere and losing somewhere else. Here's just some of the biggest events of just this last month:
- Uzbekistan had soldiers and police kill several hundred unarmed protesters along with a few armed rebels;
- Egypt had pro-government thugs beat up protesters of the planned rigging of the upcoming presidential election;
- Kuwait gave women the vote;
- Lebanon is holding its first elections in decades without Syrian occupation;
- Iran's Guardian Council, out of over 1,000 candidates who wanted to run for Iranian President, disqualified all but six, of whom the least hardline is two-term former "let's nuke Israel!" President Rafsanjani;
- The terrorist-fundamentalist-reformist Palestinian organization of Hamas is turning ever so slightly away from terrorism, as its representatives, having been elected in Gaza to municipal office, are experimenting with currying favor with Palestinians by cleaning up sewage instead of blowing up Israelis.
And I'm leaving out the parliamentary crisis in Jordan, the besieged government of Bolivia, and more.
I think at this point it's hard to argue against the reality of the "domino effect" of the Bush Administration's aggressiveness in Iraq and Afghanistan and its loudly pro-democracy stance. On the other hand, I think it's also clear that the dominoes were ready to fall as soon as a hard push came, whether that push involved Iraq or not. And it's clear that while the "soft autocracies" like Kuwait are democratizing, the "hard autocracies", the secret-police bastions like Egypt and Uzbekistan, are fighting hard to stay dictatorial. Serious tyrants tend to succeed in crushing change.
But as John Lewis Gaddis observes in this brilliant (if possibly overoptimistic) speech on the Bush Administration's grand strategy, the overall odds are pretty heavily stacked in favor of more democracies in the world ten years from now.
Or, at this pace, ten months from now.
May 26, 2005
What's Wrong with Democracy and Capitalism?
Simon asks: is there any hope for the transnational progressivists and the world's remaining communists, the folk who hope that Fukuyama is wrong when he says there will never be a system better than the combination of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism? Well, there is a little hope for the revolutionaries. We know a few well-established weak points for standard capitalism and standard democracy. Identifying those weak points isn't the same as coming up with a superior system, but if you want to make an effective complaint about capitalism or democracy, here's some things you can talk about -- the hidden problems with our system that are too deep for a simple change in business regulations or ruling political party to fix.
Improving on capitalism: standard free-market capitalism, as any economist will tell you, is reliably effective only when certain conditions are met. Mostly those conditions are things like "no stealing allowed", conditions that we can mostly rely on. But a couple of the key conditions break down fairly often in the modern world -- increasingly often, as technology accelerates.
Perhaps the most important capitalism condition under siege is "diminishing returns to increasing investments." "Diminishing returns" means that companies operate near equilibrium, in an environment of what engineers would call "negative feedback," an environment where step-by-step changes are more efficient than grand leaps. Increasing returns, where they occur, represent positive feedback, change that feeds on itself, instability -- and classical capitalism breaks down in that environment.
The case of "increasing returns" we're all familiar with is monopoly. Monopolies enjoy increasing returns to market share: the closer to 100% of the market a monopooly pushes, the more profitable its entire business becomes. Unsurprisingly, monopolies are inefficient and are hard for capitalism to handle. Fortunately, antitrust regulation exists. Unfortunately, the more important source of increasing returns in the economy is harder to solve: technological change.
Any change in technology produces a temporary period of increasing returns as companies and users climb the "learning curve" of the new equipment. As technology change happens faster, more and more of our economy is operating under increasing-returns rather than diminishing-returns rules, and standard capitalism is further and further from ideal. Of course, it still works pretty well. But we know it to be far from perfect. Brad Delong had a good essay touching some of these issues recently.
The other major endangered condition of capitalism is that goods are "rivalrous and excludable," that is, that if I buy something from a merchant, like a pair of shoes or a haircut, then it takes extra effort for the merchant to give you another pair of shoes or another haircut -- and equally the merchant can prevent you from using his shoes or his haircut without paying for it. Unfortunately, while shoes and haircuts are rivalrous and excludable, information goods are nonrivalrous and often nonexcludable -- and an increasing portion of the economy is information goods. I'm not just talking about MP3's or computer software: if you look at developments in, say, computer chip manufacturing or the emerging business options in nanotechnology, it's clear that information in the form of design patterns forms one of the key production goods of the present and future economy. Standard capitalism generally underproduces goods that are nonrivalrous or nonexcludable -- so the more our economy is dominated by information goods, the more we can expect there's room for improvement under some hypothetical superior system.
So those are some places where there's a large amount of room to improve on standard capitalism.
Improving on democracy: As for standard democracy, it too requires certain assumptions to work well. (This gets treatment in a couple of chapters of Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom, a book you might find interesting anyway since it also has a level-headed discussion of the odds of democracy (or not) in places like the Middle East and China.) Despite its being the best system we have, there are two basic problems with democracy.
First, the goal of a politician is not to enact the best policy, just the policy that most reliably keeps him in office. Second, the goal of a politician is not to enact policies that are good for everyone, just policies that are satisfactory to a majority. In other words, democracy produces inferior policies either (A) when politicians can get away with presenting a mediocre plan as if it were really the best plan, or (B) when politicians can do well for the majority by totally screwing over a minority.
We see examples of "You're not in my majority, so I'll just ruin your life" in every democracy from time to time. It shows up in the less-developed countries as tolerance of anti-minority violence or expropriating legislation, as with anti-Chinese governance in some periods in Indonesia or anti-Muslim governance under the BJP in India. In a country like the United States it shows up in the way liberals and conservatives each make a show of oppressing the poster children of the other side whenever they get into power (conservatives versus gays, liberals versus big business), as well as in the way that billions of dollars are redirected to Republican/Democratic states whenever the Republicans/Democrats take power.
And we can all think of policy areas where the politicians engage in "mediocrity passed off as excellence" -- consider the tax code, or the not-so-impressive reforms of the CIA and the intelligence community, or any recent Congressional bill on health care. Most businesses face lots of competition and have to strive to continually improve their product. But most politicians have the luxury of setting their own agenda, and so don't have to endanger themselves by suggesting new policies until voters are absolutely disgusted with the old ones.
Now, just because democracies do a bad job at this doesn't mean anybody else does a good job. But let's be honest: we accept from politicians a degree of mediocrity we'd never accept from any business we dealt with. Maybe there's no superior way to do things; certainly nobody's demonstrated a superior way to do things. But we should be honest enough to admit that democracy does do a bad job at passing laws that are "the best reasonably possible" as opposed to "not quite a complete failure".
Democracy plus capitalism equals the best system we know. But in some ways that's only because, to borrow from Winston Churchill, democracy plus capitalism represents the worst possible system -- except for all the alternatives.
May 24, 2005
Sustaining Democracy: It's the Institutions, Stupid!
The problem with Islamic politicians isn't that they're positioned to take power in elections in the Middle East, it's that they could take power in elections and never allow elections again. Wherever Islamic legislators have had to work in a government of laws and get themselves reelected like anyone else, they've either tamed themselves or been thrown out by disgusted voters. Belgravia Dispatch and Praktike have both flagged this NYT oped making the key point: when Islamic legislators took office in Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey, those countries didn't fall into chaos or tyranny.
Islamist tyranny and terrorism happen only when Islamist leaders take political power and then end all politics: that's what happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban and in Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini. We've also learned that supporting "friendly moderate Muslim autocrats" doesn't work too well -- either the autocrat collapses when you're not looking (Iran 1979) or sends money to your worst enemies behind your back (Saudi Arabia until September 11). So we need to get democracy in the Islamic countries, even if Islamist politicians sometimes win. Our real dilemma is how to make sure the elections the Islamists win aren't the last elections those countries ever have.
We should know by now that one election doesn't lock in democracy. Palestinian dictator Yasser Arafat won a basically honest (if not snow-pure) majority in the Palestinian communities' one election under his rule, and his government wasn't "democratic" in any positive sense of that word. Venezuela's charismatic country-wrecking leader Hugo Chavez won his first election honestly too. Genocide poster-boy Milosevic was popular for a long time among the Serbs. Heck, even Adolf Hitler first came to power as part of a legitimate parliamentary coalition. So "took power after a fair election" is a test that lets through some of the world's worst thugs, up to and including Hitler. When we say "America wants democracy," we have to be pushing the world's dictatorships for more than just an occasional honest election.
The secret of working democracies is that politicians' power is limited not just by elections, but by institutions. I'm talking about the rule of law, the separation of branches of government, the limitation of powers to provide checks and balances. We take all this for granted in America. In the United States, the legislators have their own power base and the ability to frustrate the President if he loses their confidence -- as we're now seeing in the fracas over federal judges. Likewise, American judges, American soldiers, and American state and local governments all have strong identities of their own, with both laws and traditions to put sand in the gears of any attempt to turn them against the people or the Constitution. Even President Bush, a wartime President with a majority in Congress and a stated desire to rewrite a long list of American governmental policies, hasn't been able to shrink domestic spending, alter Social Security, deter California from spending money on the stem-cell research he disapproves of, or make a feeding tube be kept in the stomach of one woman in Florida. So much for the power of the Presidency!
What limits Bush on a day-to-day basis is what has made America strong for two hundred years -- we keep a government of laws and institutions. No one person, not even the President, can bribe or order or replace all the critical officers of the government. The most politically tempting government functions -- the Supreme Court, the central bank -- have extra layers of protection to make them hard to tamper with. And no one party, even in an across-the-board majority, can overturn all the government at once by command. The American government at any given moment is not a pure reflection of the current President; it's the sum of hundreds or thousands of elected officials today, plus the laws and appointments of thousands more who preceded them. In America, controversial big changes take time -- time enough for voters to change their mind. American governments add to or shift the work of their predecessors; they don't get to replace the laws of the country by snapping their fingers; the President is strong, but each major government institution, especially the Constitution, is stronger.
But out in the developing world, they have a government of men, not laws: every legislator and judge is a puppet for the leader. In Egypt, judges are paid out of "bonuses" from the central government according to whether President Mubarak's staff approves of the judges' rulings or not. In the Palestinian Authority under Arafat, all the money and real decisionmaking passed through Arafat's cronies, and the legislature could be ignored if it disagreed. In Venezuela, the Constitution gets rewritten to say whatever Chavez wants it to say. In Pakistan, the army is a world of its own, with its own schools and businesses and no need for the generals to obey or even acknowledge the existence of the voters' officials. Is it any wonder that elections in countries like these don't prevent tyranny?
So when we're pressing Egypt for elections, let's also press for more independent salaries for the judges. When we try to encourage good policies in Latin America, let's include more barriers to constitution-tampering as one of those good policies. When we go out and call for democracy, let's make it clear that to Americans, democracy means not just respect for elections, but respect for the election laws, and the government institutions, and the existing constitution of the country.
We can't give countries the kind of internal respect for democratic practices that we've got from two centuries of democracy. But we can push for laws and policies that promote government officers with limited powers, separated powers, and an obligation to follow strict procedures if politicians want to throw out long-standing rules of the country. We can't look into foreign Presidents' hearts. But we surely can track whether they're honoring their own laws.
When Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992, he had signs in his campaign offices saying, "It's the economy, stupid!" The economy was Clinton's one serious winning issue, and he kept his staff focused on it and they rode that issue all the way until they had trampled past President Bush Senior's uncertain campaign and gotten Clinton into the White House, in a demonstration of (among other things) the value of focus in a complex and confusing task. Today, it seems America is on a campaign to push for lasting progress in countries like Syria and Egypt and China. In that case, there's an obvious candidate for the campaign slogan:
It's the institutions, stupid!
[E1] Mudville OPL.
May 23, 2005
Outsourcing War: the United Nations Troops Get Some Muscle
Today, United Nations "peacekeepers" in the Congo are rolling through the bush in armored vehicles, hunting down renegade militias who want to carry on that country's murderous civil war. And when the new breed of peacekeepers finds those renegades, they shoot them. If you think of United Nations peacekeepers as useless twerps who meekly stand aside to let genocidal thugs kill civilians, you're out of date. A recent RAND study calls UN peacekeepers more successful than American troops at nationbuilding. Sooner or later, the Pentagon may try to call UN troops a good alternative to Americans for occupation duty somewhere. In the Congo today, UN peacekeepers are simply called heroes.
Today's United Nations troops look a lot less like ceremonial Boy Scouts with guns, and a lot more like the developed world's new Foreign Legion. UN troops are being sent against bad guys in the low-intensity wars that are too dull, too dangerous or just too prolonged for America and Europe to commit their own troops. They're not up to American or German standards, but the UN contingents are skilled and equipped enough to overwhelm thugs with guns, and "thugs with guns" is exactly who fights a lot of these nasty drawn-out wars. UN troops are shaping up to be a useful part of the "arsenal of peace" we'd like to have to keep another terrorist-haven Afghanistan from taking shape. They're getting better. And yes, we may even see UN troops in certain roles in Iraq.
Two big changes have transformed the United Nations "blue helmets" from wimps into fighters. First and foremost, the peacekeepers know they'll be shot at, and are ready to shoot back. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies always tried to at least pretend to respect the United Nations forces -- after all, the USA and the USSR each wanted to protect their reputation. But the Serbian thugs in Yugoslavia's civil war had no reputation to protect when they pushed past United Nations troops to kill Bosnian Muslim men and rape Bosnian Muslim women. Ten years' experience of thugs' wars has retrained the peacekeepers. Today the UN commanders and their sponsors know better: they know the thugs will sometmes shoot, and they have their troops ready to show the thugs the difference between a gang that kills the unarmed and an army that trains to kill gunmen.
But there's also been an important shift in which countries lend their soldiers for the more dangerous "robust peacekeeping" missions. The key contingents no longer come from the developed countries, who aren't comfortable sending their soldiers to actually shoot and possibly die under UN command in some country most of their citizens couldn't find on a map. The troops also don't come as much from nearby ultra-poor countries, who always loved the pay their soldiers got on UN missions, but didn't always have the training to fight. These days, the heart of UN peacekeeping in Congo and elsewhere comes from semi-developed countries like Pakistan and India, where the armies are solidly trained and the governments figure the prestige of helping save the world outweighs the public distaste for sending soldiers into distant lands of dirt and danger. So the UN peacekeepers of today, unlike those of the 90s, have the training and the will to fight and win against the the thugs and near-thugs of the world's "brushfire wars."
The United Nations peacekeeping contingents are still hobbled by one key limit: they're only as committed as the consensus in the United Nations Security Council. That rules them out for anything as big and controversial as Iraq is today. And the UN troops can't do much against a serious national military without backing from American or other high-end forces, which rules out sending a UN force to stop the slaughter of non-Arabs in western Sudan -- the killers there are getting occasional help from government helicopters. Even in the Congo, the UN force has stood aside from stopping Rwandan government interventions -- and let's not even talk about the sex abuse cases. So the United Nations peacekeepers are not an instant answer for all our low-level wars today.
But if what limits United Nations troops today is the absence of consensus among the leading nations, it's equally true that UN troops may become very useful to the United States in future years. It's not impossible to rebuild the sense of common mission among the world leaders. Even Iraq is not as controversial as it looks: no major government wants Iraq to remain an unlimited powder keg. So we may well see more cooperation again between America and Europe and Russia and China. If we do, that will also mean more ability to send UN troops to do the dull and dirty work that so often comes after America's wars. (Or the dull and dirty work of peacekeeping to prevent wars from becoming a problem for us in the first place.) We'll always have to remember that multinational missions mean more room for problems (as in Somalia). But if we do a good job at diplomacy and coordination, America's future tasks of repairing liberated countries could be done by someone else's soldiers, wearing blue United Nations helmets.
May 18, 2005
America, Where Financial Class is Real But Social Class Isn't
Today, rags-to-riches stories are actually more comon in Germany, and far more common in Norway, than in America. Financial social mobility -- the odds that kids born to poor parents will wind up rich themselves -- is higher today in Europe than in America. Of all the leading democracies, America is not only the country where the rich are farthest removed from ordinary citizens in income, but also the country where inherited wealth matters most in determining whether you will become rich.
Yet for all that, America is still far less class-conscious than, say, Britain. In America, a millionaire from a family of millionaires, like our current President, can sincerely think of himself as an ordinary guy, and millions of American voters can accept him as ordinary too. In America, there are rich people who drive beat-up pickup trucks and wear blue jeans, and middle-class people with a sports car or a custom-tailored outfit. I've had British people explain to me how they can tell someone's family status background by the way they speak; here in America, I couldn't even tell my neighbors' current income by the clothes they wear. I suspect Britain and the rest of Europe are becoming a lot less class-conscious (and those Scandanavians, again, seem really egalitarian), but even if American money is increasingly inherited money, we all seem to do an awfully good job of ignoring money when it comes to how we treat each other.
Or do we? That's the trick about social class: how the heck do you measure it? The psychologist Cialdini once did a study where college students were observed in traffic as the car in front of them failed to move when the light changed. Students took much longer to honk at an expensive Cadillac than at a cheap Ford -- despite the fact that these same students, when polled, had declared that, if anything, it would be the cheap car's driver that they'd be more patient with. Consciously, we all hate the idea of treating people better because of their money -- especially because of their inherited money. But unconsciously, are we programmed to respect wealth? If America is becoming a society of more inherited wealth, is that going to make us a society of class-bound idiocies of the kind we've always mocked Old Europe for?
We cherish the image of America as the rags-to-riches country, where a man's father makes no difference to where he himself ends up. Up till about 1900 that was almost the literal truth: America spent its first century as the most opportunity-rich country that history had ever seen. Before industrialization, wealth meant land, and in America land was cheap. Anyone willing to move to the frontier and work themselves ragged could build up enough assets to make their family solidly middle-class by the time they died. While Europe was a land where a poor parent was cursed to pass on his poverty to his kids, America was a country where the poor were always moving up to become the average or the rich.
After 1900, industrialization made America less socially mobile than it had been, and Europe more so. But it's only in the last generation that Europeans have become impressively class-mobile, while America has started to get a little class-stratified.
A big part of the answer seems to be education. No matter how hard you work today, if you're a high school dropout you have to be awfully smart or lucky to make a good living. All the European countries seem to have much more commitment to their public school systems than we do. And those nearly class-free Scandanavian countries have made huge investments in guaranteed childcare and preschool for all their children. I don't necessarily buy Thomas Friedman's ranting of "The Chinese are coming! Quick, teach our kids math!" But it's probably not coincidence that our two most recent big ethnic success stories, Jewish Americans and Asian Americans, both come from cultures that put a fanatical emphasis on the value of education. If Americans today aren't moving up from poverty as much as Europeans are, maybe it reflects that today's wealth is not land, but education -- and while quality farmland in America is easily affordable, good education often isn't.
Of course, you could argue that it doesn't matter, because today being rich or poor means less than it ever has before. Poverty isn't what it used to be, in a world of cheap food, free emergency rooms, synthetic clothing and color television. For that matter, wealth isn't what it used to be. The very rich still have live-in cooks, but lots of people eat at restaurants; the very rich still have live-in maids, but most families have washing machines and dishwashers, not to mention microwave ovens. The number of hours of the day that a middle-class family has to spend on tasks that a rich family gets done for them is smaller than it's ever been in history. Your day-to-day life is just not as affected by your relative income as it was a hundred or even fifty years ago.
In fact, almost the only part of life where relative income is still hugely important is in government. For almost all the big domestic policy debates we have in this country right now -- education reform, tax cuts, Medicare, Social Security -- it makes a huge difference whether you're poor or rich. While the rest of our economy makes us all seem close to equal, our government still runs on the principle that the rich pay more and the middle class gets more.
So perhaps the class effect we should most worry about isn't a breakdown of our society, but a breakdown of our government. If no one from the middle class is going to get rich, sooner or later the middle class will vote for huge taxes. Or perhaps we should worry about the rich grabbing all the government offices, and working to sabotage all the expensive government programs that they and their friends pay for without getting any benefit from them.
Every society runs on a "social contract" of some kind; America's has been that it's okay to be rich because it's not too hard to become rich. If that stops being true, things are going to get very uncomfortable over the next few decades. Maybe Tom Friedman is right, and we need to throw massive amounts of money into public education after all -- not just for protection from the Chinese, but for protection from ourselves.
May 17, 2005
China is Not a Generic Great Power
"Rising powers always make trouble, so war with China is unavoidable" -- that's the atmosphere of half of all op-eds on China these days, as in this Washington Post column by Robert Kagan and this essay from the American naval hub at Honolulu by Robert Kaplan. The other half of the time you're told, "War among successful nations is stupid and archaic, so war with China is inconceivable," as in this scathing reply by Barnett skewering Kaplan and Kagan. What gets left out of both of these arguments is any discussion of China itself. Different countries behave differently, even when handed the same menu of opportunities to use their power. Some great powers show a taste for confrontation, while others are always the last to pick a fight. China as a leading power won't be a generic cookie-cutter replica of some kind of "average historical great power" or "average 21st-century great power"; it'll have its own distinctive pattern.
Nine nations acted as "Great Powers" for a substantial amount of time in Western history from 1500 to 2000: the Ottoman Empire, Hapsburg Spain, Hapsburg Austria, France, Great Britain, Russia, Prussia/Germany, and (in the later global years) America and Japan.1 Germany and Hapsburg Spain were far more eager than the other seven to get into great-power wars. Each spent nearly all of its history as a leading power as the most belligerent country in Europe; both sought war with great powers even sometimes when there were weaker countries to fight; both ruined themselves more than once with foolishly chosen wars. Less consistently violent were the Ottoman Empire, Japan and Russia: those three were quick to swallow weaker countries as protectorates or conquests, but were much slower than Germany or Spain to wage total war with other great powers. Then come France and Imperial Austria, which went through both aggressive and conservative phases. And the most retiring of the nine were Britain and twentieth-century America, who both tended to "underuse" their potential military power and shy off even moderately challenging fights; they both threw out too-aggressive governments, and were usually among the last powers to get involved in a great-power war.
Now, you can come up with lots of reasons for why each of these countries was comparatively aggressive or peaceful as a great power, but it's impossible to argue they were all somehow the same. Some of them overused their military potential, even by the standards of their time; some of them underused it, even by the standards of our time. Some of them had a habit of making war even when it was obviously stupid, and some of them had a habit of declining war even when it would have been obviously profitable. Their internal histories, their geography, and their forms of government all made a difference. No iron law exists for "what great powers do". Each of modern history's great powers has had its own fairly consistent pattern of behavior. We should think twice before making predictions about China as a great power that ignore all details about China as a nation.
What do we know about China's "national preferences" in foreign policy? We've touched on the influence of China's domestic political factors in this earlier article. I'll talk about China's past and present tendencies in foreign policy later on. But if you want to know what to think about the odds of war with China, study war -- but also study China.
[E1] Yes, I'm leaving out the Italians, the Dutch, and the Swedes.
May 12, 2005
Our Last Months In Iraq Begin Now
Three important shifts are taking place in Iraq, only one of which is getting much newspaper attention. That's too bad, since it's the other two changes that will soon fix the shape of future Iraq. The news articles to watch for in Iraq are those tracking the big shifts in (1) Iraqi security forces' progress and (2) Sunni-Shiite ethnic tensions.
The other and much better reported shift (because it involves large explosions) is the increasing role of foreign fighters in insurgent attacks. That's both good and bad news, since the foreigners are more determined and skilled (often from Syrian or Al-Qaeda training), but in the long term can't be as good at recruiting ordinary Iraqis. Grisly proof of the new lack of trust within the insurgency is the number of recent "unintended-suicide" car bombings. That is, the new style of Iraqi car bomb is triggered not by the driver but by remote control, suggesting the ringleaders don't trust the drivers they recruit -- and probably don't tell them what they're really carrying.
But the other two shifts, less reported but more important, are the increasing reliability of Iraqi security forces and the increasing ethnic polarization between Iraq's Sunni Arabs and Shiites. And it's these two phenomena that are probably going to seal the outcome of our efforts in Iraq by the end of the year.
Simply put, if the Iraqi security forces can extend themselves successfully over a critical mass of Iraq's insurgent zones, and if they don't trigger or allow a spiral of ethnic violence, then Iraq will turn decisively better. Americans will stop needing to risk their lives to hold Iraq together once Iraqis can do it themselves. There's at least an even-money chance that by the end of this year American monthly combat casualties in Iraq will be down to a fifth or less of what they are today. Since Iraqi police and paramilitaries can be deployed in much larger numbers than either American occupation troops or Iraqi insurgents, successful Iraqi constabulary forces should spell an end to daily violence in most cities by the end of 2006, and the discrediting of the insurgency long before that. Police success and no ethnic feuding would allow Iraq to become like Afghanistan -- ugly to us, but tolerable and on a path of progress as far as the citizens are concerned.
But if instead ordinary Sunni and Shiite Arabs start getting killed by thugs from the other side, and it happens often enough to start a self-sustaining vicious cycle of ethnic retaliation, then Iraq will quickly turn into a modern version of the 1970s' Northern Ireland or Lebanon -- with the United States cast in the role of Britain or Syria. Iraq's big cities would spend the next ten years in a siege mentality. The actual death toll might not be very high, but half of Iraq's population would be afraid to go out at night, and no other country would look on Iraq as a positive example. And the worst thing about this scenario is that if a spiral of ethnic violence takes hold, the Iraqi security forces that are now suppressing the insurgency would likely become part of the new violence. The forces we're relying on to keep the peace are already provoking ethnic tension. If that gets out of hand, Americans in Iraq, like the British in Northern Ireland, could be faced with occupation duty to sit on would-be killers for years to come.
So if you're watching Iraq these days, take your eyes off the body count. Watch for two things. Number one, are Iraqi forces continuing to take over more of the urban patrol work from Americans? Number two, are tensions between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs (or possibly Kurds) holding at the same uneasy but safe level, or are they getting worse?
Then you'll know whether Americans will be done risking death in Iraq next year, or ten years from now.
[E1] Mudville OPL.
May 11, 2005
The Policeman and the Flood Dike: the Conservative-Liberal Difference
Sometimes I think that eighty percent of the difference between conservatism and liberalism comes down to what you want government to worry about.
Should your government worry about the villains who'd deliberately trample on your family and community? Or should it worry about the risks that come without villains, but that would ruin your life all the same?
Conservatism is often about the government as policeman: there are bad people out there who want to interfere with your family, your business and your community. The government should stop those bad actors from trampling on you. Maybe the bad guys are terrorists who want to kill your loved ones. Maybe they're just activists who want to control what you teach your kids. Obviously terrorists are much scarier than activists, but the basic conservative approach is the same. Sometimes there are wrongdoers, interlopers, and if you can't stop them personally the government ought to stop them for you.
When there are no specific villains to stop, then conservatives feel a little uneasy trusting the task to the government. Government is untrustworthy, and should ideally only be trusted as a means to stop those who are even more untrustworthy. In conservatism, government's first job is to stand with your family, business and community against intruders.
Liberalism is about the government building flood dikes. When the river's going to flood, no one's to blame, and there are no bad guys to stop, but all the same someone's got to take responsibility for seeing that the dikes are built up and the towns along the river won't be flooded. Liberals think the role of government is to make sure those dikes get built.
Liberals look at the world and see lots of risks that are too big for one person to protect their family against. Some risks can be too big even for a whole city to protect itself against. And plenty of those risks don't come with villains. Mass layoffs, earthquakes, bank defaults, new diseases -- a liberal doesn't see why people should live in fear of those things just because they can't go to the store and buy layoff repellent or disease immunity the way they can buy a new car. Liberals see government's first job as protecting people from the injuries of unearned or excessive risk.
Republicans get the most liberal support when they're relieving people from their immediate fears. Democrats get the most conservative support when they're supporting citizens or communities against obvious villains. Issues that provoke outrage but not fear tend to be supported more on the right. Issues that provoke fear but not outrage tend to be supported more on the left. If a villain has appeared but isn't immediately doing visible harm, the Republicans will move first; if bad things are happening but it's not clear whose fault it is, the Democrats will move first. Conservatives see equality of opportunity as something that will continue naturally if government just defends it from deliberate attack. Liberals see equality of opportunity as something that will break down unless government invests to secure people from outside risks that undermine their fair chance.
Of course these are oversimplifications. Lots of conservatives want government to support various traditions that have nothing to do with stopping bad guys. Sometimes liberals want government to act generously even to people whose problems don't come from outside risks. And lots of politicians do things just to look good or protect themselves. But a lot of the how-can-they-think-that-way comes down to those two images, the policeman and the flood dike.
May 08, 2005
North Korea Disarmament In Four Cold-Blooded Steps
There are things we can do about North Korea. And if North Korea is on the verge of testing a nuclear weapon, we'd better start doing them. When the history books talk about Afghanistan, they'll make Clinton sound like a total failure and Bush like a successful leader. But when the subject is North Korea it looks like it'll be the other way around, unless Bush changes his policy fast.
Under Clinton, North Korea had its reactors frozen, its missile tests on hold, and its plutonium locked up under the eyes of inspectors. Under Bush, North Korea is firing off missiles again, it's harvested six warheads' worth of plutonium now, and it's set to grab another five warheads' worth out of their reactors soon. It's true that Clinton's policy was powered by annual bribes to North Korea, and it's true that North Korea was still trying to secretly enrich uranium. (See this Naval War College Review piece and this Foreign Affairs piece for a fair look at the successes and failures of the Clinton-era deal.) But the fact remains that our current "yell loudly, but do nothing" policy toward North Korea is a miserable failure.
So how do we tame North Korea?
1. Focus at first on Iran.
2. Make America's demands firm but limited.
3. Put a long series of small carrots on the table.
4. When it's time for force, boil the frog slowly.
1. Focus at first on Iran.
North Korea already has nuclear weapons capability. Iran doesn't. Getting a country to freeze a weapons research program is easier than getting it to give up actual weapons. And Iranian leaders are much more likely than the North Koreans to be tempted into using nuclear weapons, if they do get them, to shield war or terrorism. We shouldn't trust Kim Jong-Il with nukes, but we can deal with North Korea more slowly than Iran.
Just as importantly, once we've succeeded with Iran we'll have more leverage for North Korea. If we pull off a peaceful deal with Iran, that gives us credibility and experience for making a deal with North Korea. If we use some level of force on Iran, that gives us credibility and experience for using force on North Korea. We've never had problems quite like Iran and North Korea before, and it'd be nice to learn from the easy case before we go into the home stretch on the hard one. And while our ordinary diplomats can work both countries at once, realistically the President is only going to focus serious American power on one at a time. If we get Iran right, North Korea will become much easier.
2. Make America's demands firm but limited.
Bush's biggest mistake was not that he scrapped the Clinton deal, but that he made it look like he wasn't going to accept any deal at all that left North Korea's dictator in power. That's fine if you want to keep America's hands pure, but not so fine if you want to tame North Korea without open war. If we can make deals with Egypt and Uzbekistan, and justify them on the grounds that eventually our influence in those countries is going to improve their behavior, we can do the same in North Korea.
We weren't responsible for Kim Jong-Il's mass-murdering mass-enslaving regime. Making a deal that leaves him in power doesn't suddenly make us responsible, unless we had a cheap way to remove him, which we don't. Our responsibility is just to make sure that making a deal with him leads to better things than standing back and yelling at him. And standing back and yelling at him hasn't worked at all.
If leaving Kim in power can be consistent with improving human rights there and ending the nuclear weapons program, then that's just fine. America's goal is not to feel good about having scolded a dictator; it's to feel good about how we've changed North Korea. If we can work with Musharraf in Pakistan and Hu Jintao in China -- if we can improve human rights over time even in countries that do have nuclear weapons, using the leverage of economic ties -- why can't we do that in North Korea?
So while we shouldn't settle for a fake agreement, we need to make North Korea believe that we're serious about letting Kim stay in power -- as long as he's willing to trade nukes and prison camps for other means of having money and safety.
3. Put a long series of small carrots on the table.
America and North Korea don't trust each other, and peoples that don't trust each other don't voluntarily keep the terms of "grand bargains." (Just ask the Israelis and Palestinians how well their 1993 and 1995 Oslo agreements were carried out.) But even during the height of the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union built up successful informal and formal agreements that made both countries breathe easier. America and North Korea can build up bargains the same stepwise way. If America keeps its eyes on its ultimate goals, those agreements can step up all the way to the disarmament, and maybe even the human rights reform, that we want to see.
North Korea's government wants two things: money and safety. The United States has the power to provide or destroy both. From North Korea the United States wants two things: nuclear disarmament, and the right of emigration for the masses of pseudo-political prisoners. Both of those are in North Korea's power, and even in its interest -- if only it really believes it can give those up yet keep or improve its money and safety.
In other words, there's room for a deal. North Korea does the things we hate for the pragmatic reasons of money and safety; we can give it better ways to get the money and safety the government wants. The reason there is no overall agreement is because neither side trusts each other. The reason there is no progress toward an overall agreement because neither side is offering a sweetener or a punishment to motivate the other side to test whether it can be trusted.
Right now, the United States' policy toward North Korea isn't "Big Carrot" like the Europeans' policy has been toward Serbia or Turkey; it isn't "Big Stick" like the United States' current policy toward Syria. Our current North Korea policy is "No Carrot, No Stick, Lots of Whining." North Korea's never responded to whining. But it's listened just fine to carrots. We may need the stick, too -- we'll talk about that in a moment. But let's begin with a small carrot.
The United States can ask for something small, verifiable, and symbolic, like the return of inspectors to Yongbyon or another previously inspected nuclear site. We can offer a bribe that's meaningful but reversible, like a three-month resumption of the fuel oil shipments made under the Clinton deal. And we can quietly let North Korea know that if it doesn't comply, we'll do something limited but nasty, like mining one North Korean harbor.
Then one of two things will happen: North Korea takes the small deal, or it doesn't. Suppose they do take the small deal. Then we ask for the next step, and offer to continue or mildly increase the bribe. And we keep adding on little sweeteners in trade for little requests, step by step, until we've bought what we want.
Take a moment and look towards our ultimate goal: how much would it cost to buy North Korean nuclear disarmament? A lot less than we've spent on the war in Iraq, or even on the war in Afghanistan. The ultimate outcome is if the United States makes North Korea another Egypt, a dictatorship we permanently subsidize in return for them being a good neighbor and slowly improving their human rights records. If we remember to be serious this time about insisting on the steady human rights improvement, I think spending $2 billion a year to bribe North Korea is at least as worthwhile as spending $2 billion a year to bribe Egypt. In fact, it doesn't even have to cost that much, since we can probably hold up South Korea and Japan for most of the bribes.
Now suppose North Korea doesn't take the deal -- the first deal, or the tenth, or the twentieth. Then what? We don't panic. We don't go to all-out war either. We just do one definite, reversible, escalatable thing to them.
Maybe we mine one harbor for a month.
And if that doesn't work? Then we escalate -- slowly.
4. When it's time for force, boil the frog slowly.
Saying "there are no good military options for North Korea" is as misleading as saying "there were no good military options in the Cuban missile crisis." In 1962, there was indeed no good outcome to opening the gates to war in Cuba or elsewhere. But there were ways, like the blockade that Kennedy ordered, to use military power effectively to force Russia to change its ways without making a war look like Russia's best option. There was a good way to use force against Cuba. And there are good ways to use force against North Korea.
Just as any serious war with the Soviet Union would have meant the destruction of Europe, any serious war against North Korea would mean the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. North Korea has an ungodly number of rockets and artillery pieces aimed to fire at the South Korean capital of Seoul, just across the North-South border. In other words, North Korea holds Seoul hostage, just as Russia during the Cold War held Europe (and later America) hostage.
But that Russia held Europe hostage didn't mean America had to let Russia do whatever it wanted on Cuba. It just meant that America had to handle Cuba in a way that was limited, that left both sides with a chance to stop, so that Russia had a better choice than executing its hostage. The same is true for North Korea. In some ways America can do whatever it wants to North Korea, as long as it doesn't look like America is about to remove Kim Jong-Il himself from power.
American force against North Korea has to be ostentatiously limited, but slowly escalating, and always accompanied by a credible offer of a deal. That is, a deal that will leave Kim's government in power. As long as American force happens one step at a time, and leaves North Korea with plenty of time to decide their response; and as long as continuing failure to make a deal brings continuing steps of escalation, North Korea has both the reason and the history to lead it to take a bargain short of all-out war.
So what kind of limited force is available? As with Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 90s, there are a lot of things that would make North Korea's government miserable without immediately endangering it. America could do any of these, one at a time, in order of increasing danger to Americans:
1. Blockade North Korean waters;
2. Mine one North Korean harbor;
3. Drop one bomb on North Korea's oil pipeline;
4. Drop one bomb on a North Korean railway junction;
4. Enforce a no-fly zone over a small rural sector of North Korea;
5. Fly in an "inspection team" to examine or destroy a single site somewhere in North Korea.
All of these would be dangerous. (North Korea has air defenses, though not very good ones. And it has lots of soldiers.) All of them assume what amounts to a state of war between America and North Korea. None of them are the sort of thing Kim Jong-Il would want to last. But no one of these, happening by itself, would put Kim Jong-Il's control of North Korea in danger of falling apart in the next 72 hours.
If America drops one bomb on the oil pipeline, Kim still has his country. So what are his choices? He could agree to take the next step toward nuclear disarmament. He could wait for America to drop two bombs the week after, and three bombs the week after that. Or he could throw up his hands, declare himself doomed anyway, and bomb Seoul. Is he going to bomb Seoul? What does that get him?
Bombarding Seoul costs Kim his hostage, and means America has no reason not to nuke him any more. Of course, if Kim believes that America really will accept nothing less than his destruction, he might try killing his Southern hostages just to see if it helps save him. But if we've kept our demands "firm but limited", Kim isn't going to choose suicide. He's going to choose what every dictator has always chosen: staying in power.
People like to claim North Korea's dictator is, despite his ability in surviving and even manipulating America thus far, actually some kind of loon, a suicidal maniac, crazy. But that's an all-purpose excuse. You can use it just as well to argue that we need to nuke Pyongyang now, to prevent Kim from crazily selling weapons to American enemies. If he's crazy he may as well be too crazy to leave free as too crazy to try to tame. In fact the evidence is that North Korea's ruler is not suicidal, just in love with bluster; and not insane, just evil.
To be precise, Kim Jong-Il has never shown any signs of being any more crazy than Saddam Hussein. In fact, less crazy -- Kim actually managed a deal with Clinton, which Saddam Hussein never did. Yet even Saddam Hussein, faced with American sanctions, bombs and no-fly zones, didn't try to use his firepower. Saddam Hussein hunkered down and waited, and let America erode his military power, because his power over his own people was more important to him.
Likewise, Kim is not going to do anything to provoke America to overthrow him as long as he believes he can wait it out or make a deal. So as long as America takes only one nibble at a time, we can, if we have to, "boil the frog slowly."
We're used to instant war, but pressuring North Korea will take the opposite: protracted war, drawn-out war, war so slow that to Kim it doesn't feel like war -- just negotiations. Let's shut down North Korea's outlets for weapons export, one at a time, over a period of months. Let's shut down the fuel supplies, just as gradually. Take over the airspace -- even more gradually. (Some pilots will be shot down and captured. Is it worth it? Depends on how many civilian dead we risk if we don't take that chance.) Land checkpoint teams at odd places in the mountains, slowly. Declare no-drive zones in the northern mountains, one at a time...
...if we really wanted to, we could annex North Korea by agonizingly slow steps over a three-year period, and give Kim Jong-Il the option of cutting a deal with us from the beginning right on through to the end.
The key idea is to be slow yet avoid the mistakes of the Clinton bombing of Iraq, or the Lyndon Johnson bombing of North Vietnam, where America did token damage and then stopped and waited and then did token damage again. We want our escalation to be slow but strategic. The right escalation series is one that ultimately, slowly, leads to Kim not really controlling key portions of his country.
If we take over one grain of sand of North Korea, Kim has too much left to lose to go to war. But if he really does put off making a deal indefinitely, eventually we can add up so many grains of sand that we could actually defend ourselves and Seoul against any threat Kim could make. If that happens we won't need a deal with the dictator any more.
There's your cold-blooded take on dealing with North Korea. It's true we should have kept the Clinton deal going until we had something better ready to put in place. But just as in Cuba in 1962, we do have options for force in North Korea today. And if we put those options for force alongside Clinton-style dealmaking, we can probably get North Korea disarmed.
There's no way to just overthrow Kim Jong-Il without a lot of people getting killed. But with a big-stick, big-carrot, limited demands, slow-escalation policy, we can get everything else we need. It won't be free in money or lives; just the best of the available alternatives. Given that millions are already dead or enslaved in North Korea, and the price of a nuke sold by NK to someone else could be 300,000 Americans dead, I think the case is strong for "big stick, big carrot, limited demands, slow strategic escalation."
[E1] See also posts at Daniel Drezner (by guestblogger Suzanne Nossel), Coming Anarchy, Washington Monthly, Matthew Yglesias, The Moderate Voice, Belgravia Dispatch, and Pejmanesque, among many others.
[E2] Mudville OPL.
May 06, 2005
Ford and GM: Proof American Managers Don't Know Their Jobs?
There is no polite way to put it: if Ford and GM can get rated as junk-grade investments, American corporate management is a disaster. America has the best entrepreneurs and the best technology innovators in the world. But if you're in an American company's upper management and you're good at your job, then I salute you: you're obviously an endangered species.
Getting your debt rated as junk grade makes sense if you're in a dying industry, like railroads. It makes sense if you're a heavily regulated or formerly regulated company, like the older airline companies. It makes sense if you face overseas competition based on unskilled workers, as American textile makers do. It occasionally makes sense if you're in an industry that runs on taking huge technology risks, like biotech firms.
But Ford and GM are in the automotive business. They were never subject to airline or utility-style regulation. Their big competitors are in Japan, which has expensive labor just like they do (and a lot of "Japanese" cars these days are mostly built in America!). And neither Japanese nor American car companies have been blowing their budgets on big research risks.
So there's no easy outside excuse for Ford and GM's failure. For any problem you name that Ford and GM face, there's an equal problem for some other American industry. Rising gas prices are a challenge, but somehow the Japanese and German auto companies have managed to be prepared for that possibility. Heck, any auto company should have had a plan ready for having to shift to more fuel-efficient cars: that consumer shift already happened once before, after the 1970's oil shocks, and everyone knew gas prices would rise again if China and India kept booming. And the Japanese workforce is aging and running up health care costs faster than America's. Every established company faces challenges: that's what a competitive free market is about. Competently managed companies don't let long-anticipated challenges sink them all the way to junk.
We've known for a while that the "corporate governance" in the United States, the system where the stockholders elect a board of directors who in turn supervise the company CEO, was broken. CEO's pay has risen relative to workers' by a factor of twelve in just the last thirty years, and pay plus stock rewards by a factor of thirty, without any visible evidence of improved management. Now I begin to wonder if it's actually a sign of failing management -- or, rather, of corporate boards losing their ability or interest for spotting good people. A corporate board that doesn't mind compensating people thirty times as much for the same job is a corporate board that isn't paying attention to how well the job is being done.
It looks as though America's real economic weak point isn't that our education system doesn't know how to turn out great math students; it's that our corporate governance system doesn't know how to find good managers. Anyway, thank goodness for America's technologists and entrepreneurs -- because I'm not sure anymore that I believe America's CEOs know what they're doing.
May 04, 2005
The Iraq War is an Arab Opportunity, but Lasting Democracy Needs a Lasting US Commitment
The Iraq War has given Arab democrats an opportunity, but it'll be up to them to seize it. And if America really wants Arab democracy, it'll take a sustained commitment, not just a one-year binge. But the short answer to Kevin Drum's question is yes, the "domino effect" is real. Crises create democrats' opportunity, and the Iraq War is a legitimacy crisis for most of the Arab leaders. Moreover, democracy breaks out when democrats realize the secret police can't just kill them all. American pro-democracy pushiness is seen by a lot of Arabs as limiting what governments like Egypt and Syria can do to shut activists down. Bush's aggressiveness against one Arab dictator has created an opportunity for other Arab democracies. But the hard part isn't getting Arab elections for this one year; the hard part is making democracy last.
We think of democracy as a purely natural development, but usually democracy breaks through when the autocrats have mishandled a crisis and lost the confidence of their backers and subordinates. That's how democracy came to Argentina, after the junta bungled the 1983 Falklands War; how it came to the Soviet Union, after the 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev left both him and his rivals impotent; that's how it happened in the Philippines, after Marcos assassinated Benigno Aquino in 1983 (though it took three years for the movements to crest and overthrow Marcos). Economic crises played a similar role in ending dictatorships in Taiwan and South Korea. And the Iraq War is certainly a crisis for the Arab autocrats, which makes it an opportunity for the Arab democrats.
The irony is that the Iraq War is a crisis for the Arab autocrats precisely because it shows them up as both vulnerable to removal and as not standing up to America. The democratic movements in Egypt and Lebanon are not pro-American movements. But ironic or not, the Iraq War makes the Arab leaders look impotent, and leaders who look impotent attract attempts to overthrow them.
But the more important contribution of the Iraq War to Arab democracy is the message it sends that Bush, unlike other Presidents, is willing to use force to make his foreign policy happen. And that means that Egypt's secret police and Syria's army are less free than they might have been to shut down protest movements. Nobody, not even the American government, knows how far America would let Egypt or Syria go to stop the democrats. But for the first time in a long time, the Arab democrats suspect that the despots' force is limited -- and that gives the Arab democrats courage.
We've seen the same "your leverage is gone" string of revolutions before, in 1989, when all the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe flipped to democracy one after another. What changed in 1989 was not that the activists were suddenly smarter, or the dictators more hated. All that had changed was the realization that the Soviet Union was no longer going to bail the dictators out. Suddenly, there was no room for the dictators to appeal to the kind of force they were used to relying on -- and suddenly, one autocracy after another gave way to elections. When autocracies lose their flexibility to use force on their citizens, democracy breaks out. The Iraq War, combined with Bush's pro-democracy rhetoric, makes many suspect that Egypt and Syria (among others) have lost the flexibility to use force against protesters -- and that gives the democrats a chance to seize power.
But the real test is not whether we get one honest election in more Arab countries, but whether we get lasting democracy. That's much harder. Historically democracies rely for stability on a strong middle class, but the middle class of many Arab countries is atrophied. Historically democracies do better when there's a tradition of honest judges and the rule of law, and that too is not a regional strong point. The Arab countries have weak legal systems and weak economies outside oil, and that tends to be a recipe for military coups or Venezuela-style charismatic dictatorships. Arab democracy won't last unless the United States makes a continuing commitment to uphold it against the return of dictatorship.
America has a sad record of spending a few months or a year pushing for democracy in a place, then letting its attention go elsewhere just in time for the country to fall back into chaos or despotism. That's what happened in Haiti, and in many other American pro-democracy interventions in Central America in the 1900s. That's also what happened with the Palestinian Authority in the Oslo years, where the Clinton Administration accepted Arafat's one election as good enough and never pressed him for better government after. There's reason to think that if the Palestinians had had an honest democracy instead of Arafat's corrupt charismatic dictatorship, they would have been able to settle their issues peacefully with Israel, and the entire bloodshed of the last few years could have been avoided. And we see some of the same neglect today in Mexico, where the United States was largely silent as the Mexican government attempted to trump up an excuse to force out of politics the leading opposition politician. American political leaders tend to push for democracy only every now and then. That won't be enough to sustain democracy in the Arab world.
Any Arab democracy is almost certain to fall into the hands of leaders who will be tempted to recreate dictatorship. Arab democracy may start now, but it won't last -- unless the United States shows year by year that it's on the side of those who want Arab democracy to last.
So as for war as a tool for democracy: it works when and only when you can convince people you're there for the duration. Lasting American presence in Germany and Japan = lasting democracy in those countries and, over time, in other regional countries with strong ties to them. Brief involvement in Haiti = nothing achieved in Haiti or its neighbors. (And local factors still matter -- such as German wealth versus Haitian poverty. There are poor democracies, like Mali. But it's harder.)
[E1] Mudville OPL.
May 03, 2005
The Paramilitary Dilemma: Should We Recruit Iraqi Thugs to Beat Iraqi Thugs?
Praktike spots a trend in Iraq: whether it's paramilitary commandos employed by the government, or paramilitary militias that "pop up" on their own, the war against the Iraqi insurgents is increasingly being fought by Iraqi paramilitaries. This is good news and bad news. Paramilitaries are Iraq's best hope for quick peace -- and also a force that could spark mass killings or civil war.
Most counterinsurgency successes since World War Two, especially the few quick counterinsurgency successes, have relied on paramilitaries. Paramilitaries have unique advantages against insurgents that regular police and soldiers don't -- they combine the strengths police and soldiers each have against insurgents, and leave behind the weaknesses that insurgents try to exploit. These militias and commandos may be Iraqis' only hope to get peace on the streets in months instead of years.
But paramilitaries in Iraq are also bad news: unless the government handles them very carefully, anti-insurgent militias and commandos tend to become as brutal as the insurgents. And because the paramilitaries have the backing of the government, they have the potential to take over the country and kill their personal and political enemies in numbers the insurgents can only dream of. It's happened before.
The paramilitary solution to insurgency
Successful counterinsurgencies usually involve a network of paramilitary "local self-defense" militias, or else an entire national paramilitary professional organization. Historical examples include the Italian carabinieri, which led the effort against the Communist Red Brigades; Peru's endorsement of local militias called rondas campesinas, which turned around the fighting against the Shining Path guerrillas; or the village commando units set up to fight the Hukbalahap insurrection in the Philippines. Probably the best-documented example of paramilitaries' edge against insurgents is, ironically, the Vietnam War.
During the Vietnam War, there were only three programs that actually succeeded in shutting down communist guerrilla activity in their areas. Those were the CIA-administered (using Special Forces personnel) Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG), the Marines' Combined Action Platoons (CAP), and late in the war the joint Army-civilian Civil Operations and Revolutionary (later Rural) Development and Support (CORDS) program. All three programs ignored the hundreds of thousands of regular American and Vietnamese troops on battalion-sized maneuvers. CIDG, CAP and CORDS all focused on building up and supporting tiny local village militias. And CIDG, CAP and CORDS all succeeded in shutting down guerrilla activities in their areas of operation.
Insurgents defeat police by being more focused and more violent. Insurgents beat soldiers by building ties with the civilians. They lose those advantages against paramilitaries. Whether we're talking about informal militias or formal commando units, paramilitaries, like police detectives, make their habit to operate among local civilians and persuade them to become helpers and informants. But like soldiers, paramilitaries don't spend their days walking a beat to prevent public disorder; they use their informants to point out the government's enemies so they can capture or kill them.
Insurgents intimidate or persuade people to help them kill government supporters. Paramilitaries intimidate or persuade people to help them kill insurgents. Since the paramilitaries are on the same side as the government, they can talk to more people safely, offer bigger bribes, and move around faster and in larger groups than the insurgents. Insurgents rely on staying "asymmetric" to make up for lack of resources. Paramilitaries are a "symmetric" counter to insurgents, using their own tactics against them with the advantages of government support.
The most recent example of paramilitary success against insurgents is Afghanistan today. While it's easy to find things to complain about in Afghanistan, the Taliban there haven't been able to muster anything like the kind of continual attacks that the Iraqi insurgents have. In Afghanistan, we endorsed the local gunmen instead of bringing in our own. The result was that whenever the Taliban tried to reinfiltrate a village or city, there were plenty of local fighters in a position to find out about them and run them back out of town. The warlords' militias kept Afghanistan secure from the Taliban. Of course, now the warlords' militias are a problem of their own -- and that's part of the dark side of paramilitaries.
When paramilitaries go bad
Because paramilitaries have a license to find and kill the enemies of the government, they have almost absolute power in their local community -- and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It's only too easy for paramilitaries to create excuses to kill off anyone in town who crosses them. From Peru to Vietnam, militias have tended to conveniently discover that their personal enemies were enemies of the state. Worse, paramilitaries can use an insurgency to seize power for themselves and set up their own psuedo-governmental empire. That's what's happened in much of Columbia, where the right-wing paramilitaries long ago became more involved in being the government and in running drugs than in helping the government against rebels. But even replacing the government isn't the worst thing that unbound paramilitaries will do.
Paramilitaries only tend to be needed in weakly governed countries, and weakly governed countries tend to have nasty ethnic or class feuds just below the surface -- especially once an insurgency breaks out. If the government lets the paramilitaries take too much authority, the result tends to be ethnic cleansing -- or genocide. In El Salvador, despite American advisors' complaints the counter-guerrilla forces killed 70,000 supposedly left-wing people out of the country's six million. In Guatemala, where America withdrew in disgust, the paramilitary army slaughtered 200,000, mostly ethnic Maya and almost all civilians, out of a population of only 10 million. In Rwanda, in Bosnia, and in Sudan today, the key step for ethnic slaughter was government endorsement of an ethnically based militia.
In Afghanistan, there have been no mass killings by the militias, because the new central government has been using its own (American-trained) army to pressure the local warlords into good behavior. Governors who had been running their provinces too independently have been replaced. While the militias in Afghanistan are still present in the background, the problems Afghanistan has these days are mostly civilian problems -- poverty, poppy farming, bad roads. In Afghanistan, the government let local militias defang the insurgency, and then the national army defanged the militias.
In Iraq, the new government has not had the deft political touch that Hamid Karzai's government has had in Afghanistan, and the insurgency is far stronger. The odds of militias going out of control are worse. But none of the Iraqi ethnic groups want civil war -- the Shiites would lose the fruits of peace, and the Sunnis would lose, period. So perhaps America can keep the central government honest, and perhaps the central government will be able to push the militias into standing down after the insurgents are gone.
It's too late for Iraq to be as good a success as Afghanistan. But the paramilitary commandos and militias should get the insurgency defeated faster. It probably won't lead to another Bosnia. I do wish I didn't have to put "probably" in that last sentence. It all depends on whether Iraq's government will have the nerve and skill to take power from the paramilitaries -- while the paramilitaries take power from the insurgents.
How successful were our Vietnam militia efforts? During its CIA period (through 1962), the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) featured 24 12-man Special Forces teams coordinating an astonishing 38,000 irregulars against the guerrillas. By 1962 America's fewer than 300 leader-advisors of CIDG were holding secure an entire province of 300,000 civilians against the Communist guerrillas. Then the Army leadership at MACV took over from the CIA. The Army in 1962 didn't yet believe guerrilla wars should be fought differently from conventional wars. The generals at MACV transferred CIDG to offensive operations, ending the support for local militias. Darlac Province was then reinfiltrated by the Communists.
The Marines' Combined Action Platoons were a more improvised program than CIDG, relying on ordinary Marines rather than the unconventionally trained Special Forces of CIDG. CAP was a mix of modest improvements and decisive successes; results varied from village to village. See Bing West's The Village for a wonderful account of one CAP effort.
Civil Operations and Revolutionary (or Rural) Development, CORDS, the last and largest militia-supporting pacification program, didn't begin serious work until late 1968. In 1968 the Communist guerrillas were estimated to be in charge of 45 percent of South Vietnam, about the same as when regular American infantry battalions had first been sent into action against the Communist guerrillas in 1965. CORDS threw its weight behind the till-then neglected Vietnamese village and province militias, the RFs and PFs or "ruff-puffs" -- and using those militias, CORDS reduced the Communists' guerrilla presence from half of South Vietnam to a toehold of about 5 percent by late 1970.
CORDS' success in shutting down the guerrillas forced North Vietnam to finally dare two straightforward conventional invasions of the south, openly driving southward with tanks and artillery. The conventional invasions succeeded, thanks to the South Vietnamese soldiers being commanded by lousy officers. In 1972 North Vietnam took a quarter of South Vietnam, despite American airpower support for the South Vietnamese troops. In the North's 1975 invasion, when the Americans no longer provided the South with airpower support, the Communists did even better, seizing the remaining three-quarters of the country.
Ironically, although we think of Vietnam as a guerrilla war and an American defeat, in fact by the end of 1970 America and South Vietnam had won the guerrilla war. We lost Vietnam just the same. The North Vietnamese were capable of conventional as well as guerrilla war. And America and South Vietnam had failed in their mission of bringing skill and professionalism to South Vietnamese army officers. But in the bitter last years, the American military had finally rediscovered how to succeed against guerrillas.
April 30, 2005
Six Tools to Keep China From Making Trouble
Just how scary is China? There's a new batch of articles you might like to read, but let's be honest about what we don't know. "Will there be war with China?" is not a question you should ever answer with "Yes" or "No." That's like asking "Will there be a big earthquake in California next year?" The honest answer is a probability, like "There's a one in five chance" or "Fifty-fifty." So the useful question is not "How scared should we be about China?" but "What can we do to lower the odds of China coming out scary?"
Most people are still writing on the "China problem" instead of suggesting "China solutions." So before we talk about solutions, a roundup of what's being written on the problem: Robert Kaplan has one of his usual marvelous essays (echoed for nonsubscribers here) on what the officers at America's Pacific Command are thinking about possible conflicts with China. John Mearsheimer has a Foreign Policy screed arguing that rising powers like China naturally make trouble; he thinks that faced with Chinese might, the United States will eventually have to retreat from Asia. Matthew Yglesias sides with Zbigniew Brzezinski in the Foreign Policy article: their argument is that China won't push America out of Asia, because without America, China's own neighbors could be even more dangerous to it. Daniel Drezner notes that China's been pretty growlsome at the world lately. Praktike observes that war between China and America would be stupid for both. Of course, stupid wars have happened before.
So here's the top six things the United States could do over the next decade to reduce the odds of China "going bad":
1. Push China for more democracy.
2. Get Europe and Japan to push for democracy too.
3. Build strong ties with India. (And with Vietnam, and with China's other neighbors.)
4. Push Taiwan to talk less about independence and spend more on its defense.
5. Get our Navy more invested in small underwater drones.
6. Get our Air Force more invested in cheap long-range missiles.
1. Push China for more democracy.
As we've discussed before, if China goes to war with us or anyone, it'll be because China's leaders want to seem more legitimate with China's citizens. But the more that elections continue to creep into Chinese politics, the less China's leaders are going to need to improvise more dangerous tools (like political war) to prove they're entitled to keep power. And if China gets all the way to being a true democracy, war with other democracies becomes much less likely.
So it's in our interest to encourage China to open up more of its political offices to competitive elections. Over the last twenty years, American pressure has been focused on human rights, and we've made a difference there. But now America's best use of pressure is to ask not for more dissidents to be released, but for more town and city officials to be elected. Since some of those officials already want to hold freer elections than the national government allows, quiet American pressure could make a real difference in making China more democratic.
There are circumstances in which partially democratized countries turn more aggressive than regular dictatorships. But in general, the more democratic China is, the less likely China will be to pick a needless fight with America. So if you want peace with China, push for more elections in China.
2. Get Europe and Japan to push for democracy too.
China depends for its growth on exports to the three economic superpowers: America, Europe, and Japan. If the United States cut off trade with China, China's growth would stopped for half a decade. But if America, Europe and Japan all cut off trade, China's growth would be stopped for half a century. Trade sanctions are just an example of a larger principle: when they show a united front, the Europe-Japan-America "Big Three" have far more influence on China than America acting alone.
We saw this just recently with the China arms embargo. America doesn't sell weapons to China, but the European Union was considering allowing it, and American complaints were't changing Europe's mind. Then China passed a law officially approving war as a means to retake Taiwan, and the Europeans got a bad taste in their mouth again about giving weapons to China. America alone couldn't limit China's weapons technology, but America, Europe and Japan together are slowing China's military.
That same cooperation can push China toward democracy. Japan worries about China even more than America does, but doesn't want to get in a military arms race with it, and knows it would backfire if Japan alone were pressuring the noticeably Japan-distrusting China. Meanwhile, the Europeans have long wanted to be world leaders like America, and they want to prove that their peaceful pressure can be as strong as American military influence. What's more, the Europeans have had a string of recent successes in using European Union access as a lever to get authoritarian countries to reform. So if America offered to let European leaders get the credit, the Europeans might well be persuaded to a joint European-American-Japanese initiative to push for more democracy in China.
In the last thirty years, China has done its best to play the big powers against each other. It's about time the big democracies tried ganging up -- politely -- to pressure China toward democracy.
3. Build strong ties with India. (And with Vietnam, and with China's other neighbors.)
China's military fantasies rest on the hope that America won't care enough about Asia to fight, while the other Asian powers will be too weak to fight. China's military nightmare is that America and China's Asian neighbors cooperate and combine Asian commitment with American firepower. The closer America is to India, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and China's other neighbors, the more China has to think twice about starting a new era of war in Asia.
A good example came a few months ago, when Japan for the first time joined America in expressing its "security interest" in "keeping the Taiwan Straits peaceful." China all but threw a fit: a joint Japanese-American commitment to keeping Taiwan defended from China is a lot stronger than either nation expressing that interest alone. It's a lot harder to intimidate groups than lone persons, because no one in the group wants to let down their buddies. This is as true of international politics as it is of kids on the playground. (In fact there's an alarming resemblance between the two situations.) So by pulling Japan closer, America made China's military calculations a lot more complicated.
Of course, China is growing, and "America plus Japan" may not intimidate China forever. So we should go for one more key alliance partner in Asia -- and that's India.
India is about the same size as China, and it's growing pretty fast itself. More than that, India is a democracy with a long record of rivalry with China. Right now, India doesn't much trust the United States, because we're so closely allied with Pakistan, for the sake of fighting the Islamic terrorists who hide out inside Pakistan. But as we approach four years since September 11 -- four years without an attack on American soil -- we need to look to our world after the Global War on Terror. Keeping China peaceful is a big part of what we want that world to look like. Keeping India as well as Japan close to us is a big part of keeping China peaceful.
We shouldn't abandon Pakistan to chaos, since they've got both nukes and nutcases -- a very bad combination. But we should start investing in a close alliance with India. And we should pull close as many of China's other neighbors as we can -- Vietnam, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, even South Korea and Russia if they can get over their current anti-Americanism. A China facing a solid coalition ready to fight against it is a China that isn't going to want to start a fight.
4. Push Taiwan to talk less about independence and spend more on its defense.
Taiwan, like Israel, Pakistan, and Egypt, is one of America's "strategic allies." And like most of our strategic allies, Taiwan often feels free to rely on American support even when it does things that make trouble for America. In recent years, Taiwan has been making a lot of gestures to say "we're not part of China and we like it that way" -- changing Taiwan's passports, altering Taiwan's constitution, and so on. These gestures delight Taiwanese voters. They also humiliate and infuriate Chinese leaders.
At the same time as Taiwan humiliates the Chinese leaders, it doesn't bother spending much to defend from Chinese attack. Taiwan's defense budget is about 2.3 percent of its GDP. The United States spends about 3.5 percent of its GDP on the military. China officially spends about 3 percent, and in reality is estimated to spend about 4.5 percent. So even as China threatens to invade Taiwan, Taiwan is proportionately making only two-thirds of the national commitment that America makes to defense -- while China, despite being poorer on average, commits twice as much of its economy to the military.
In other words, Taiwan is provoking China yet taking it for granted that American muscle will keep China from attacking. That needs to stop. Not because Taiwan doesn't deserve to be protected, but because the United States deserves to have its allies be at least as committed to preserving the peace as America is. More to the point, Chinese leaders are a lot more impressed by Taiwan's ability to defend itself than by America's ability to defend Taiwan, because they like to think they can convince us to let Taiwan go -- but they know the Taiwanese will fight if China comes. So dollars spent by Taiwan on its defense go a lot further to keeping the peace than dollars spent by America. At the same time, a Taiwan that officially is committed to joining China "eventually" is a Taiwan that's much harder for China to invent excuses to fight.
We don't want to let our alliance with Taiwan turn into an opportunity for an accidental war between America and China. That's about how World War I started, when Europe's leading countries felt obliged to fight each other, even though they hadn't done anything to each other. World War I was fought by the great powers, and nearly destroyed them all, for the sake of those great powers' alliances with much less important and much worse governed nations. We need to get a lot more serious about pushing Taiwan's government to turn down its anti-China rhetoric and turn up its defense spending. "Walk softly and carry a big stick" is a good motto for American policy. It's an even better motto for Taiwan. Peace with China will be easier to keep if Taiwan is quiet, polite, and armed to the teeth.
5. Get our Navy more invested in small underwater drones.
Most of China's excuses to start a war involve offshore islands, whether we're talking about the really big offshore island of Taiwan, or the much smaller Paracel Islands China disputes with Vietnam, or the Senkaku-shoto islands it disputes with Japan. You can't seize an island without boats, and China can't move boats if the American Navy gets in the way. So major Chinese military adventures depend on being able to keep the American Navy at a distance for long enough to seize whatever island China is after.
Embarrassingly, our current Navy is vulnerable to a lot of Chinese equipment. China has diesel-powered submarines, which are in principle capable of being quieter and stealthier than American nuclear submarines, and which could make enormous trouble for American ships in waters near China. China has vast quantities of antiship missiles, which are in principle capable of knocking out an American aircraft carrier; that missile threat could force the Navy's airpower to stay well away from Chinese military activity for vital hours or days. It's only a modest exaggeration to say China's entire defense investment for the last ten years has been geared toward exploiting every vulnerability that can hold back American power long enough for China to achieve a military success.
The American Navy would still defeat China's forces if it had to. But in order to keep the peace, it's not enough for China to believe that America could stop it -- China has to believe America could stop it easily. Otherwise, China can hope that Americans will decide we "value Los Angeles more than Taipei," and that we'll abandon our allies and let China have its way. So if we want a military that will keep China peaceful, we need a Navy with firepower that's immune to China's current "silver bullets".
We do have the beginnings of a new kind of Navy, one that China will be very hard pressed to match. It's a navy that you can see in infant form in the USN's latest anti-submarine warfare plan. It's a Navy built on robots.
Technically, the term to use is UUV -- unmanned underwater vehicle. Like the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) such as the Predator drones, the toys that have seen so much use over Iraq, today's UUVs are expensive and unintelligent. On the other hand, like the UAVs, they're getting smarter and cheaper very quickly. (Since unmanned systems' brains are just computers, they improve almost as fast as computers improve, which is very fast indeed.) Most importantly, UUVs are immune to almost all the weapons and tactics in China's arsenal.
UUVs break all the rules of ordinary ships, and weapons and systems deisgned to defeat ordinary ships tend to flunk against UUVs. UUVs are so much smaller than manned submarines that they can be far stealthier than even a diesel-powered sub; UUVs are so much cheaper than big ships that they can be sent right through danger zones where a manned fleet would have to slow down; and UUVs, being small, cheap and underwater, make really lousy targets for big, expensive, above-water antiship missiles. An anti-UUV operation would be in principle a lot like a mine-clearing operation; they're both about cleaning up a sea full of small machines that are trying to kill you. But mine-clearing is itself one of the most slow, difficult and painful modern naval missions. A manned fleet could sweep an area clean of UUVs with time and patience. But China can't afford to give the American Navy's regular manned forces time to close in. The one thing China won't have in any island-seizing effort is time and patience.
Right now, underwater unmanned vehicles are where unmanned aerial vehicles were ten years ago -- more experiment than arsenal. But UUVs happen to naturally combine the very traits the Chinese are least well able to work against. Even a primitive flock of UUVs would be enough to provide targeting information, or (if armed) torpedo or minelaying attacks, sufficient to derail a Chinese assault. And China won't be able to counter a UUV flotilla until it's gotten a lot closer to American levels of technology. So if you want to screw up China's military plans, have our Navy buy a lot of robots.
6. Get our Air Force more invested in cheap long-range missiles.
One reason we have to rely on the Navy to keep China tame is that Chinese waters are too far from most Air Force bases for the Air Force to do its job. Even the F-22 (or F/A-22) won't be able to do much over the Taiwan Straits when it has to pick up each bombload from an airbase on Okinawa (about 500 miles away) or Guam (1500 miles away). Worse, since China (unlike Afghanistan or Iraq) has a serious air force, any aircraft we send to drop bombs on Chinese installations or ships will need plenty of protection from other aircraft -- and big slow bombers like the B-52 will be sitting ducks. (Even the stealth bomber would be in trouble if China's radars were good enough, or if it tried to drop bombs amid hostile aircraft in the daytime.) RAND pointed out this "geography problem" in a study it did for the Air Force years ago. The Air Force's bombers don't have the protection and Air Force's fighters don't have the range, so the current Air Force has little value for America's strategy on China.
But the Air Force doesn't have to stay irrelevant. In fact, with the right investments, the Air Force could become more effective as a counter to Chinese adventurism than the Navy. The trick is to stop thinking about bombs and start thinking about missiles.
China's aircraft and air defenses are designed, understandably, to stop enemy aircraft from coming in to drop bombs. Like all air defenses, they're much weaker at stopping missiles than aircraft, because missiles are smaller and travel faster. Now, America's bombers were originally designed to fly right over a target and drop their bombs. But it's not too hard to fit them out to fly to a point a hundred or even two hundred miles away from a target, drop a missile into the air, and let the missile fly the rest of the way to the target. The Air Force has the technology, though not the current setup, to let its bombers do the "long haul" of carrying missiles from our airbases on Guam to the area of fighting, and then let the missiles take care of the "dangerous sprint" through enemy planes and missiles to the target.
Our current Air Force isn't designed for this, because our current Air Force was conceived back when bombs had to be dropped right over the target, and when missiles had to be given their exact destination at the moment they were launched -- and even the dumbest smart bombs were hugely expensive. Now, we have missiles that can change targets in flight; we have unmanned aerial vehicles like the Global Hawk that can provide targeting information from higher altitudes than most antiaircraft missiles can reach; we have, if we want, all the ingredients for an Air Force campaign in which no manned aircraft comes within a hundred miles of the enemy.
It would take building some new equipment, and modifying some old equipment. But the technology is there.
This is, in fairness, a big shift in concept for the Air Force, and not one they'd take for the sake of being relevant on China alone. Nor would we want to give up manned fighters when we can actually use them, simply because the human eye is a lot better than any existing robot camera. But if and when the Air Force does develop a "standoff arsenal" of long-range missiles trucked by long-range bombers and guided by high-altitude spotters, the US Air Force will be able to stop Chinese military adventures as or more effectively than the US Navy. After all, China can sink an aircraft carrier, but it can't very well sink Guam.
...so there you have it. Six tools to keep China from making trouble. Hopefully we'll never need any of them. But if you want to make war with China less likely, there's a start for how you'd do it.
[E1] Mudville OPL.
April 28, 2005
Democrats In Fifteen Words
The Democrats' 2008 platform is finally becoming clear.
Right now, the liberal blogosphere is having another go-round (Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Kevin Drum) at the question of "what can liberals identify themselves with that majorities will vote for?"
But fundamentally this amounts to asking, "What are things that lots of Americans would like, that the current Administration and Congress are not going to be able to deliver?"
Four easy Democratic answers come to mind, and you can bet something like these fifteen words will be part of the Democratic candidate's platform in 2008:
1) Community investment;
2) Cleaning up government;
3) Tax changes that help workers, not the wealthy;
4) Job security.
Of course our President doesn't wake up in the morning and say, "Gosh! I'd like to screw ordinary people out of their jobs, corrupt the government, leave struggling communities to fend for themselves, and give tax breaks to the rich!" But let's be honest: fair or not, the Republicans are now vulnerable on all those four points.
Do people worry about their local schools and governments? Yes.
Do they want honest government? Naturally.
Do they want lower taxes for themselves without busting the budget? Of course.
Are they worried about their jobs? Heck yes!
And are the Republicans going to be able to ease people's minds on these issues? No.
Despite having a majority in both houses of Congress, the Republicans haven't offered anything convincing to all the communities that are losing jobs to changing technology or never had good jobs to begin with. Nor are local schools much better now, for all the fuss over No Child Left Behind. And precisely because of the Republican majority, the Republicans are now getting hit with the corruption charges that stuck to Democrats during the Democrats' years in power. And it's no surprise that Republican tax changes tend to be easier on higher-income folk than Democrats' tax changes.
Beyond all that, for no fault of the Republicans' own, we're now entering a period where peoples' incomes are likely to be less secure, even as technology and globalization mean people have to switch jobs more and more often.
Community investment, government reform, job security, tax changes biased toward workers -- all four are popular things the Republicans haven't been providing and in many ways can't provide. And as the opposition party, the Democrats don't have to prove that they can deliver these things; they just have to convince people they'll spend more time trying than the people now in power.
So those are the four ideas to watch for. Investing more dollars in helping local community institutions; unionization laws, retraining grants and business hiring subsidies to help people be secure in their ability to get and hold good jobs; shifting taxes to help ordinary workers; and cleaning out the elected and appointed officials with cozy ties to industry groups or lobbyists. Those four are easy targets for the Democrats in 2008.
And if there's one thing politicians are good at, it's homing in on the easy target.
April 26, 2005
Europe's Secret to Make Dictators Reform: Sometimes It Just Takes a Really Big Carrot
We keep doing nothing when faced with countries that are too troublesome to invade, like Iran or North Korea, or too officially friendly to bomb, like Egypt or Saudia Arabia. But just because we won't bomb doesn't have to mean we're powerless. While the United States has mostly relied on threats and military force to make countries change, the Europeans recently have managed to pull several ugly governments into reform without a single weapon threatened or fired. We need to get smart and learn to use our own peaceful leverage as well as the Europeans do.
This recent article on Serbia nicely illustrates how the Europeans use two strong simple tools: the levers of prestige and economic incentive. The European Union is a $10+ trillion a year behemoth, and when the Europeans make their markets and blessing seriously conditional on governments' reforming, the governments in question get serious about reform. Of course economic and prestige levers aren't a perfect tool for world-changing, any more than bombers and infantry are. But if America got as serious about using nonmilitary leverage as it is about using military power, we could prevent many of today's not-quite-outlaw governments from becoming the Irans and North Koreas of tomorrow -- and we could do it without firing a shot.
Europe's newfound peaceful influence is basically an accidental bonus of the expansion of the European Union. Membership in the European Union, or even "candidate for membership" status, gives a country a huge economic advantage over its neighbors, and gives a government a big boost to legitimacy with its people. While we love to make jokes about French posturing or German unemployment, most of the world would love to be as well-governed as those countries, and so a European endorsement carries real weight with local elites. And that same seal of approval, plus the possible trade and subsidy advantages of EU members, means that an approved candidate country can get investment -- and therefore jobs -- that would otherwise go elsewhere. So governments like Serbia's or Turkey's or Ukraine's, who want to keep power despite unreliable economies and unstable politics, find the rewards of European endorsement too good to pass up. In fact, almost all the Balkan and west central Asian governments have been moved significantly toward moderation and democracy by the dangling carrot of the EU. It's not coincidence that the former Soviet republics with the worst human rights records, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are also among the most distant from Europe. And it's also not coincidence that when Turkey was pressed by the United States to allow troops to pass through to invade Iraq, and the French and Germans wanted Turkey to say no, Turkey sided with the Europeans. For all America's strong military alliance with Turkey, Europe's prestige and economic levers proved stronger than our military influence.
The United States could do something similar, and we wouldn't have to offer to admit countries as 51st or 52nd states; we would just need to get serious about linking economic and prestige ties with the USA to government reforms. Unfortunately, America usually ends up going for symbols instead of substance when we pressure allies (such as Egypt's recent token liberalization of its presidential pseudo-elections). It's just too hard for politicians to decide economic issues on the basis of anything other than jobs at home. It's worth noting that the European Union representatives who negotiate with countries like Turkey or Serbia on reform aren't elected officials; they're more like our Federal Reserve Board or the heads of the International Monetary Fund, a gang of appointees who are accountable to the European elected leaders but aren't on the leash of day-to-day politics. For that matter, the International Monetary Fund itself has a pretty good track record in getting governments to do things they don't like for the sake of economic incentives. If we ever want America to command that kind of peaceful leverage, we'll probably need a special organization to wield that leverage -- either that, or we'll have to somehow make the State Department into a trusted institution again. But as long as it takes the personal approval of the President and Congressional leaders to use serious economic or prestige levers on other countries, our nonmilitary influence will be pitiful next to the Europeans'.
And that's a pity, because the world-leading countries who made their power last have been the seducers, not the frighteners. Louis XIV of France invaded everybody until everybody ganged up on him; the Soviet Union's leaders threatened everybody until their most important Communist allies turned on them. In the end their armies weren't persuasive enough, because they couldn't afford to invade all the countries they needed to persuade. If we really want to make countries cooperate on terrorism, nuclear weapons, keeping the peace and the rest, we ought to learn from the "seducer" leaders. There's Great Britain, which used the sheer weight of tradition in its Commonwealth organization to get substantial cooperation from countries all over the world long after Britain lost its military power. There's the Roman Empire, which multiplied its strength by having a corps of officers skilled at raising local armies to fight in Roman causes, alongside a political system that rewarded foreign elites with Roman citizenship. And there's the United States itself, in our act of most extraordinary clever generosity, the Marshall Plan.
The Marshall Plan (and its counterpart effort in Japan) rebuilt Western Europe and Japan after World War II, and not only repaid itself in the form of new export jobs for Americans, but quite frankly bought Western Europe and Japan's loyalty for the next fifty years -- at a much cheaper price than the Soviets were paying to impose iron-fisted control over Eastern Europe. Like today's European Union leverage efforts and the IMF, the Marshall Plan was initiated by politicians but carried out by a professional organization, the Economic Cooperation Administration. And what the Europeans are doing to Serbia and Turkey today, the American efforts of fifty years ago did to Japan and Western Europe, tying them firmly into democracy, free markets, and American priorities. So we can do what the Europeans are doing; we've done it before.
(And fortunately, the going rate to buy democracy in a Serbia or Ukraine seems to be a lot lower than the cost we paid to rebuild Western Europe.)
Peaceful levers don't work on dictators who are both uncaring and secure in their power. But almost every dictatorship hits rough spots, simply because most dictators aren't very good at running their countries. When Kim Jong-Il of North Korea inherited his rule from his father, for a few years no one -- including the younger Kim -- knew whether he'd hold on to power. Iran today looks tolerably stable, if only because high oil prices are keeping the government rich, but that too may change. Most of all, peaceful levers are a tool we can use to stop countries from becoming tomorrow's Iran or North Korea. Iran was a cooperative repressive government under Shah Pahlavi before the 1979 revolution turned it into an implacably hostile repressive government; Iraq went through a series of only moderately bad rulers before Saddam Hussein took charge. Today, Venezuela or Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or Nigeria could follow a similar slide. We aren't going to bomb these countries, so shouldn't we use our other tools well?
Ever since George Washington warned about "entangling alliances", we in America have been happy to think of all foreign policy as really military policy. That was not so bad in the 1800s, when we could mostly ignore the world; and it wasn't so bad in the Cold War, in which the top priority really was military deterrence. Now we've got enemies like terrorists that don't have governments to make war on, and problem states like North Korea (too dangerous to ignore yet too painful to invade) or China (too valuable to shut out, too opportunistic to trust). We really need some power over other countries that doesn't involve missile launches and troop landings. Yesterday's Marshall Plan and today's European example shows that we already have that kind of power -- if we can figure out how to use it.
[E1] Mudville OpenPostLink.
April 23, 2005
Modern War: Gentlemen Versus Bandits, Or the Return of Knights in Shining Armor
Strategists will tell you that these days most of America's wars are asymmetric: the enemy's tools and goals are not the same as ours. But one of the oddest differences in recent years has been between the enemy's fighting men and ours. American troops at home get pointed to as peacetime citizens who embody not just patriotism but also hard work, candor, self-sacrifice, and dedication to community. On the enemy's side, while there may be plenty of civilian sympathizers for violent campaigns of Serbian ethnic cleansing or Afghan hyper-Islamism or Iraqi insurgency, the actual troops of our enemies are increasingly often society's least respected: criminals, unemployed, and generically angry young men. America's wars these days are a matter of gentlemen fighting bandits. There's a "knights versus rabble" matchup in America's wars that hasn't been normal for war in five hundred years, and it tells a secret truth about how much the rest of the world has quietly accepted American priorities.
As Max Manwaring's recent Army War College paper points out, our enemies today often look more like casual urban gangs than popular or national armies. In Iraq, men often confess to having launched attacks for the insurgency because they were unemployed and needed the money; in the Serbian conflicts and in Sudan today, the "soldiers" for the ethnic militias were very often the local criminal or bandit gangs recruited for a suddenly government-approved purpose; in Somalia during the early 90's, and in Columbia's cities' poorer neighborhoods today, "the local militia" and "the local street gang" refer to the same people. American troops have to expect to often face enemies who think and operate like gang members, not soldiers.
Even when we look at organized armies, America's military is today a different beast from the rest of the world. America invests far more in training its ordinary servicemen than anyone except Britain. Hardly anyone else except the Europeans has an armed forces where so many sergeants have ten or twenty years of experience; fewer still try to make career soldiers of so many privates; no one else trains for so many kinds of missions, so often, under conditions so close to live combat. Writers like Dana Priest and Robert Kaplan have recorded how American military missions get far more respect than American diplomats in developing countries. In those countries the army is often the country's one well-organized and disciplined institution. Indeed, coups in poor countries are often initially popular out of hope that the less-corrupt military can clean up the civilians' mess. Instead, unfortunately, usually the mess dirties the military. But the military folk in a country like Nigeria are able to see at once that the American servicemen represent a different breed altogether, the kind of military they'd like to be.
America's research labs and America's businesses lead the world by only a modest and shrinking amount. It's easy to find particular kinds of science or business where the lead belongs to Europe or Japan. But no one (not even China, yet) has had the combined money and will to create an army or air force with training and equipment on par with the United States. And as far as I can tell, no other country thinks of its soldiers in peacetime as such respectable people as Americans think of theirs -- which is another reflection of the level of discipline and the relative selectivity of American troops. A Vietnam veteran said to me in a Mudville Gazette comment thread that he's seen would-be Marine enlistees put on waiting lists today when they would have been shunted into Officer Candidate School in his time. Today's American military really has a huge current edge man-for-man over any other force on the planet -- and that's unprecedented in the last five hundred years.
The normal thing has been for major war to be an affair of equals, where one nation's half-drafted half-volunteer citizens fight the same kinds of people on the other side. Draft-supported armies fought one another in the Korean War, in World War II, in the Civil War, in the Napoleonic Wars. Even in Vietnam the people on both sides were their country's most ordinary folk: while the Vietnamese Communists may have used "asymmetric" guerrilla tactics to fight our largely conventional army, and while plenty of Vietnamese had no liking for Communism, as an individual the typical Vietnamese Communist fighter who set booby traps to kill Americans was just as much in peacetime a perfectly "ordinary Vietnamese Nguyen" as his American enemy was an "ordinary American Joe."
And if we go back further in time, to the wars of the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s, the fighters on both sides were usually career warriors enlisted from society's most restless, least employable or most noble-blooded (the three often went together). Even in wars against technologically handicapped colonized peoples, the two sides' lead fighters were often social equals. The aristocratic British officers who conquered India and later put down the Indian Mutiny in 1857 were going up against native leaders who were from India's own upper crust; when Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico in the early 1500's, his Spanish knights were fighting Aztec warrior elites. For the last five hundred years of Western history, war has been fought mostly by people of the same social groups who happened to belong to different nations.
So what has changed that now the rest of the world will allow the American military to stand without real competition? Even China and Iran's military budgets come to far smaller fractions of their economies than the Soviet Union spent preparing against America during the Cold War. Why is it that so many of our enemies and potential military missions come from the sphere of street gangs and glorified mobs?
The answer may be that the America's military today has acquired a status last seen in the West five hundred years ago, in the days when there really were knights in shining (or at least not rusty) armor. In the medieval and Renaissance years, Europe didn't have much in the way of law and justice -- and because of that, a great deal of respect was given to those who could plausibly present themselves as public-minded enforcers of law and justice. Those, roughly, were the knights. Knights were often selfish, and even when they weren't, they were likely not to share or understand the ideals of the peasants and tradesmen and priests they protected. But if the knights did their job of protecting the rest of society from bandits and thugs, any amount of carelessness might be forgiven.
The original institution of knights, of quality fighters as a separate breed from ordinary folk, came about because in the disordered poverty of medieval times money and training were at a premium: in the Middle Ages well-equipped professional fighters were not just an occupation, but a distinct social class. In today's world, the money and national will to raise a modern professional army are again at a premium; today, the developed world's well-equipped professional fighters have not just an occupation, but a distinct nationality: American.
Like the medieval knights, the American military today is an elite that is grudgingly recognized by the rest of the world as serving a useful role, even when they aren't trusted or liked. For hundreds of years, no one but bandits and mobs rose against the knights, because everyone else in the "developed" fraction of woefully poor medieval Europe had too much of a stake in their own occupations to horn in on the knights. But eventually gunpowder technology and pike formations allowed effective armies to be made out of people who weren't career horsemen. Then kings and tradesmen and merchants assaulted the privileges of the knightly families. Likewise, if and when technology gives other developed countries a way to field armies that can match up to America's, we may see America opposed more seriously, maybe more violently, then it has been up to now.
But for right now, however much they complain, China and France and Germany and Brazil all see the United States, and especially the American military, as a force that maintains an order in the world that's convenient for them -- and because they benefit from that order, they don't invest in an arms race to overturn it. Even China is happy with the world order as long as it makes room for China to achieve rising status and prestige. Right now, the American military are the developed world's knights -- elite, set apart, not always trusted or liked, but granted a certain respect for the burden they spare everyone else and for the common order they preserve.
Knights are supposed to fight bandits, and that's what America's knights will continue to do. In fact, you can argue that one reason the terrorists were able to achieve 9/11 was that we put off dealing with those particular bandits for too long. As long as we're vigorous about fighting the little enemies, no one will see much need to invest in their own armies, which itself will keep us from having to face big enemies.
We should be glad as long as our enemies continue to be more like street gangs than professional soldier elites. If ever that changes -- if people start being willing to invest in armies serious enough to fight us on even terms -- it will mean both that America has acquired much more serious enemies, and that the post-Cold War world that we've come to take for granted is about to be thrown over for a new set of struggles. It would also probably mean that other countries had gone from liking to complain about America to seriously doubting America. And I like living in an America that ultimately people have to admit they respect. I like it that the America's uniformed services are full of people whom, even when America's policies aren't agreed with, can command the kind of grudging but genuine respect once held by knights in armor.
[E1] Mudville OpenPostLink
April 20, 2005
Our Military's Viagra Problem (General Inflexible Versus Corporal Dynamic)
Our four-star officers have a Viagra problem. I mean they're stiff -- really stiff. You see it in the F/A-22, the DD(X), the FCS, and more. Lately, so consistently that it's just plain eerie, all the military's good news has at its roots our professional and adaptable lower ranks, and all the bad news traces back to inflexible thinking in the upper ranks. Some organizations change from the top down, but the American military seems to be changing from the bottom up -- and not yet far enough up.
It used to be the seniors who were the brain trust -- back in Korea and to some extent in Vietnam, ordinary troops and junior officers were sometimes just completely out of their depth. See the sad tale of Task Force Smith, or the retreat from the Yalu River, or the total breakdown between drafted soldiers and undertrained junior officers in Vietnam War that made men using grenades on their own officers a frequent enough event that it got its own ugly new word -- "fragging." But today, it's the senior officers, in all the services, who most often show up as America's weak point -- not because they're dumb, but because they can't bend themselves enough to handle unfamiliar challenges.
Let's start with the ugly stuff, because it's more fun to end on an uplifting note. (Besides, what good is a military you can't complain about?) Here follow tales of astonishing stiffness in high places.
Torture In a Foreign Language: you may recall that the Defense Department more or less has asked the American public to accept that harsh interrogation methods, even with occasional breakdowns into outright sadism as in Abu Ghraib, are the price of getting the facts we need from prisoners to prevent terrorism. But it turns out these same generals, who are ready to ask the public to relax one of our toughest moral taboos and say yes to something like torture, have not been willing to train personnel as Arabic linguists to persuade or trick these same prisoners into talking! In fact, even already-trained and desperately overworked Arabic linguists have been dismissed from the Army -- for being gay; yet somehow I don't think the victims of 9/11 would have minded if the plot had been discovered by a gay soldier.
Read the recent book of an Army interrogator in Afghanistan, and two things rapidly become clear: that our interrogators take both their job and their morality very seriously, and that the military higher-ups aren't willing to spend one extra penny on giving them the resources to actually do their job. Make "human intelligence" a military priority and train Arabic linguists? It's just too different.
The Fighter Plane With No One Left to Fight: the Air Force's leaders are desperate to get Congress to build lots of F/A-22 Raptor fighter planes. The Raptor is a superb airplane for killing other airplanes, and it would be quite useful if we get into a high-intensity war with China or India or Russia -- and almost useless in any other scenario. The F/A-22 is to the Air Force what doubling the chip speed is to your computer: sometimes useful, but frankly you'd probably rather have smarter software. In fact, at the same time as the Air Force's leaders are lobbying for money for fancy fighter planes, other technologies that the Air Force could get a lot more use out of are being neglected.
From the Gulf War through Kosovo and Afghanistan to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the air assets most consistently in demand have been long-ranged missiles, sensor and communications aircraft, and unmanned air vehicles. All of these would be useful and sometimes vital in almost any future war, unlike the only sometimes useful and never vital F/A-22. (Yes, we could face superior fighters someday -- and we could shoot them down with old fighters with superior missiles. It's no coincidence that when India's pilots faced off against American ones in training recently, the American pilots were ordered not to launch missiles from long range.) The Air Force generals can't imagine an Air Force defined by strengths other than its fighter planes. The USAF delivering success through cruise missiles, reconnaissance planes, unmanned drones? It's just too different.
The Ship That Sank The Navy: the Navy's new DD(X) destroyer is so expensive that it may blow the whole fleet budget, yet everybody, even the admirals, agrees in principle that the Navy's new priority needs to be not open-sea destroyers but small craft for close-to-shore ("littoral") operations. Yet to reconfigure the budget to match the future Navy's direction? Just too different!
The Army Technology That the Army Doesn't Understand: The Future Combat Systems (FCS) initiative aims to transform the army by complementing our regular tanks and infantry carriers with what amounts to a 21st-century cavalry force: units that will be much quicker to deploy, understand, maneuver, and react. The FCS vision revolves around lightweight vehicles, precision RAM (rockets, artillery and mortars) and lots and lots of unmanned surveillance vehicles. Now when FCS was last in the news, the New York Times complained it amounted to a force designed for fighting conventional wars, not guerrillas. A few days later, the Times had an article about the heavy demand in Iraq for unmanned surveillance vehicles to fight guerrillas. Did the Army sources for the article point out that that was just what FCS could be good at? No. They didn't see the connection themselves. Compared to the tanks the leaders are used to, FCS is, well... just too different.
So there's a pretty broad tradition of sad and sometimes disastrous inflexibility at the top. But before we talk too much about hidebound military ways, let's take a look at our Viagra-free enlisted folk and junior officers, who have been displaying none of the seniors' stiffness:
Roger That, And How Many Bombs Do Your Horsemen Need?: Even while the Air Force generals prayed for an enemy they could have a dogfight with, ordinary Air Force pilots developed whole new techniques of operation to let them support ground troops in ways they never have before. In Afghanistan, pilots coordinated so closely with soldiers and marines that one analyst described our airpower as operating as "flying artillery." And, in fact, our pilots cooperated with a Special Forces officer in a tactic you won't find in any manual that nonetheless won the battle that ignited the collapse of the Taliban, when at Mazar-e-Sharif they managed to drop bombs in close support of a literal cavalry charge of Afghan horsemen.
We Train With Rifles, We Fight With Plungers: Our soldiers do whatever it takes, including drains. In Iraq, while the senior officers muttered that insurgents were "different from the enemy we wargamed against," sergeants and lieutenants, many with experience in peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo, have adapted rather well to Iraq's mix of patrols, sewage repairs, and only occasional fighting -- the current level of 40 attacks per day works out to about one attack per 100 troops per month. Even units with comparatively offensive missions compare it less to Army training and more to Los Angeles gang neighborhoods. Yet the complaints about the strangeness of the mission come not from the juniors, but the seniors.
Who Needs A Fair Fight Anyway?: while newspaper reports have tended to focus on America's military's gee-whiz technology, analysis by Stephen Biddle of the Strategic Studies Institute suggests that even if the Iraqis and Americans had traded weapons, the Americans would still have crushed the Iraqi army in both the Gulf War and in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In recent years, American troops have simply fired, maneuvered, covered, and otherwised practiced their soldierly skills far better than their enemies -- or than American soldiers in the early years of most of our wars (see, for example, Kasserine Pass).
So why are junior military men flexible where senior officers aren't? The easy answer to give is that the senior officers all got their hands-on combat experience from Vietnam and the Gulf War, while the juniors spent the 90's on peacekeeping work in Bosnia or enforcing no-fly zones to protect Kurds. But I suspect the real answer has to do with the different training -- or anti-training -- the services have provided our junior and senior ranks.
After Vietnam, the military services made major investments in finding ways to train and professionalize their enlisted folk and junior officers, including efforts that these days range from virtual-reality peacekeeping scenarios to simulated duels for fighter pilots in the air at Red Flag to "laser tag" matches for hundreds of tanks battling it out on the ground at the National Training Center. The Defense Science Board found that the data shows what good sergeants have always known: good training has huge impact. Today's enlisted troops and junior officers are simply operating at a higher pitch of skill and confidence than any army before.
But even as the lower ranks' training was improved, senior officers were given incentives to hunker down and mentally stagnate. During the 1990's, the end of the Cold War cut the military in half. Effectively, every four-star officer today is the survivor of years of continual huge layoffs. And any business executive will tell you that the first casualties of a layoff-threatened workplace are flexibility and initiative. Today's senior officers have largely survived the great purge by having "zero defects," by succeeding by the book, by avoiding unconventional approaches. Our generals and admirals have been trained to be inflexibly conventional -- just when our wars are becoming the opposite.
Some senior officers are as innovative as you could ask for (although they often work to hide it from their peers), and few four-stars are anything less than intelligent, motivated, and wholeheartedly committed to doing right by their country. But thinking outside the box has been trained right out of many of them, and all of us are paying for it. America's wars are only going to get more unpredictable, not less. Even right now the two most plausible interventions are deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and stopping genocide in central Africa, and neither of those is exactly a conventional smash-the-enemy-army enterprise.
Time will probably loosen up the four-stars' minds. The only obvious faster solutions would be either (A) evaluation systems that focused less on avoiding errors and more on achieving greatness or (B) a leadership decison to seek out and promote unconventional thinkers. But both of those are easier said than done. In fact, in an institution like the military, where errors get people killed, both of those could be cures worse than the disease. You want flexible leaders, not careless ones!
But the inflexibility problem in our senior military is real; we can see it costing us in blood and in billions these days, over and over, and it's a damn shame. If you have a good cure for the military's senior officers' Viagra problem, pass it on. They could use a little less stiffness.
April 19, 2005
China's Two Fates, or How Beijing is Like a Vibrating Piano Wire
Yesterday's analysis of Chinese military history might lead you to think that war with China must be inevitable as soon as China's leaders face a serious domestic crisis. Fortunately that's not the case: the Chinese leadership have another option to shore up their appeal with the population, and they know it -- democracy. China's leaders have decreed elections with some competition in a large number of villages and a small number of townships; that's pretty far from the center of power, but close enough that if a Chinese leadership faction thought that provincial or even national elections would make them more powerful than their rivals, the infrastructure would be in place to make the elections happen.
"There is still one-party rule in China but today every village must hold direct elections and this generates awareness of the individual’s democratic rights throughout the system. People think that if uneducated farmers are capable of voting, then why not everyone?" - Jian Yi
While China is no democracy now, all its leaders have imbibed the idea of democracy as "what developed countries do", and Chinese Communist Party politicians these days use "democratic reforms" as a cudgel to beat their opponents with the way their fathers and uncles used "Marxist reforms." Township governments have actually pushed to hold local elections that are more free than the national government wants -- either because they find they need it for their authority or because they see it as good for the community. Every year makes China more technologically developed and more ready for war, and every year also makes China more susceptible to democracy and consequent long-term peace.
We trick ourselves if we think about China as fixed in any particular shape, belligerent or awkward or helpful. If ever the image of a China set in its ways was true, now it's better to think about China as a country being remolded by two strong and often contradictory forces: the roaring development of its economy and the transformation of nearly all its institutions.
Imagine a piano wire being struck over and over by a hammer: will the wire take the blows or will it snap off its pins? To answer that question, you won't look at the up-and-down vibrations of the wire at any given moment -- those would just distract you. You'll look at how strong the hammer blows are, and how resilient the wire seems to be. The fate of the piano wire doesn't lie in its appearance at any moment, but in which of the forces acting on it, the driving force or the restoring force, will dominate over time. China's fate is the same.
April 18, 2005
For China, Foreign War Is Just A Tool For Domestic Politics
People misunderstand what's going on with China if they think their current threatening protests against Japan, or their earlier national law approving war to reclaim Taiwan, mean that we should start a military buildup. Maybe we should, but here's a strange fact: you can't necessarily ward off war with China by making it clear that their forces would lose. Of course China is not mad for territory the way Nazi Germany was, and it isn't a believer in an ultimate world-revolutionary war like the Russians under the Soviet Union. But whether it's talk of China someday going to war over Taiwan, or to reclaim the islands China disputes with Japan, or anything else, it's important to remember: Chinese leaders have a tradition of risking military defeats to score political victories.
One reason is that Chinese citizens, like Americans, think of their country as history's chosen winner. Chinese people know that their country has been the leading civilization in the world through most of about two thousand years of human history up to 1800. It's not surprising that modern Europeans see war as a good way to be terrified and ruined, because World War I and II and the Cold War terrified and (in two of the three) ruined them. That's today's European view, even as modern Americans figure based on the same history that we'll win almost any war we decide we really have to fight. And modern Chinese figure from their history that their country is fated to always bounce back from foreign oppression, and so it's better to fight than let foreigners screw you over -- and getting screwed by foreigners happened continually to China from about 1840 to 1945. 1898-1900 saw the breakout of the Boxer Rebellion ("United Fists for Justice"), an uprising whose members declared that the government was too weak against rapacious foreigners. Chinese citizens worry less that their leaders won't be prudent than that China's leaders won't stand up to foreign enemies and be properly tough. In China today, unlike Europe, it's easy for the leadership to make fighting with another country popular.
And since the Communists took over, China has waged "political wars" with almost all its neighbors, sometimes with an eye on territory but mostly just to show that China has to be taken seriously. In 1954 China bombarded the Taiwan-controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu -- not because it was committed to seize them, but to make Taiwan think twice about using them as bases for action against China. In 1969, China provoked a series of fights on its northern border with the Soviet Union -- not because China thought it would win a serious war, but just to show the Russians that China couldn't be pushed around like the smaller Communist bloc countries. In 1979, China sent thousands of troops into the territory of its sometime ally Vietnam for a month -- not to take any specific prize from the Vietnamese, but just to push the Vietnamese into cooperating more with China and less with the Soviet Union. Chinese leaders have been happy to take territory when they think they can, as when they pushed India out of some Himalayan valleys in 1962, or when they tried and failed to push the American-led forces all the way out of Korea in 1951, but conquering territory has never been necessary for the Communist government to consider a war a success. In fact, the Communists' most useful foreign war was a moderately successful foreign invasion: when Japan went to full-scale conquering occupation of China in 1937, anti-Japanese popular sentiments sent the Communists' popularity skyrocketing, and paved the way for the Communist takeover of all of mainland China from the Nationalists in the years after World War II. With some exceptions, Communist China's wars have been about political leverage first, territory a distant second.
China's history, ancient as well as modern, teaches its leaders that whether you win or lose, war by itself rarely makes permanent changes. This contradicts the whole experience of every other civilization, in which war takes on a life of its own and can massively alter or even annihilate whole countries. The United States appeared on the map because of a war neither the colonists nor the British Parliament wanted in 1776, and the USA doubled its size by an almost casual war with Mexico in 1846-1848. Over in Europe, half the countries on the map at the end of World War II in 1945 didn't even exist on the map before World War I in 1914. Indians, Persians, and Arabs have all experienced huge territorial divisions and reallocations through war. But China is different. On the map, you see the same heartland of Han (the central Chinese cultural ethnicity) Chinese folk under a single rule with astonishingly similar boundaries whether under under the Han dynasty near 0 AD, under the T'ang in the 800s, or the Ming in the 1500s. China's river-linked agricultural zones tended to pull the Han Chinese heartland back under one government whenever it temporarily split; China's sheer size and cultural depth tended to assimilate or overthrow would-be outside conquerors; and most of all, China's geography made it hard for either China or foreign nations to make big territorial shifts. China is bordered on the west by Tibetan and Uighur/Turkic mountain zones, on the north by the Mongols' steppe grasslands, on the east by the Pacific Ocean and on the south by the jungles of Laos and Vietnam. Armies that were successful in China tended to fail in these border lands with such different terrain, and vice versa. Even in modern times, the Europeans were able to enforce special privileges for Europeans on China in the 1800s, but never were able to annex more than small enclaves of China as direct European territory -- unlike India and Vietnam, which were wholly British and French property respectively by 1900. And in the 1930s the Japanese, with a huge technology and training advantage, found their armies inadequate to secure even a fraction of China from continual rebellion when Japan tried to conquer coastal China. So China's leaders have good reason to think war won't give China major permanent gains or cost China permanent losses. China's history teaches that war really is just a very violent way of making a political point.
Going to war for political leverage without seeking decisive change seems deeply wrong and stupid to most Americans. Our last attempts at non-decisive punitive war came in the 90's when President Clinton ordered missile strikes on Osama bin Laden or sent bombing raids against Saddam Hussein, and those didn't impress anyone. Democracies, especially ours, seem to prefer wars to be decisive or not at all. But non-decisive political wars have often been used by autocratic governments to distract their citizens from domestic troubles. The Argentinian junta hoped to shore themselves up with their population when they temporarily seized the Falkland Islands from Britain in 1982. The Egyptian government pulled off a more successful political war with their surprise crossing of the Suez Canal to seize a piece of Sinai from the Israelis in 1973: as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat told his generals, it didn't matter if they could only seize and hold 100 square meters -- that would be enough to prove to everyone that Egypt was a power Israel had to respect. And back in 1914, one of the factors that drove the German and Russian Empires into war was their belief that leftist politicians would feel a patriotic duty to stop agitating for socialism and support the government and the troops. (The leftists did quiet down -- for a while.) Sadly, China today fits this "limited war for political purposes" template of an autocratic government troubled by increasingly frequent citizen protests. So both China's own history, and that of similar governments, suggest that China's warmaking decision will follow domestic politics more than the odds of traditional military success.
But Americans and Europeans still think that war always means decisive war, which means that a country like China should be willing to do almost anything to avoid war with a big country like America or Japan. We think of gains through war as, in the words of Norman Angell, The Great Illusion. Angell predicted that industrialized countries would not go to war; four years later, World War I began. It does seem that democracies rarely go to war with one another, but China is not a democracy. China's leaders don't have to worry about votes from war widows. And realistically, looking at their history, wars -- even losing wars -- have been a pretty acceptable gamble. So why should China's leaders take our attitudes about war when theirs have worked for decades and centuries? China thinks of war as usually limited and political; what Chinese leaders are watching is not the military balance outside China, but the domestic politics inside China.
This doesn't mean China's leaders think war is safe; it means they're watching a different set of risks from the rest of us -- the domestic political risks. The economic cost to China of a protracted war (or an economic blockade after a war) would be huge, and China's leaders firmly believe that a major recession could cost them their government. So war is not likely unless political tensions in China get extreme. But if China's domestic politics get rough, China may follow the path of Egypt in 1973, Argentina in 1982, and China's own leaders for a long time past, and launch a war that China's leaders may not intend -- and may not need -- to win.
April 17, 2005
The Return of the Special Interest Paradox
Brad Plumer wonders why so few people are defending free trade anymore, and on Kevin Drum's site people wonder both about free trade and why so few Congressmen are defending the estate tax; but really it's the same thing in both cases: the Paradox of the Special Interest. The paradox goes like this:
In a democracy, the fewer the number of people in a lobbying group, the easier it is for them to get a special giveaway from the government.
That sounds completely backwards, since in a democracy voters mean power -- but that's true of voters against a cause as much as voters for it. Laws that improve the lives of tens of millions of people usually also make life difficult for tens of millions of other people. But laws that put money in the pocket of 10,000 or 20,000 people, like the estate tax, can spread their cost over literally ten thousand times as many people as receive the benefit. Just as insurance companies work by collecting small amounts from five hundred people to cover large payouts to four or five people, special interest giveaways work by taking small amonts of money from all of us -- too small for most of us to write our Representatives or Senators -- to cover big gifts to a favored five or ten thousand people.
It's because so few people are now profiting from tariffs, because free trade has gone so far (economies are more trade-oriented now than anytime in the last century or so), that it's easy for those few to hang on to their trade protection.
Of course, really big special-interest giveaways require sympathetic excuses, like "protecting hard-working textile workers" for clothing tariffs (they are hard-working -- and so are all the people in all our other lines of work who accept foreign competition so that we can all have low prices at the store), or "not double-taxing the businesses built by entrepreneurs who've worked hard for the sake of their children" (it is double taxation, but so is the sales tax -- and most large inheritances are stocks and bonds, not personal businesses).
But it is precisely because free trade has covered so much of our economy that the beneficiaries of the last remaining tariffs (mostly textiles and farming) can rely on our sympathy to overcome the damage their tariffs do to the rest of our pocketbooks -- the cost to each of us is so small that we don't sit up and take notice. And something similar is true with the estate tax: there have been so many huge tax cuts since 2001 that ending the estate tax just doesn't seem like a big deal anymore. In fact, Grover Norquist of the Club for Growth at one point described this as a deliberate strategy -- to have a tax cut every year, regular as clockwork, until people would just plain take it for granted and not argue. It seems to be working, because now no one can quite summon up the outrage at includinng the richest few in the general flow of tax breaks.
Because these groups are small, they can persuade Congressmen to vote them big bucks, since few of us will notice enough and be shocked enough to push our Congressmen to stand against them. The smaller the group, the bigger the feasible giveaway.
There are government institutions that are largely immune to special interests and many other political shenanigans. They're the ones that are run by Congressionally appointed boards rather than directly by the President and Congress -- the Federal Reserve, the Supreme Court, the National Institutes of Health. But something tells me Congress isn't going to hand over its tax laws to an appointed board anytime soon. Power, after all, is awfully hard to let go. And what's more powerful than the power to take your property by force of law?
I seem to recall we had a revolution about that once...
April 14, 2005
Southern Slaves, Japanese Atrocities: Is it Wrong to Teach Kids to Admire Their Ancestors?
In the American South today, it's still traditional to emphasize the positive aspect of Southern resistance in the Civil War -- that most Southern soldiers owned no slaves and fought not for money or power but to defend their fellow (white) citizens' self-government from power-seizing Northern outsiders. It's traditional to spend as little time as possible on the negative aspect: the fact that, as proclaimed in South Carolina's declaration of secession, the Southern political leaders' immediate motive for secession was to guarantee that 4 million of the men and women in the South, the ones who happened to have black skin, could be kept as slaves to be bought and used and sold by the other 8 million. Both aspects are real; many Southerners prefer to think about the uplifting aspect and not the chilling one. Is that wrong? There are still racists around, but no one prominent seems to be advocating slavery any more. You could argue that Southern kids should be taught a version of their history that will serve as an inspiring moral example, even if it underplays the wrongs of slavery or the extraordinary determination of Southern political leaders to preserve it. Are the "positive history of the South" teachers doing wrong?
In Japan today, students are taught a version of Japanese history that leaves out what Japan's leaders and soldiers did in the 1930's and 40's, when they set to carve out a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" founded on Japanese rule over China, Korea, and the rest of Pacific Asia -- a Japanese rule that included treating non-Japanese Asians as close to subhuman. Between 20,00 and 300,000 Korean women were forced to be prostitutes for the benefit of local Japanese occupiers. Chinese were subjected to orgies of loot, rape and slaughter, up to hundreds of thousands killed at a time, when Japanese generals thought the local population needed to be properly intimidated. Japan's behavior in the years leading up to World War II was not as bad as that of Nazi Germany's, whose facism they were in many ways imitating, but it was still horrible. Japanese textbooks today mostly just leave out Japan's behavior toward foreigners in the 30's and 40's, and leave their students knowing nothing about what Japan did in the 20th century except that there was a war that ended with atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagaski. Is that wrong?
Now South Korea and China are lobbying against Japan getting a permanent seat on the Security Council, and a big part of the reason is that they feel that Japan can't be trusted, because it doesn't sufficiently acknowledge its past misdeeds, whitewashes its textbooks, and treats its dead soldiers from World War II as simple heroes. You notice far less antagonism toward Germany from France, Belgium, Poland and Ukraine, even though the Nazi occupations of those countries was often brutal. The tensions are real but much less. Is that because postwar Germany made a greater though still uneasy commitment to treating Hitler's reign as an evil to acknowledge and atone for? Is it because fifty years of the Cold War gave European countries reason to worry about America and Russia instead of each other? And is there really a difference between Germans today and Japanese today -- would one group be more trustworthy with power over other nations than the other?
Does the way we teach kids their history matter?
April 13, 2005
Will You Wait Twenty Years for Your Next Raise?
Basically, your paycheck is going to get smaller. We don't yet know it for certain -- the latest numbers could be just a fluke -- but it looks as if most Americans working at ordinary jobs may be in for twenty years of being left stranded even as the economy grows. You can get a taste of what's coming from this New York Times article.
Here's the problem: for the first time in decades, your average real salary has fallen in a year when the economy was strong. By the numbers, when you add in non-salary compensation (mostly health benefits), workers got less than half the gains that would be normal for this level of economic growth -- and much of the raises that were given out went to the top 5 percent of workers. Shrinking paychecks during a recession is grimly normal, but we're years past the 2001 recession. Of course, no one gets big raises when the economy is stagnant, like it was in the 1970s. But the economy as a whole is booming now. In 2004, most people in your community probably had their paychecks stay flat or shrink in real terms -- during a year when our economy grew by a strong 4%.
If you're thinking a strong economy should have meant big raises, you're right. Since World War II, about 75% of the country's growth has usually turned immediately into salary increases for ordinary workers. What's that translate into? Well, for an ordinary worker in a year like 2004 when the economy grows by about 4%, you could expect a real raise of about $1500. But last year, only about 30% of the country's growth went to salaries and benefits -- that translates into a typical real raise of $600. The worst part is those shrunken gains are likely to continue.
We tend to think that it's only natural for a growing economy to make workers better off, but the dirty little secret is that's not actually guaranteed. When it's easy for workers to switch jobs, then it's easy for workers to hold out for good pay, and ordinary people end up capturing a big share of economic growth. But when it's hard for workers to find jobs, and easy for companies to replace unwanted workers, then companies keep most of their profit growth for themselves and their investors -- and workers get screwed.
It all comes down to unemployment. The closer unemployment comes to zero without setting off inflation, the bigger the share of economic gains go to employees. A full-employment economy is a big-raise economy is a "rising tide raises all boats" economy. But if for some reason unemployment is stuck at a level of 6% instead of 4%, that doesn't just mean 2% of workers can't find jobs; it means 90% of workers find it very hard to get the leverage for a good raise. And that's where we're at now in America: unemployment is stuck at a higher level than it should be. Modern business practices made it possible in the 90s for the economy to run at 4% unemployment without inflation -- yet now unemployment is almost half again as large. As long as unemployment stays high, most Americans are going to see their paychecks stay flat or shrink.
So why is unemployment high? Because companies are running out of raw materials and customers before they run out of workers. There's no point in a construction firm hiring more workers when it can't afford to buy more concrete and steel. There's no point in a factory running extra shifts when it can't afford to burn the oil and gas it takes to keep the machines running. And there's no point in a hospital hiring more nurses if it doesn't have more patients. In the last few years, supplies and new customers have been scarce, while workers have been plentiful, and so companies have been expanding to the limit of their supplies and customer bases instead of to their limit of available workers; which means high unemployment, which means no raises.
There seem to be two big reasons for this paycheck-starving state of "scarce supplies, scarce customers, plenty of workers": one is China and India connecting themselves to the industrialized economy, and the other is the shift in America away from producing manufactured goods and toward producing services. If you add up the populations of the industrialized countries, you get about 2 billion people. China and India have another 2 billion people. Now that both China and India have finally gotten their laws, roads, and telephone systems to the point where all kinds of businesses can set up shop in those two countries, essentially the supply of workers in the world has just doubled. The same amount of new business and the same amount of raw materials are suddenly trying to spread themselves over twice as many workers. China and India represent for the rest of the world a drought of materials, and a glut of workers. Eventually China and India will become developed enough that their citizens will buy lots of consumer goods and services from the rest of the world, so that they'll create even more new businesses in other countries than they suck away. But that's going to take twenty years.
But there's another plausible reason that America has more workers than business openings is right here at home: we've shifted to a service economy, but haven't yet figured out how to quickly grow service businesses. When most Americans were in the business of making products that sat on shelves, it was straightforward for successful new businesses to grow rapidly: they bought or built more factories, turned out more goods, and sent them out to more store shelves to be sold. But now the typical new American job is as a nurse in a hospital, or a hairdresser in a salon, or a technician in a computer repair firm. Bringing in new business to a hospital, salon, or computer repair shop turns out to be a lot trickier and slower than putting more refrigerators or fuzzy dice into stores.
Consider the difference between "picking a good car" and "picking a good doctor." The average American uses several thousand dollars a year in (mostly insurance-paid) medical care, and by the time you're 40 it's easy to feel that a quality doctor is probably more important than a quality car. Yet between the two purchases, both important and expensive, you can get an absolute flood of information from Autobytel, Edmunds.com, Car&Driver, etc. about just what car will be best for you -- but almost no information beyond friends' recommendations about what doctor will be best for you. Or consider "picking the right TV" versus "picking the right plumber." Or "picking the best shirt" versus "picking the best hair salon".
As buyers, we're not able to research and hunt for a really good deal in services the way we take for granted when looking for physical goods. And that means that the successful service businesses, the ones that want to expand and hire more workers, can't expand their customer base that quickly, so can't hire those workers that quickly -- and so more people stay unemployed, and nobody gets a raise.
In the long run, we'll somehow develop a reputation system for services, an Amazon.com for doctors and cafes and hair salons, and then this country's next Starbucks will be able to expand just as fast as the next iPod. But meanwhile, our shift to a service economy means that we may have too-high unemployment for many years to come.
We didn't have these kinds of problems in the 90s, but in the 90s, the stock market was so juiced up that everybody could expand without worrying about an immediate profit. We paid for that devil-may-care expansion with the recession of 2001, but it now looks like that boom was covering up bigger problems.
So what can we do to get back ordinary people's share of economic growth? Well, there's a stupid answer, a leftist answer, and a technocratic answer. The stupid answer is to cut off trade with India and China. But that would bring huge price rises in all the ordinary goods Indian and Chinese businesses make for us, which give the average familly a trade benefit that amounts to about a ten percent boot to annual income -- so should we really give everyone a ten percent cut in family income now to get better pay raises later? The leftist answer is to raise taxes on corporations, investors and the rich to allow a corresponding lowering of taxes, and effective income increase, for the working and middle class. But it's been a long time since we had a tax measure that drastic, and it certainly won't happen unless there's a Democratic President, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic House of Representatives -- which is three more than there are right now. The technocratic answer is to have the government make it easier for businesses to hire more workers, whether by taking up more of the costs of health care, or giving credits or low-interest loans to expanding businesses, or any of a number of policies. But historically politics tends to corrupt these kinds of government interventions and make them misfire. So there are no easy answers.
On the other hand, the 2004 numbers could be just a fluke. Maybe this will all go away. But maybe, with India and China providing tons of workers and using tons of materials, with American service businesses at home not yet able to expand their customer base the way manufacturing businesses could -- maybe we're in for a long nasty decade or two where unemployment is too high, and worker leverage low, and nobody but the top few get a good raise.
It's happened before. Back in England in the mid-1800s, an amateur economist looked at the historical data and observed, correctly, that the course of English economic growth had somehow made ordinary workers worse off: to take the crudest measure, an English peasant of 1700 could count on getting significantly more to eat than his descendant in 1840. As it happened, just at the time this fellow was writing a book on this apparently inevitable "immiserization" of the working class, things were changing around. From the mid-1800s on, new cheap-commodity businesses began to expand their customer base and soak up the available labor at a huge rate, and the Englishman of 1900 lived better than his grandfather. Today, the Englishman of 2005 enjoys medicine, entertainment, and even food and clothing options that are not only better than an English peasant of 1705, but better than even an English nobleman of 1805. But that author of political-economic books in the mid-1800s didn't know that things were changing; he thought that the workers' share of economic growth in the past he could observe was going to continue to be the workers' share in the future. As a result, this author made a bunch of confident economic predictions, all based on the future being just like the past, all disastrously wrong. We shouldn't make the same mistake.
The political economist's name? Karl Marx, author of The Communist Manifesto.
April 08, 2005
Taiwan's Secret Weapon Against China: Cameras. Lots of Cameras.
The bad news for Taiwan is that allegedly China might now be able to overrun Taiwan before America can come to the rescue. The hope of China's generals is that if they can just once get hold of Taiwan, Americans won't be willing to come to the rescue of an already-conquered little island whose people only speak English as a second language.
But Taiwan has a secret weapon that can let them guarantee American intervention. Taiwan's best defense against Chinese invasion isn't fighter planes or submarines -- it's cameras. Cameras, and camcorders, and satellite phones.
In 1989, just a handful of news reporters showing pictures of Chinese tanks going after Chinese demonstrators over just a day or two was enough of an outrage to freeze China's international relations for years. If China invades Taiwan, and Taiwanese citizens are able to get out footage of Taiwanese protestors being shot down by Chinese soldiers, day after day, then not all the trade contracts in the world will keep Congress and the President from declaring America obligated to rescue Taiwan.
April 07, 2005
Terrorists' Secret Weapon Against Us: Bureaucracy
Fred Kaplan in Slate is justifiably outraged at just how completely sluggish and unserious the Defense Department has been about getting more Arabic-speaking linguists for the war on terror. How sluggish has DoD been?
In the three and a half years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States built a massive arsenal, equipped an equally massive fighting force, and declared victory in a worldwide war over imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
Now, three and a half years after Islamic fundamentalists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense is three months away from publishing an official "instruction" providing "guidance for language program management."
That's right, three and a half years after 9/11, the Pentagon folk have a plan to make a plan to get more Arabic speakers. They could have taken 10,000 Army soldiers and taught them Arabic from scratch by now. Instead, we have -- not even a plan -- a plan to make a plan to get more Arabic speakers.
How does this happen?
One of the two reasons is the absence of leadership from the top -- that would be Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld: the same man who let us go into Iraq without a backup plan in case we weren't greeted with flowers (argh). But the other reason is bureaucracy.
The Pentagon is an enormous organization. And the bigger the organization, the slower it generally is to do anything new or unfamiliar.
What Fred Kaplan might have added, when he pointed to America's quick reaction to Pearl Harbor, is that back then the Department of Defense had one headquarters staffer for every hundred it has today. One-hundredth the staff -- and a hundred times as nimble.
Incidentally, the CIA has the same problem. Fred Kaplan actually mocked the Iraq intelligence commision's conclusion that the CIA's internal bureaucracy was a major reason for bad intelligence on Iraq, but it happens to be true: if you deliberately designed an organization to suppress rapid development of original thinking, it would look a lot like the modern CIA.
But that's a rant for another day.
April 06, 2005
Iraq: And We All Slowly Lowered Our Guns, Watching Each Other
Kevin Drum worries that the new Iraq government will be ineffective because the regional ethnic leaders will be allowed to keep their militias (the Kurdish peshmergas, Shiite groups like the Badr Brigades, and so on). Will Iraq's brave new government be just a sort of make-believe façade giving polite cover to petty regional tyrants?
We've seen this movie before, in Afghanistan. When the United States brokered the Afghan national government agreement at the loya jirga a couple years ago, everybody complained that President Hamid Karzai was powerless and the real control belonged to warlords like Ismail Khan, who was at best an autocrat and at worst a theocrat like the Taliban. But over time, as people got used to peace, the central government was able to extend its authority, and men like Ismail Khan gave up power.
If there's an end to the insurgency, and the central government doesn't itself show too much of an ethnic bias, the Iraq militias will get disarmed not too long after. If the insurgency lasts, then the central government has bigger problems than the militias.
The only disaster scenario -- which could happen -- is if the militias themselves are wielded in a civil war by the ethnic leaders. There is real tension between the ethnicities. But right now the Kurdish and Shiite leaders seem to think that they can get more out of a peaceful Iraq than an Iraq turned into a Bosnia-style ethnic slaughterhouse.
The Unmysterious Absence of Conservative Professors
Conservatives, by definition, are wary of new ideas. University professors, by their job, are there to try out new ideas.
Being a professor pays much less than private business for the amount of education and competition involved, and has a much higher reputation for "contributing to the public good." Conservatism is traditionally admiring of money earned through business success, and traditionally skeptical about claims that nonprofit jobs contribute especially to the public good.
The Democrats Don't Need More Values, They Need More Answers
When Ronald Reagan in 1980 led the Republican drive to regain power, every American knew what a Republican victory meant: lower taxes, the rollback of government regulations, and an aggressive foreign policy against Communism. It was easy to find people who disagreed whether those three policies would be good, but everybody understood the Republican answers to America's concerns.
Today, the Democrats want to take back power from a Republican Congress and White House -- but it's pretty hard to get a straight answer on what the Democratic politicians are promising to do if they get that power. It's clear they don't like the Republicans' answers for America, but "we're not the Republicans" is never going to be enough to win a majority. No, voters don't count Bible quotes and they don't check philosophical references; but voters sure do like to think they know what they're voting for, and not just what they're voting against.
The Democratic governor of Tennessee has figured this out:
In a recent speech to southern Democrats in Atlanta, Bredesen summed up the Republican party platform as follows: “A traditional view of family, no abortion, no gay marriage, a central role for faith, gun over the mantel, low taxes, an assertive and combative view of American interests abroad.”
He then challenged his colleagues to sum up the Democratic party in less than 30 words. Nobody could oblige. Asked what his 30 words would be, he replied: “I don’t have any yet. I’d be delighted to tell you if I did.”
How do we get a growing economy and good jobs? I know the Republican answer: less taxes and regulation on business. It may be a good answer or a bad answer, but I know what it is. What's the Democrats' answer for growth and jobs? Heck if I know. How do we give families safe and supportive communities? I know the Republican answer: support traditional moral stances, passing laws to underline the stigma of things like premarital sex or homosexuality. It may be an awkward answer, but I know what it is. What's the Democrats' answer to give families the kinds of communities they want? I have no idea.
Howard Dean seems to think it's enough to describe voters' sensitivity to things like gay rights as simply "not logical fears". But of course underneath the gay-rights issue, the underlying fear that important social institutions might fray isn't irrational at all: witness the crime boom of the 70s and 80s, or the rise in divorce rates from about zero to fifty percent today. Megan McArdle had a good post on this. You can argue that the Republicans' answer to "fears for society" is wrongheaded, but it's not irrational to occasionally fear the risk of bad social change. (This is why Bill Clinton put such stress on wanting abortion to be "safe, legal and rare": he wanted to show he sympathized with people who saw abortions as a sign of social decay, and that even if he disagreed with them on whether to make laws against abortion itself, he was with them on their larger concerns about social breakdown.)
I can find individual Democratic leaders and think tanks suggesting all sorts of things. But we all know that parties never get to implement half of what they promise. So a party's core goals, whether they're "lower taxes" or "more civil rights laws", are a lot more important. A grab bag of nice-sounding policies is not the same as a clear party identity.
Of course, in the 1960s, the parties were in the opposite position from today: the Democrats had a clear platform based on civil rights laws, new social welfare programs, and business regulation, while the Republicans (except for the then-wacky Goldwater minority) stood for nothing in particular except not being Democrats. And it's probably no coincidence that back in the 1960s, the Democrats routinely stomped the Republicans. Unfortunately, today's Democratic leaders haven't updated their core answers since the 1960s.
People vote for a party because they like what it stands for. The Democrats don't have to have short snappy plans on every issue -- Reagan certainly didn't. But unless and until today's Democrats can settle on a few things they do stand for, they'll be running on tradition, not excitement. And tradition is all too obviously not enough to win a Democratic majority.
[E1] Added link to the Traffic Jam.
April 05, 2005
Real Tyrants Eat Protesters for Breakfast
You'd almost think a new era had come, in which dictators felt they couldn't get away with oppressing their people -- at least that's how it feels in the afterglow of the peaceful resignations of the rulers of Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Then you look at Belarus, where would-be protesters were immediately beaten up and hauled off to jail. Or Zimbabwe, where Mugabe literally restricts food for opposition voters and has left them so intimidated that they felt it wasn't even worth trying to stage protests of the dictator's rigged elections. Or Burma (Myanmar), where the junta continues to promise but not deliver an end to the policy of imprisoning opposition politicians. Or Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where the dictators practice such a thorough policy of crushing potential opponents that no one even bothers to protest. Unfortunately, protesters' success in places like Ukraine amounts to winning in the easy places, not the hard ones. Nonviolent action can turn token democracies into real democracies. But the world's real tyrants, from North Korea to Zimbabwe, still happily starve, jail and kill all their opponents.
The world seems to be dividing into two extreme camps: countries that really are democratic, and countries that operate by total fear and repression. The nations in the middle, with real but corrupt elections and real but repressed politics, are getting pulled over to the side of true democracy. But the extreme villains aren't moderating. The countries that have just recently gone democratic have all been pretty mild on the scale of tyranny; Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine earned much better scores for liberty in 2003 than their fellow former Soviet republics Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Even Syria's puppet government in Lebanon was nowhere near as harsh as Kim Jong-Il's government in North Korea. In fact the statistics of the world's countries as a whole show this as a pattern: the extremes of true democracy and unlimited dictatorship are both more stable than countries that mix democracy and autocracy. And that's been true for at least the last couple of generations. Indians were able to use protests to get Britain to let India be independent, and South African blacks used largely nonviolent demonstrations and strikes to get equality from the white South African government; but protests completely failed to deter China from locking down its control over Tibet in the 1950s -- or shooting student and worker protesters around Tiananmen Square in 1989. Protests only work when the police and army aren't willing to shoot large numbers of civilians. Even today, a government whose police or soldiers are willing to shoot their fellow citizens can be as tyrannical as it wants.
So how do hard tyrants fall? If they're not overthrown by force, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and if they don't lose the loyalty of the army and police, like the Gang of Four in China, and if they aren't dependent on some outside army's backing as the European Communist despots were, then basically the world's worst tyrants seem to have it easy: they get to rule unchallenged until they die in their beds, like Stalin in Russia or Kim Il-Sung in North Korea. As far as history can tell us, if you want a really nasty tyrant to change his ways, you either have to threaten him with serious force, or shake the confidence of his police and army so that they turn on him, or wait until he dies of old age.
I'd love to know a better answer. But it looks like there's no getting away from the truth: real tyrants eat protesters for breakfast.
[E1] Added a link to our favorite Beltway Traffic Jam.
April 04, 2005
America's Grand Strategy: Preemptive Democracy
Our ultimate world policy goal used to be "less Communism," but now it's "more democracy." Clinton lifted the budget for democracy promotion from $100 million to $700 million, and under the Bush Administration we've seen those programs bear fruit in Serbia, Georgia, the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Bush in turn declined to take the easy way out and appoint a Musharraf-style dictator for Iraq, but has instead held out for what may yet be democracy there, not to mention encouraging moves toward democracy in Egypt and among the Palestinians. Cynically or not, it seems that now American foreign policy is to preemptively spread democracy.
This is a big change: before Clinton and G.W.Bush, democracy was always a real but modest American goal in the world. Democratic Party presidents emphasized stronger democracy as a side effect of helping America's friends, whether with Wilson's idealistic promises of self-determination to follow victory in World War I, Truman's Marshall Plan to deflate the appeal of European communist agitation or Kennedy's Peace Corps to do the same for the developing world; Republican presidents preferred democracy as the natural replacement for enemy governments, as when Reagan chastised the Communist bloc or Bush Sr. restored elected government to Panamá. But sometime in the last 10 years, everyone seems to have come around to the view that promoting democracy abroad is not just good for America's soul, but helps America's interests.
Maybe it's because democracies hardly ever go to war with other democracies. A world with more democracies is a world with fewer countries that are likely to go to war with us. A world with a really large fraction of democracies is a world with fewer countries that are likely to go to war with each other and drag the United States in after them. In an age in which we no longer have a "permanent enemy," spreading democracy seems like a good way to create permanent friends. Even France, our most hostile established democracy, still does a much better job of cooperating with us than Pakistan, our current favorite dictatorship.
A second reason, and maybe just as important, is that democracy -- especially constitutional law-abiding checks-and-balances democracy -- seems to go along with prosperity and honest government and most of the other good things we'd like to see in the world. So if we make democracy our ultimate goal, and if we define democracy as something more serious than an occasional rigged election, then that gives us an excuse and a measure for most of the other good things we hope for abroad.
But the best reason for us to spread democracy is that it puts America in the position of acting instead of reacting. For decades now, we've been surprised over and over as some badly-governed corner of the world jumps up and bites us in the rear. The Arab countries, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Panamá, Vietnam too -- all of them were showcases of lousy government long before they were dangers to American interests or American lives. And in practically every case, the cost of improving the situation in one of these soon-to-be war zones before it came to war would have been a lot less than the cost we actually paid in blood and treasure after war broke out. Very often we already were spending quite enough money, but it wasn't doing any good because we were so obsessed with "stability" -- and very often that corrupt supposed "stability" was exactly the problem. If we commit to taking each opportunity to spread democracy, we might be able to avert some wars instead of fighting them.
It would have cost us far less blood and treasure if we had shut down al-Qaeda in the early 90s. It would be nice if we really did shut down our next enemy, whoever they are, before they were enough of an enemy that we had to fight a war against them. Without a crystal ball, we can't know who that next enemy would be, and we can't afford to preemptively invade everywhere. But we can afford to preemptively spread democracy everywhere.
People suggest that America is an empire, and an empire, more or less, means a country that's strong enough to make laws not only for itself, but for other countries. I'd say that "thou shalt move gradually but steadily toward democracy" would be a pretty good law for America's Empire.
[E1] David Adesnik of Oxblog is suspicious of Democratic commitment to promoting democracy, perhaps because of Kerry's "let's go home" isolationist rhetoric in 2004. But Republican opponents of Clinton's foreign policy used isolationist phrases too. When Democrats actually have one of their own in the White House, the foreign policy has been consistently more pacifist but also consistently more willing to invest in peaceful democracy promotion than under Republicans -- compare Wilson, Truman, Kennedy and Clinton to realists like Nixon and Bush Senior.
April 02, 2005
Actually, our Soldiers Do Enjoy Killing People
Matthew Yglesias and Shakepeare's Sister express disgust at a security-company memo from Iraq that says it's "fun" to shoot certain people. With similar horror, Josh Chafetz of Oxblog, alarmed that there are people who enjoy the violence-for-violence's-sake movie Sin City, says he'd be disturbed if people enjoyed the Iraq war for its destructiveness. All of which suggests it's time to recall an impolite fact about our troops. Surely you wouldn't be surprised to hear that firefighters are often men who find fires exciting? Well, most of our Army soldiers who've volunteered for front-line infantry combat positions, and even more of our Marine riflemen, and practically all of our Special Operations troops, are -- impolite as it is to say it -- men who enjoy violence. They love being in danger and they love being dangerous. There's an important truth about our democracy hidden in the fact that our front-line soldiers enjoy killing people.
It seems wrong to even suggest such a thing, doesn't it? But the taste for violence runs all through the culture of our close-quarters combat troops. I don't mean the ordinary Army soldier or Navy sailor. But the units whose volunteers actually expect to see a lot of up close and personal violence are filled with people who joined the military precisely to get that kind of legitimized danger and excitement. They don't seek killing as such, in the sense that they're just as happy if a bad guy survives and surrenders as if he dies when they shoot him. But the violence matters; they really do seek fighting.
Combat troops compare having to call off a mission to being a dog dragged back from leaping at another dog. All the combat-intensive units get incredibly macho about how tough and danger-loving they can be, with the Army Rangers envying the rougher and tougher Special Forces, and the Special Forces getting jealous of the even more action-intensive Delta Force, and so on. The original recruiters for Delta Force asked for men who wanted a job where they'd get "plenty of danger, and no recognition." Marines will call seeing combat "getting some". That's about it. Our combat-intensive units are filled with men who look forward to violence the way most men look forward to sex.
Of course, these men take enormous pride in the fact that the violence they do is legitimate violence. In fact, the more combat a serviceman trains for, the less likely he is to be violent stupidly or carelessly. He can't afford to: on the battlefield, he and his teammates have to be able to trust each other with their lives, and that means he has to be absolutely reliable about never shooting anyone who doesn't need shooting. Marines will tell you about training to fight the "three-block war", where in city block 1 they're shooting terrorists and on city block 3 they're feeding kids, and they take enormous pride in being able to switch at an instant from killing to babysitting. Green Berets say "Be polite, be professional, and always have a plan to kill everyone you meet." It sounds like a joke, and at one level it is, but in truth the "polite and professional" parts of that saying are as important as the readiness to kill. It's the control and professionalism that their training gives that lets these men be comfortable with their addiction to being dangerous.
But it's dishonest to pretend that somehow our front-line fighting men don't enjoy being in a business that lets them be violent. They do enjoy it.
People like to pretend that we're all saints, or should be, but our country works becauses it harnesses our animal selves instead of denying them. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," said our Founding Fathers, when they set up the Constitution so that a selfish Congress and a selfish President would keep watch on one another; and "private interest can be made to serve public interest" is the watchword laid down by Adam Smith that underpins our ridiculously selfish, ridiculously successful capitalist economy. Mind you, I'd prefer more altruism in Congress, and maybe a better safety net in the economy, and if we could have it a less bloody way of making dictators behave. But our system works not because we lie about our vices, but because we make them work like virtues.
And if we can accept this about our soldiers, maybe it will make us smarter about our politicians. Certainly if we're serious about adopting a grand strategy of spreading democracy, it'd be a good idea to remember that democracy doesn't make countries' leaders wise or unselfish. (France, anybody?) What good government needs is for leaders' selfishness to be controlled through checks, balances and the ballot box. What a healthy combat soldier needs are the trained skills and attitudes that give him control over his pleasure in fighting. Politicians aren't angels. Soldiers aren't monks. And that's just fine.
April 01, 2005
Why Bomb Iran When We Can Tax It?
Iran's mullahs depend on oil profits to stay in power; their oil tankers go out through the Arabian Sea; and the Arabian Sea is completely dominated by the American Navy. If diplomacy fails, and if we really believe that Iran's hardline clerics are on their way to being proud owners of a nuclear bomb or two, we don't need to invade Iran or even bomb their nuclear research sites. We can tax their oil.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the United States started hijacking one in every ten tankers of Iranian oil, sailing them to the USA, depositing the oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and putting the dollar value of the oil in an escrow account -- to be returned to the Iranian government when it gave up its nuclear program. In other words, a ten percent "nuclear compliance witholding tax" on Iran's oil revenues.
Or a tax of twenty percent, or thirty percent, or as much as it takes to send the message: give up the nukes or you don't get to pay your supporters the salaries that keep them supporting you.
Of course there are big reasons not to impose a hijacking-based compliance tax on Iran -- number one, it's a violation of most international norms for states that aren't at war. Number two, it'd scare the heck out of the Europeans and the Chinese, who'd immediately start worrying about the USA doing the same to their oil supplies. Number three, Iran might try to retaliate with terrorist attacks or strikes against other Gulf countries' oil shipping. Number four, just because we start squeezing the mullahs' oil supplies doesn't mean they'll instantly give in.
Obviously a hijacking-based compliance tax is a lot less attractive than diplomacy. If we can get Iran to give up nuclear weapons peacefully, that's much better than any other option. But if diplomacy fails, and if you think that an Iran with nuclear weapons is a Very Bad Thing, then as military options go, forcibly taxing their oil is a far better option than bombing or invasion.
Like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran is mostly immune to ordinary trade sanctions because they can sell oil, and the world relies too much on that oil to do without it. And like North Korea, Iran's nuclear weapons facilities are so spread out, and in many cases so far undergound, that we can't stop Iran's nuclear program just by bombing a few particular sites. And like either country, invading Iran would likely mean losing thousands of lives.
But unlike both Hussein's Iraq and Kim Jong-Il's North Korea, the mullahs' Iran is not a "hard" dictatorship run by total mass-execution terror, but a "medium" dictatorship where the clerical rulers rely on the willing cooperation and support of a few key constituencies -- notably the police and militia forces and the conservative merchant class. And both those groups rely on oil revenue, either to pay their salaries (for the security forces) or to sustain enough economic action for their business empires (for the merchant elites). If Iran's leaders start losing their oil money, their power goes with it.
We can't just take all their oil tankers hostage, because then the mullahs would have no reason to ship the oil the world economy relies on in the first place. But if we take a "tax" percentage, and leave them the remaining fraction, then the mullahs are in a bind: they have to keep sending out the oil, or their government collapses in weeks. But with less revenue than they expected, they'll have to lay off or cut the pay and kickbacks of their supporters, which slowly erodes their power over months. And because America can always increase the tax percentage, America has "escalation dominance" -- as bad as only having two-thirds of their income is, we could always reduce that to one-half, or one-third, or however painful we want to make it. We can shut Iran down without ever setting foot on Iranian soil.
If we start taxing their oil, the mullahs will face the choice of losing power slowly, or losing power quickly -- or doing what we ask, and getting out of the nuclear weapons business. Because of the United States' Strategic Petroleum Reserve, we can survive without their oil longer than they can. And while they could try retaliating with terrorist attacks or assaults on other countries' oil tankers (Iran has a big collection of antiship missiles at the Straits of Hormuz leading out of the Persian Gulf), we can put them on notice that we'll respond to any Iranian action by increasing our tax percentage another twenty or thirty percent. If we give them the choice of losing nukes and keeping oil, or losing oil while keeping a nuclear program, they'll keep the oil -- because without the oil, they lose the country.
Negotiations with the mullahs keep failing, because while they'd like more trade, what the mullahs really like is power, and they've got that already -- so we don't have anything important to offer. But if we put our power over their oil, then we have Iran's rulers by the throat -- without dropping a bomb or a soldier on Iranian soil.
Try diplomacy first: they're not that close to nukes yet, if the intelligence agencies are right (and I really hope they are this time). But if diplomacy fails, don't bomb, and don't invade: tax Iran's oil.
March 30, 2005
No Government in Iraq -- and That's Good News
The winners of the Iraqi elections -- the Kurds and the moderate Shiites -- both have reason to take their time before cutting a deal. The Kurdish leaders want de facto independence for the Kurdish provinces -- and guess what? They already have de facto independence for the Kurdish provinces. They'd like Kirkuk annexed to the Kurdish provinces, too, but that's just a bonus. The Kurds have been self-governing ever since the United States forced Hussein to withdraw from northern Iraq after the original 1991 Gulf War. Every month that goes by without an overall Iraqi government is another month that the Kurds get to continue having their goal -- an almost total independence.
The moderate Shiites, for their part, have reason to wait for as long as it looks like the insurgency is fading, because the more peaceful the country is, the more the Shiite Arabs -- who make up perhaps 60 percent of Iraq's population -- can insist on having their way as the majority, as opposed to making concessions to the Kurds -- or, especially, the favored folk under Saddam Hussein, the Sunni Arabs.
But both Kurds and moderate Shiites would lose in a civil war: that would hand power to the radical Shiites like al-Sadr, and make mixed-ethnicity cities like Mosul or Kirkuk into slaughterhouses like Sarajevo during the Serb-Muslim-Croat wars of Yugoslavia/Bosnia in the 90s. So if the Iraqi politicians are being slow to get their act together, that tells us they think the insurgency is fading, civil war is not going to happen, and the insurgents are eventually going to settle for an "exit strategy" of peaceful politics.
And the Iraqi political leaders are probably a lot better judges of the insurgents' strength than most American soldiers, journalists or politicians.
Of course, the Iraqi politicians could be overconfident: in the 1850s, few American politicians believed the United States would fall into civil war, and so they refused to compromise with each other on slavery. And we all know exactly how that turned out.
[E1] Added link to Beltway Traffic Jam.
March 29, 2005
Future Combat Systems: Why the Army Wants its Own Aircraft Carriers
The Army wants to spend a huge amount of money to replace some of its battle-tested heavy-armored tanks with a bunch of untested robot- and missile-carrying vehicles that will each have about as much armor plating as the average can of chicken soup. Kevin Drum doesn't see the point; the New York Times points out that the General Accounting Office is predicting they'll be hugely expensive; and Fred Kaplan in Slate doesn't think they'll be useful. But the truth is these new "Future Combat Systems", or FCS, are probably one of the best investments the Army could make to win wars faster with fewer dead soldiers and fewer dead civilians. With FCS, the Army is finally hoping it can do what the Navy did two generations ago, and switch from fighting with battleships to fighting with aircraft carriers.
A battleship -- the navy kind, not the kid's game -- is, of course, a floating mass of armor plate and big guns, whose purpose in life is to steam up close to bad guys and pound the crap out of them. And an aircraft carrier, of course, is a giant flat-topped ship bearing a suspicious resemblance to a floating cheese tray a quarter-mile long. An aircraft carrier has hardly any armor or guns. All it does is provide command, upkeep, and landing space for several dozen aircraft.
But in the years leading up to World War II the US Navy did some wargaming and realized that an aircraft carrier could be far more powerful than a battleship. In fact, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did little damage to American sea power precisely because all three of our aircraft carriers were elsewhere. While a battleship only commands the waters in the range of its guns, an aircraft carrier can send planes to deliver bombs on enemies hundreds of miles away. And while a battleship is blind to enemies until it's practically on top of them, an aircraft carrier can spot enemies with any of its aircraft while it stays safely out of reach. Aircraft carriers can see without being seen, attack without letting the enemy attack back, and exert force over a far larger area than a battleship.
And that's the idea behind FCS: to let our troops see more enemies before they get a chance to strike, to bring more of our weapons to bear on enemies without letting the enemy do the same, and to let the same number of troops defeat enemies and protect friends over a larger area. Technology has reached the point where a swarm of missiles, sensors, and air and ground robots can let the Army duplicate some of the strengths of a naval aircraft carrier group with a land-based FCS "drone carrier" group.
Moreover, because "drone carrier" vehicles don't need to get close to the enemy to attack, conceptually they can operate with less weight of armor than tanks. Less weight means less fuel needed and smaller planes needed, which means the ability to operate FCS units in enemy territory further in and faster than heavy tanks can -- or to operate in terrain that's too rough to get tanks into at all.
If We'd Only Had FCS In...
We can talk about the technology that goes into FCS, and how exactly they'll pull off this "drone carrier" approach to war, and what kind of missions will go to FCS and what missions will remain with heavy tanks -- but honestly, it's going to take years and a ton of money to make FCS work, just as it did for the Navy with its first aircraft carriers. So what are we spending it for? It's not worth an unlimited price. On the other hand, if we had FCS in Iraq now, we could protect convoys from more ambushes and clear out insurgent strongholds like Fallujah with fewer friendly and civilian casualties. If we'd had FCS in Afghanistan, we could have caught more Al Qaeda members fleeing from Tora Bora, and lost fewer American lives in Operation Anaconda. If we'd had FCS we could have credibly threatened a ground invasion of Kosovo sooner, giving Milosevic an earlier excuse to surrender, and ending the killing of Kosovar Muslims that much sooner. If we had FCS we could quickly send ground troops to places like Sudan and Rwanda with much more strength and less vulnerability than now, which would increase our ability to stop genocides, or at least to credibly threaten to stop them. And if we had had FCS, we could have done a much better job reinforcing our Rangers under fire in Somalia.
All that said, my instinct is that the GAO is right, the technologies needed to pull off "drone carriers" are not mature enough, and the FCS schedule needs to be slowed down. And I sometimes agree with those who would like to see the Army commit to being as organized about fighting insurgencies and guerrillas as conventional opponents. You could certainly argue that FCS is another case of America spending too much on defense and not enough on, say, child care. But it's just plain stupid to talk about FCS as if it's another F-22 or Comanche, a specialized system that will only make us better in a few rare situations. If and when we make FCS work, those drone carriers will do our soldiers and the civilians good in every war we fight.
FCS' Tripod: a Swarm of Sensors, a Swarm of Missiles, and the Network of a Thousand Headaches
For FCS to work, a lot of technologies are desirable but three things are absolutely necessary: lots of robotic eyes and ears in the air and on the ground; lots of lightweight, smart, powerful missiles; and a network that lets every sensor and every missile be ready to help every soldier in the area. Ironically, the technology that's the hardest is the one we most take for granted in everyday life. The robotic eyes and ears are already hard at work in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the "rockets-in-a-box" smart portable missiles are pretty far along in development -- but making the network operate properly under battlefield conditions promises to be even harder than booting Linux on a dead badger.
You probably know a few places where your cell phone always loses reception. Now, what the military needs to make FCS work is a network that operates anywhere, even without cellular towers, and never loses reception, even when parts of the network are being attacked with large explosives or high velocity rockets, and always puts your call through, even if 50 people are trying to talk to the same sensor at once. If you know how to do that, I can tell you two things. Number one, the Defense Department would like to hire you. Number two, every phone company on the planet would like to hire you.
So it's not too surprising that the military's next generation communications system is, well, not quite performing up to specifications.
But let's suppose that we did have a brigade of lightweight vehicles, carrying hundreds of flies-around-corners missiles, surrounded by a cloud of all-seeing robots, and all linked up by a network proofed against not only zombie badgers but even cybernetic gorillas. What good does this technology tripod do for the soldiers? How would they carry out missions differently?
A lot depends on how close FCS gets to that kind of technology perfection. But we can certainly sketch in some examples, just to get the feel of what happens when people start taking this drone carrier approach to land warfare.
Ambush protection: Right now, the easiest way for a convoy in Iraq to detect an ambush is when explosions start going off around them. If you have enough robot sensors in the area, you can send one flying overhead in the convoy's path, which spots any ambushers who aren't skilled enough to hide themselves from above as well as from in front (and you'd be surprised how many that is). More to the point, most ambushers count on getting away through culverts or side streets to ambush you again. That gets a lot harder if you can send a flying camera along to track them from the air.
Rapid reinforcement: If you're a soldier under fire, and you don't have a tank with you, you may have to wait anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes for air support to arrive and drop bombs on the bad guys -- by which time a lot of people can be wounded or dead. But if you have hundreds of precision missiles on call through the FCS network, you can cut that 5 minutes to 30 seconds for the missiles to drop on the enemy. This is still not as good as having an Abrams tank with you, but it's a whole lot better than waiting for airpower. And missiles, being smaller and more precise than bombs, can give more options for killing bad guys without hurting civilians. Finally, if they're the new breed of loitering missiles, they can actually launch in advance, hang around overhead and wait for the enemy to come out before dropping on him. (In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda fighters were often canny enough to get under cover whenever the airplanes showed up, only to come out and shoot at our soldiers some more when the airplanes flew off.)
Discreet patrolling: another benefit of all those robotic eyes is that you can keep watch for bad guys in the city without sending tanks crashing through every street. Of course, really stealthy bad guys aren't going to be spotted by a robot camera floating through the sky; this won't get you free of people dying at checkpoints. But a lot of bad guys aren't really stealthy, and almost no one is really stealthy all the time. And for ordinary citizens, a floating camera is creepy but not nearly so oppressive as a 70-ton tank.
Fast deployment, flexible maneuver: one problem the generals had in both Iraq and Afghanistan was that our heavy equipment, being heavy equipment, had to come in by and receive supplies through major airports or seaports. Since Afghanistan's Al Qaeda hideouts were in the roughest part of that very rough country, that meant our soldiers went in with little more than the equipment on their backs; and in Iraq, our major forces were restricted to coming in by the south, not the north, and to go through shooting galleries at every major bridge. If the FCS units get down to their 20-ton-per-vehicle goal, they can literally drop out of airplanes into the mountains of Afghanistan, or landlocked northern Iraq; and with fewer fuel requirements, they could quickly penetrate much further into, say, central Iran than heavy armor units could. This would be very risky -- FCS units aren't going have the armor to "charge!" with minimum loss the way tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles can -- but sometimes surprising the enemy is the way you get him to give up fighting.
Outnumbered but never outgunned: the most common way for American soldiers to take losses is when they find themselves suddenly vastly outnumbered -- an Abrams tank is an amazing machine, but its main gun still only shoots one round at a time. A missile carrier, on the other hand, can certainly launch 20 missiles at once, if there's a network to assign targets for all of them. A company with FCS support is going to be able to risk lopsided engagements in a way that current forces can't. This is especially true if America ever has to send ground troops in without first dominating the airspace.
FCS units, the new cavalry; tanks, the new infantry?
Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the role of cavalry was to be good at scouting deep into the enemy's terrain, at making trouble for the enemy in unexpected places, and at providing sudden and decisive reinforcement to rescue a friendly unit or defeat a wavering enemy force. Meanwhile, it was the infantry's job to be tough and reliable, a force that could stand up under attack in a way that the easily-disarrayed cavalry could not.
By that standard, even though tank-heavy units are often designated "cavalry", it's the FCS units -- if FCS works -- who will be the Army's 21st-century cavalry, and the heavy armor forces will be the 21st-century infantry. Even when FCS works, these "drone carrier" groups are still going to lack the armor of heavy tanks, and that means that when the key issue is reliability and toughness, the Army's answer will involve Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. But when the goals are speed, knowledge, surprising the enemy or reinforcing friends, the FCS units will do the job better.
Of course, by the 1800s cavalry units were a luxury for many armies: valuable but not a center of power. And maybe the FCS, too, will stay too expensive for a long time for us to buy it -- there are other things to spend money on, both in and out of defense. But FCS would make every war we fight go better for both our soldiers and the civilians. So we need to take the idea of drone carrier units seriously, whatever we decide about the price tag.
Have you seen any battleships lately?
[E1] The aircraft carrier folk can have my body after the battleship folk are done with it.
[E2] tag = Military
[E3] And a link to OTB's Traffic Jam.
March 28, 2005
China's Edge Over Russia: More Lawyers
Why is Russia sinking into the ranks of the left-behind countries? Why is China joining the wealthy? Well, it sure helps to have law and order.
In China, the government has been trying to crack down on local officials and erode their habit of treating a town or village's citizens as so many cattle to be milked; this Washington Post article about women buried alive makes clear that they've got a long way to go, but they're trying. These days Chinese citizens actually will file lawsuits to try to enforce their rights, even against those with government connections. But in Russia, far from establishing the rule of law, the Post reports that under Putin crime by the police themselves has exploded in recent years.
China's other secret weapon of economic growth, of course, is the huge savings rate of ordinary families, which means that any economic opportunity that opens is instantly filled by a mom-and-pop business...