Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 25, 2007

Force Protection vs. Force Effectiveness

The recent truck bombing of the U.S. combat outpost in the village of Sadah in Diyala province—a bombing that killed nine soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and injured twenty others—reveals one of the trade-offs of the new strategy that General David Petraeus is adopting. By pushing more troops off their giant Forward Operating Bases (FOB’s), Petraeus is, at least in the short term, increasing their vulnerability. The smaller the outpost, the harder it is to defend.

Giant FOB’s like the Camp Victory/Camp Liberty complex near Baghdad Airport are almost invulnerable to ground attack. They are heavily barricaded and guarded; any VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) going off at an entrance would do scant damage because the bulk of American personnel are miles away. The only real danger is occasional mortar or rocket fire—what the military calls “IDF,” indirect fire—which occasionally hurts someone but more often lands harmlessly. (There were several such attacks while I was at Camp Victory recently.)

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The recent truck bombing of the U.S. combat outpost in the village of Sadah in Diyala province—a bombing that killed nine soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and injured twenty others—reveals one of the trade-offs of the new strategy that General David Petraeus is adopting. By pushing more troops off their giant Forward Operating Bases (FOB’s), Petraeus is, at least in the short term, increasing their vulnerability. The smaller the outpost, the harder it is to defend.

Giant FOB’s like the Camp Victory/Camp Liberty complex near Baghdad Airport are almost invulnerable to ground attack. They are heavily barricaded and guarded; any VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) going off at an entrance would do scant damage because the bulk of American personnel are miles away. The only real danger is occasional mortar or rocket fire—what the military calls “IDF,” indirect fire—which occasionally hurts someone but more often lands harmlessly. (There were several such attacks while I was at Camp Victory recently.)

By contrast, the Sadah outpost was set up in a school, with the perimeter relatively close to the building that housed American troops. According to Sudarsan Raghavan and Thomas E. Ricks of the Washington Post, one suicide bomber was able to ram his truck into a checkpoint, blasting a hole. Another truck filled with explosives passed through this hole, reaching a concrete wall only 90 feet from the building housing our troops. This building itself was not penetrated by either truck, but the blast waves were close enough to do serious structural damage, causing death and injury to those nearby and inside. Some soldiers were even buried in the rubble.

This is a tragedy. And, unfortunately, we can expect more of the same. Insurgents will continue testing our new Combat Outposts (COP’s) and Joint Security Stations (JSS’s) with car bombs, mortars, and perhaps even infantry assaults until they are convinced that these attacks will not deter us from expanding our presence. (Or until we decide to pull back.)

But the strategy of concentrating U.S. troops in giant bases, though superficially alluring, carries its own heavy risks. The biggest risk of all is that the troops won’t be able to accomplish the job they were sent to do. You can’t wage counterinsurgency from a long distance. You have to live among the people you’re defending. When U.S. soldiers commute to work in Humvees, not only do they find themselves unable to control their AOR’s (Areas of Responsibility), they also find themselves vulnerable to roadside bombs. By getting to know their neighborhoods—which, in most cases, requires foot patrols—troops can gather the intelligence necessary to round up insurgents and establish security for the population.

Over time this strategy will decrease risks not only for Iraqis but also for American troops. But the short-term costs will be real, as the Sadah bombing showed.

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A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing

Anti-Americanism is rife in the Middle East and in Europe, and even in the land of our mother tongue, Great Britain, it has grown remarkably intense. Why?

Undoubtedly, the Bush administration must get some of the blame; it has pursued policies that are unpopular among Middle Easterners and Europeans. But there are other sources, too, like Americans who go abroad to peddle the intoxicating—and toxic—elixir.

The latest entry in this import-export business is Naomi Wolf, not long ago an adviser to Vice President Al Gore. In the pages of the Guardian, she has published an essay under the title Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps. Though lengthy, it is worth summarizing in a few words.

Wolf tries to show that our freedoms and the checks and balances that restrain our government are being “systematically dismantled.” Beneath our noses, she writes, “George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society.”

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Anti-Americanism is rife in the Middle East and in Europe, and even in the land of our mother tongue, Great Britain, it has grown remarkably intense. Why?

Undoubtedly, the Bush administration must get some of the blame; it has pursued policies that are unpopular among Middle Easterners and Europeans. But there are other sources, too, like Americans who go abroad to peddle the intoxicating—and toxic—elixir.

The latest entry in this import-export business is Naomi Wolf, not long ago an adviser to Vice President Al Gore. In the pages of the Guardian, she has published an essay under the title Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps. Though lengthy, it is worth summarizing in a few words.

Wolf tries to show that our freedoms and the checks and balances that restrain our government are being “systematically dismantled.” Beneath our noses, she writes, “George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society.”

Their first action in this campaign was to use the attacks of September 11 to create an image of “a terrifying threat—hydra-like, secretive, [and] evil.” What the U.S. has done with al Qaeda, she says, is a time-tested technique, one that, “like Hitler’s invocation of a Communist threat to the nation’s security, [can] be based on actual events.” An instance of this is the way the Nazis used the “Reichstag fire of February 1933” to gain “passage of the Enabling Act, which replaced constitutional law with an open-ended state of emergency.”

Never mind that the Reichstag fire was set by the Nazis themselves. Wolf continues on in this vein, drawing comparisons between the U.S. government and the Nazis with abandon. A few juxtapositions of America to the Soviet Gulag are also tossed in. Concentration camps like Guantanamo, she says, “tend to metastasize,” starting small and growing uncontrollably large. Indeed, the procedures set up by the Pentagon to try terrorists are things that tend to crop up “early on in a fascist shift;” it is not an accident that both “Mussolini and Stalin set up such tribunals.”

Of course, all this is Wolf’s fantasy, and like any satisfying fantasy it has, along with its obvious villains, a set of heroes. In our dire situation, Wolf informs readers of the Guardian, “only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back the tide of tyranny for the rest of us.”

Along with herself, Wolf names the ACLU and other left-wing advocacy groups. These saviors need to be joined by decent Europeans to reverse America’s drift into fascism. If action does not come in time, we will all discover “what a U.S. unrestrained by real democracy at home can mean for the rest of the world.”

How many readers of the Guardian and other Europeans actually believe any of this drivel is hard to say, but some fraction must. Presumably the editors who published it regard it as meritorious. But should Americans accept such insults with equanimity? What choice do we have, except to point out that Naomi Wolf’s case demonstrates once again that the pursuit of writerly fame is a tough business and often requires one to say the most outlandish things? Even so, it would be difficult to imagine anything more reprehensible than Wolf’s latest foray. Her journey from The Beauty Myth to Promiscuities to The Porn Myth to Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps has been a long way down, and it did not exactly begin in a high place.

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No “Plan B”

In one of the more insightful assessments of the Jewish situation of late, Martin Kramer (of the Washington Institute, the Shalem Center, and Harvard University) stated:

[T]he geopolitical situation of the Jews hasn’t ever been stable. As a people, our geopolitics are one part our preferences, and two parts historical forces. These forces never rest. Seventy years ago, the Jewish world was centered in Europe. Now we mostly just fly over it.

The United States and Israel are today the poles of the Jewish world, because some Jews sensed tremors before the earthquake. When the earth opened up and Europe descended into the inferno, parts of the Jewish people already had a Plan B in place. We are living that Plan B.

Today the Jewish people is in an enviable geopolitical position. It has one foot planted in a Jewish sovereign state, and the other in the world’s most open and powerful society. One is tempted to say that never in their long history has the geopolitical situation of the Jews been better. Jews did have sovereignty before, in antiquity, but they did not have a strategic alliance with the greatest power on earth. And since it is difficult to imagine a better geopolitical position, the Jewish people has become a status-quo people.

Kramer then lays out five scenarios that would seriously undermine this desirable status quo: the waning of American influence; the “subtraction” of Europe from the power of the West; the emergence of Iran as a regional power on par with Israel; the disintegration of Arab states into Iraq-style internal conflict, producing multiple Hezbollah’s on Israel’s borders; and finally, the failure of the Palestinians as a nation, leading to the collapse of the two-state paradigm.

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In one of the more insightful assessments of the Jewish situation of late, Martin Kramer (of the Washington Institute, the Shalem Center, and Harvard University) stated:

[T]he geopolitical situation of the Jews hasn’t ever been stable. As a people, our geopolitics are one part our preferences, and two parts historical forces. These forces never rest. Seventy years ago, the Jewish world was centered in Europe. Now we mostly just fly over it.

The United States and Israel are today the poles of the Jewish world, because some Jews sensed tremors before the earthquake. When the earth opened up and Europe descended into the inferno, parts of the Jewish people already had a Plan B in place. We are living that Plan B.

Today the Jewish people is in an enviable geopolitical position. It has one foot planted in a Jewish sovereign state, and the other in the world’s most open and powerful society. One is tempted to say that never in their long history has the geopolitical situation of the Jews been better. Jews did have sovereignty before, in antiquity, but they did not have a strategic alliance with the greatest power on earth. And since it is difficult to imagine a better geopolitical position, the Jewish people has become a status-quo people.

Kramer then lays out five scenarios that would seriously undermine this desirable status quo: the waning of American influence; the “subtraction” of Europe from the power of the West; the emergence of Iran as a regional power on par with Israel; the disintegration of Arab states into Iraq-style internal conflict, producing multiple Hezbollah’s on Israel’s borders; and finally, the failure of the Palestinians as a nation, leading to the collapse of the two-state paradigm.

Each of these scenarios, Kramer suggests, requires a Jewish “Plan B.” He continues:

Now one would have to be a grim pessimist to believe that all five of these trends could merge into a perfect storm. But one would have to be an incurable optimist to believe that that we won’t be lashed by any of these storms. And what I am arguing is that we should anticipate conditions that will make storms more frequent than they have been in the last few decades.

Kramer does not suggest what our “Plan B” should be, except to say that “Israel will have to make alliances, strike targets, and redraw borders—and they won’t necessarily be the familiar ones.” What he does not offer is the scenario that has the only real chance of success, which is to stop “Plan A” from falling apart.

We are at war, a war between the liberal democracies and totalitarian Islamism. If we lose this war, many scenarios can be added to Kramer’s five, far worse than the ones he has devised. If we win, all of his bad scenarios can be prevented or accommodated.

We gain nothing by planning to lose. America, Israel, and Europe will not be safe in such a scenario; there is no “Plan B” that avoids catastrophe. Our only viable plan is to use all our resources to ensure the West’s victory. Those resources are substantial—and are nowhere near full mobilization.

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Our Chandelier Problem

While we are on the subject of the USSR—Boris Yeltsin’s death was the subject of one of my posts here yesterday—it is a good moment to remember that one of the very best things about the now defunct Soviet Union was its centrally planned economy. If nothing else, it could be counted on to produce an endless series of amusing anecdotes. In the topsy-turvy world of the five-year plan, factory managers and workers were rewarded not for profits but for maximizing other success indicators, like gross physical output, often with bizarre results.

Nikita Khrushchev famously complained about the immense size and weight of chandeliers. It turned out that workers at a Moscow lamp factory were awarded bonuses for production measured in tons. The chandeliers they produced grew ever heavier until they led to a rash of ceiling collapses.

The United States has a market economy—but we also have a huge government sector, where amusing Soviet-style distortions often creep in. Yesterday’s Washington Post reported on the “Metrochek” program in Washington D.C. These transportation vouchers are issued to government employees to encourage use of subways, buses, and trains. But it turns out, unsurprisingly to any student of the old Soviet economy, that a thriving black market has emerged.

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While we are on the subject of the USSR—Boris Yeltsin’s death was the subject of one of my posts here yesterday—it is a good moment to remember that one of the very best things about the now defunct Soviet Union was its centrally planned economy. If nothing else, it could be counted on to produce an endless series of amusing anecdotes. In the topsy-turvy world of the five-year plan, factory managers and workers were rewarded not for profits but for maximizing other success indicators, like gross physical output, often with bizarre results.

Nikita Khrushchev famously complained about the immense size and weight of chandeliers. It turned out that workers at a Moscow lamp factory were awarded bonuses for production measured in tons. The chandeliers they produced grew ever heavier until they led to a rash of ceiling collapses.

The United States has a market economy—but we also have a huge government sector, where amusing Soviet-style distortions often creep in. Yesterday’s Washington Post reported on the “Metrochek” program in Washington D.C. These transportation vouchers are issued to government employees to encourage use of subways, buses, and trains. But it turns out, unsurprisingly to any student of the old Soviet economy, that a thriving black market has emerged.

Some 300,000 federal employees across the country receive the transportation vouchers, and some unknown number of them are not using them but rather driving to work and reselling the coupons to others, sometimes in the hyper-efficient auction marketplace of ebay (where, as of yesterday, a $100 metrochek was selling for $75).

Predictably, in the face of the emergence of a market for these discounted vouchers, there are calls for tighter controls, like verification of commuting expenses and ensuring that government employees who use the program do not also receive parking spaces. Administrative sanctions and criminal prosecutions are also now being contemplated. But as in the Soviet economy, more controls will only produce more ingenious forms of evasion, followed by calls for even more stringent controls.

Congress, in its wisdom, has also created Metrochek-type programs in the private sector, where they are known as “cafeteria” or “flexible-benefit” plans. Employees can set aside pre-tax money for transportation, medical expenses, and childcare. The rules include a use-it or lose-it feature, rife with perverse effects. If one sets aside too much money for, say, medical care in a given year, at the end of the year the money is lost. To avoid wasting hard-earned funds, employees are sometimes compelled to go on spending binges at the end of the year, stocking up on approved items like extra eye-glasses that they do not need. Unsurprisingly, optometrists love the flexible spending plans every bit as much as Soviet chandelier workers loved the weight-output norms.

Here in New York City, there are other curious effects. Even as the city tries to discourage drivers from commuting to work in congested Manhattan, the flexible-spending programs cover parking, making it available at a significant discount. And because parking in the city is so expensive, the benefit for driving to work can far exceed the benefit for traveling on mass transit, sometimes by a factor of two or three.

Public-policy objectives are being tied in knots by such programs, but reform or outright abolition is not in the cards. The reason why is that everyone who takes part in them profits (full disclosure: Commentary Inc. has a flexible-benefit program for its employees and I am enrolled in it) even as the net result is economic distortion and waste. Nikita Khrushchev would have smiled.

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