Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Quick One While He's Away

No doubt benefiting from some stealth intelligence, Armed Liberal over at Winds of Change deftly selected the eve of my recent vacation to throw down the rhetorical gauntlet in the direction of American Footprints. In his post, Armed Liberal took aim at my criticism of William Arkin's sloppy reasoning and caricature of consensus Democratic foreign policy thinking vis-a-vis terrorism.

In Armed Liberal's opinion, the Democrats suffer from a perception problem that they have rightly earned: the American people believe that "the GOP will kill our enemies, and don’t believe the Democrats can or will." Naturally, he took issue with my disagreement with Arkin. This is the particular passage in my post that seemed to stick in Armed Liberal's craw the most [emphasis his]:

The use of human and signal intelligence, surgical military operations, marginalizing extremist organizations through the application of soft power in its myriad manifestations and fostering a more robust relationship with potentially helpful foreign national interests would all be attainable steps that would serve us well while we go about the larger, paradigm shifting overhaul [needed].

Armed Liberal then proceeds to rebut my prescription point by point, but I believe he falls into some traps that result, in part, from what is his own self-professed prejudice against Democrats in these areas. Allow me to elaborate by first reviewing his critique:

...[T]he part I emphasized is the part that the Democrats keep coming back to...better intelligence, surgical military operations, using 'soft power to marginalize extremists', and getting allies...and there are more than a few problems with that.

The first one is that the same Democrats are the ones who keep kneecapping intelligence programs like SWIFT and they are the ones who led the charge to get the 'icky people' out of the humint business. They don't have a lot of credibility there.

This is an interesting charge. We do know that the New York Times ran a story providing certain details of the SWIFT financial surveillance program - although it was revealed in the aftermath that not only had the existence of this surveillance program been touted by Bush administration officials themselves with some level of specificity, but that terror suspects had also long ago adjusted their banking behavior accordingly. Regardless, the New York Times is not the Democratic Party, no matter what Ann Coulter or Rush mights say (see, ie, Judy Miller, Whitewater, Lewinsky, etc.).

More to the point, which leading Democrats are or were leading the charge to kneecap SWIFT? If I recall correctly, some Democrats who were contacted prior to publication of the infamous story actually urged the Times not to publish in the first place. After the fact, Party leaders supported the continuance of the SWIFT program (even if some objected to being left out of the briefing loop in violation of standard procedure and protocol). Interesting way to kneecap.

As for getting "icky" people out of humint, I don't think this was a Democratic initiative, nor has such a purge been so complete. On the other hand, we do know that more than five years after the attacks of 9/11, according to this article:

...only 33 FBI agents have even a limited proficiency in Arabic, and none of them work in the sections of the bureau that coordinate investigations of international terrorism, according to new FBI statistics.

The US Army, CIA and other intelligence agencies are similarly bereft of needed linguistic, cultural and regional experts. While the particular need for Arabic speakers has arisen accutely over the past five years, under the multi-branch stewardship of Republicans, progress has been non-existent.

Speaking of a dearth of human intelligence assets, the Republican approach, generally speaking, tends to rely too heavily on technology over humint assets and human analysis. The problem is that such technologically-reliant programs often produce vast reams of data, but we lack the manpower to pore through it and make necessary connections.

Further exacerbating the problem, the gratuitously inflammatory and confrontational style of the Bush administration and its Republican allies has tended to create friction and opposition from foreign governments and peoples in terms of cooperation with our intelligence services. It becomes harder to recruit human intelligence assets within the ranks of would-be terrorists when our image and policies are creating such a visceral reaction (compare to Cold War success rates here).

And foreign governments have grown increasingly suspicious of our intentions, motives and grand designs - not to the extent that the plurality have cut off cooperation completely (though some have), but such that their support is not as comprehensive as it could be, and such efforts come burdened with domestic concerns. Many foreign governments must take care to keep their cooperation with us hidden from their underlying populations that would view such assistance as aiding and abetting a reckless regime.

There are costs involved in the way that the Republicans have decided to conduct themselves on the world stage. Contrary to the doubts Armed Liberal has, the majority of the intelligence community itself seems to have lost faith in the Republican approach - not the Democratic version. Maybe, just maybe, they are not all rabid, liberal partisans blinded by irrational hatred for Bush. Maybe they know what they're talking about.

The second prong of Armed Liberals critique focuses on the use of surgical military operations. Says AL:

The second is the classic Clinton 'ninjas from helicopters' fantasy. I've blogged my criticism of it several times in the past, but I'll lay out the three core objections here: a) it probably won't work (because we need huge networks within the target country to make such an attack work, and we can't and won't assemble intel networks in that depth everywhere in the world); b) it's immoral - we're talking a covert war of assassination here. Think the film Munich times 2,356; c) it consists of our committing acts of war in a number of foreign countries - something they may have a say about and a response to.

This is a curious set of objections indeed. First of all, I'm not sure if you would count Hellfire missiles as "ninjas" (personally, I prefer ninjas), or Predator drones as helicopters (helos are far more practical as a travel option), but we have used such ninja/helicopter substitutes to great success in the past to neutralize known al-Qaeda operatives. In fact:

Several U.S. officials confirmed at least 19 occasions since Sept. 11 on which Predators successfully fired Hellfire missiles on terrorist suspects overseas....The Predator strikes have killed at least four senior Al Qaeda leaders....

In addition to this, and other types of missile attacks in Pakistan, Sudan and elsewhere, targeted military/intel/ninja raids were conducted to capture al-Qaeda operatives like Abu Zubaydah and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan. So to describe a set of policies that have been in consistent use for five years as a "fantasy" with fanciful mythological protagonists really does miss the point in a big way.

Nevertheless, AL is right that these policies are not without complications and costs. Some nations can and would object, but as with the case of Pakistan cited above, sometimes nations will cooperate in joint actions as well. As for his objections on moral/acts of war grounds, I find this to be curious from someone who supports the Republican approach. What is the alternative to targeted assassination and apprehension of suspects for trial and imprisonment?

Is it the invasion of Iraq? A more moral act? This was an invasion that is/was going to alleviate our need to commit "Munich times 2,356" by magically sending out the virus of democracy to eradicate every terrorist in every nation on earth, right? Or would we have to repeat the Iraq invasion model many times over in the nations where terrorists with immunity to democracy's contagion continue to operate? So instead of two thousand Munichs, we would opt for, perhaps, 20 Iraqs (or more). And the nations that might view a Hellfire missile strike as an act of war would view a full-throttled invasion arms?

Perhaps AL would like to fill in the blanks here: if we shouldn't opt for law enforcements/intel/targeted military strikes because ninja plans wouldn't work, are too morally dubious and likely to raise the ire of the target nations, what is the alternative? Has Iraq been a model? What other Republican approaches?

Next, AL offers a pretty shallow critique of my call to foster a more robust cooperation with foreign national interests:

And as to allies, you mean like the UNFIL troops in South Lebanon? The ones who won't forcibly disarm Hizbollah, even though that's what the UN resolution calls for? Or like the French, German, and Russian response to Iraq - the one that was certainly influenced by tens of millions in bribes paid to influential businessman and leaders in those countries?

Again, a rather curious statement. First of all, any approach to strengthening relations with foreign governments/multilateral institutions that takes the rigid position that they either must be on our side in all matters, or they are useless, is fatally simplistic and unworkable. Just because France, Germany and Russia (foolishy?) warned us about invading Iraq, and because they wanted no part of it, does not mean that we should spurn (or not actively seek) their help in other matters.

For example, France has been an extremely valuable partner in terms of sharing intelligence on terrorist operatives, and they - along with many other NATO allies - are currently taking the lead in Afghanistan. As a result of our accute shortage of troops, we desperately need more support from NATO in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And we must do more to encourage that support than browbeating would-be allies, insulting them and acting entitled and indignant. Even if some of the member-nations' motives were conflicted with respect to Iraq (weren't ours too, depending on the faction supporting the invasion?).

Regardless, foreign leaders and peoples demand respect and they require the opportunity to offer meaningful input into our policies in return for their support. Such support does not come via a rubber stamp - despite unipolar fantasies and other exceptionalist eccentricities. Ironically, it is our experience in Iraq - an effort that was supposed to show the world our ability to go it relatively alone - that has provided a total eclipse of the heart of the unipolar doctrine. Because of Iraq, we need the rest of the world more than ever.

As for UNIFIL, I doubt this force will be able to disarm Hezbollah or solve the near intractable problems that exist between Lebanon and Israel. But, er, Israel wasn't exactly accomplishing those goals either. UNIFIL will do what it can given the obstacles and the obviously limited military means of UN forces. But we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. In the end, UNIFIL gave each party (Israel, the US and Hezbollah) a way out that was acceptable and sufficiently face saving. There is a value in that.

Further, its not just military forces that we require from foreign governments and peoples. Its nation building/infrastructure experts, peacekeepers when conflicts subside to manageable levels, the legitimacy of wider mandates that can only be conferred by....actual wider mandates!, economic aid, diplomatic cooperation for sanctions and other measures, non-proliferation cooperation, etc. Perhaps more importantly, its the cooperation of foreign intelligence services (see, ie, Pakistan above) - and extradition privileges - that will actually help to roll up active cells and would-be terrorists.

Think of the help we got from Libya of all nations in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. This was the product of many patient years of "weak" sanctions and diplomatic maneuvering. Ron Suskind retells the story of the months following those attacks in an interesting piece in the Washington Monthly. Here is a brief excerpt:

What became clear to [deputy director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorist Center Ben] Bonk was that the Libyans had grown tired of being excluded from the world community. They were unable to send their privileged sons abroad to U.S. colleges, and they were suffocating under sanctions that limited everything from dry goods to key parts for oil refineries, many of which had slipped into disrepair.

Libyan cooperation on these intelligence finds marked the most significant gesture of reconciliation between Gadhafi and the United States to date....

[Head of the Libyan Mission in England] Musa Kousa...gave Bonk key names, including that of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a Libyan operative who would soon be the first major U.S. capture in the so-called “war on terror,” and several others that would help the U.S. government unwind a Pakistani group involved in the spreading of nuclear-weapons technology to other Muslim countries.

A little better than UNIFIL, huh?

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