Commentary Magazine


Topic: Somalia

Will Somalia Backslide Again?

That may seem like a silly question to those whose memory of Somalia stopped with Black Hawk Down and piracy, but over the past year there has been some real progress in the east African country which has become synonymous with state failure.

Somalia has made surprising progress. Mogadishu Airport is open to real airlines, piracy is on the decline thanks to a robust international military presence and, in January 2013, the U.S. re-established formal relations with the Somali government for the first time in decades.

Responsibility for progress on the ground in Somalia rests not with international diplomats, but with AMISOM, an African Union military mission manned by Kenyans, Ugandans, Djibouti, and Burundi. Sometimes, military force matters far more than the best intentions of diplomats and UN debates.

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That may seem like a silly question to those whose memory of Somalia stopped with Black Hawk Down and piracy, but over the past year there has been some real progress in the east African country which has become synonymous with state failure.

Somalia has made surprising progress. Mogadishu Airport is open to real airlines, piracy is on the decline thanks to a robust international military presence and, in January 2013, the U.S. re-established formal relations with the Somali government for the first time in decades.

Responsibility for progress on the ground in Somalia rests not with international diplomats, but with AMISOM, an African Union military mission manned by Kenyans, Ugandans, Djibouti, and Burundi. Sometimes, military force matters far more than the best intentions of diplomats and UN debates.

For years, southern Somalia was a no go-area. Several years ago, I had arranged a trip to Mogadishu (a trip that, because of some subsequent events on the ground, never came off). Planning the trip, however, was eye-opening. I spoke with former intelligence officials, Somali businessmen, and assorted Somalia-watchers. I was urged by them to fly into a former Italian airfield north of Somalia accessible by various privately-owned Somali airlines which operate out of Dubai. Whatever I did, they said, don’t try to enter Somalia from Kenya because southern Somalia was the most dangerous region and had become, essentially, a stronghold for Islamist terrorists.

Southern Somalia is home to Kismayo, a port city which acts as the commercial capital of the country. By controlling the port, the terrorist group Ash-Shabaab was able to survive financially. After all, not every militant is a true believer: Many are in it for the patronage. For years, the assumption was that because of Kismayo’s economic importance, Ash-Shabaab and other terrorists would fight to the death in order to maintain their stranglehold over the city. Diplomats dawdled for years about whether AMISOM forces should enter, and what the diplomatic ramifications would be. But last September, AMISOM went in and Ash-Shabaab fled. Local officials—not necessarily subordinate to Mogadishu authorities–resumed their control of the city. One wonders what death might have been prevented had diplomats not been so reticent and blessed the move months earlier.

Now, all the gains not only in Kismayo but across the region appear in jeopardy. Earlier this month, the UN lifted the decades-long arms embargo on Somalia. Doing so allowed the UN to pretend to be relevant, and to confirm progress on the ground. The logic for the UN move was to strengthen the Somali army and central government control. The reality has been the opposite: Corruption is rife throughout Somalia and the lifting of the arms embargo has flooded the black market.  Now, it seems extremists are making a comeback in Kismayo as political deadlock between the Somali central government and local clans in Kismayo exacerbate the problem.

Ash-Shabaab may not be as much of an al-Qaeda affiliate as it claims, but that’s neither here nor there. It is an Islamist extremist group and readily engages in terrorism. It is responsible for thousands of deaths, some in the most brutal fashion. It is not enough to claim victory; such affiliates and terrorist groups have to be hunted into oblivion. That certainly does not mean U.S. intervention is needed. AMISOM is doing the job. The key for the White House is to make sure that nothing is allowed to get in their way. While AMISOM’s formation and activities are blessed by the UN, that should not mean that Ban Ki-moon and his legions of ill-intentioned meddlers should interfere with success. If they do, any progress will be quickly lost. It already is in Kismayo.

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Al-Qaeda’s Resurgence

Much attention has been focused in recent days, and for understandable reasons, on the emergence of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists as a serious threat in Libya. Indeed Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who led a security assistance team in Libya, testified yesterday that its “presence grows every day. They are certainly more established than we are.”

Libya is hardly alone, however. There is also growing evidence of al-Qaeda’s reemergence in Iraq. The Associated Press reports that “the insurgent group has more than doubled in numbers from a year ago — from about 1,000 to 2,500 fighters. And it is carrying out an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq, up from 75 attacks each week earlier this year, according to Pentagon data.” There are said to be as many as ten al-Qaeda in Iraq training sites in the western deserts of Iraq.

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Much attention has been focused in recent days, and for understandable reasons, on the emergence of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists as a serious threat in Libya. Indeed Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who led a security assistance team in Libya, testified yesterday that its “presence grows every day. They are certainly more established than we are.”

Libya is hardly alone, however. There is also growing evidence of al-Qaeda’s reemergence in Iraq. The Associated Press reports that “the insurgent group has more than doubled in numbers from a year ago — from about 1,000 to 2,500 fighters. And it is carrying out an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq, up from 75 attacks each week earlier this year, according to Pentagon data.” There are said to be as many as ten al-Qaeda in Iraq training sites in the western deserts of Iraq.

Meanwhile, other al-Qaeda-associated organizations are gaining strength in Mali and Yemen, among other places. According to one report, Tuareg jihadists in Ansar al Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, both affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, now control a region the size of France in Mali. And they are also making fresh inroads in Syria where the al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front for the People of the Levant has claimed responsibility for an attack on Tuesday by suicide bombers on an intelligence compound near Damascus.

This is an obvious election issue since President Obama keeps saying that “al-Qaeda is on its heels.” It is true that “al-Qaeda central”–the organization headquartered in Pakistan and headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri–does appear to be on its heels; certainly it is less of a threat than it was in the days when Osama bin Laden was alive. But al-Qaeda has managed to spread its tentacles to other corners of the greater Middle East, and its franchises and affiliates remain far from being on their heels. These groups are increasingly well-funded through criminal rackets such as hostage-taking for ransom. Daniel Cohen, the Treasury Department’s top official on terrorist-financing, has recently said that “the U.S. government estimates that terrorist organizations have collected approximately $120 million in ransom payments over the past eight years.”

Part of the reason why al-Qaeda has been able to infiltrate Libya is because of the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi–a war that I believe was, on the whole, in our national security interests. But there has been too little follow-up to try to help the nascent, pro-American government in Tripoli establish its authority. In Iraq, AQI’s reemergence is tied directly to Obama’s ill-advised withdrawal of U.S. troops after half-hearted negotiations with the Iraqis to extend their mandate failed. In Syria, al-Qaeda has an opening because the administration refuses to do more to help the non-jihadist rebel groups overthrow Bashar Assad’s regime. And in Somalia and Yemen the group is finding traction because of the breakdown of state authority–conditions that the Obama administration can hardly be blamed for and that it is grappling with just as the Bush administration did. Overall, the resurgence of al-Qaeda shows the limitations of the Obama administration’s preferred response–drone strikes. They are a good idea, but insufficient to prevent extremists from gaining control of territory. That can only be done by bolstering state authority–something that is notoriously hard to do, especially in lands where the U.S. does not deploy large numbers of ground troops.

However this issue plays out in November, the resurgence of al-Qaeda is a worrisome trend that the next president will have to confront through a variety of mechanisms which will draw the U.S. even more closely into the morass of the Middle East. There is simply no other choice. If America retreats, our enemies advance.

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U.S. Can’t Afford to be Out of Africa

There hasn’t much foreign policy discussion this election season, either in the Republican primaries or in the general election campaign. Certainly, there has been some lip service paid to Iran, but it is like pulling teeth to get either candidate to talk about Afghanistan, let alone any other country.

If there are two lessons policymakers across the aisle should learn from the pre-9/11 era, it is that problems ignored do not go away, and that no matter how remote a security vacuum is, it can still pose a threat to American national security.

It is time both the Obama administration and Romney’s foreign policy team take Africa seriously. Over the past four years, security has declined significantly across a continent too often forgotten in Washington’s policy debate.

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There hasn’t much foreign policy discussion this election season, either in the Republican primaries or in the general election campaign. Certainly, there has been some lip service paid to Iran, but it is like pulling teeth to get either candidate to talk about Afghanistan, let alone any other country.

If there are two lessons policymakers across the aisle should learn from the pre-9/11 era, it is that problems ignored do not go away, and that no matter how remote a security vacuum is, it can still pose a threat to American national security.

It is time both the Obama administration and Romney’s foreign policy team take Africa seriously. Over the past four years, security has declined significantly across a continent too often forgotten in Washington’s policy debate.

Take, for example:

  • Mali: Once labeled by Freedom House to be the most democratic, Muslim-majority country, a  March coup enabled Islamists and Taureg separatists to seize control over the Saharan north of the country. Not surprisingly, the alliance between Tuareg and Islamists did not last, and Islamists consolidated control, implementing strict Islamic law and destroying UNESCO world heritage sites. Northern Mali now threatens to become a safe-haven for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group which profits from drug smuggling networks as far south as Mozambique now has not only the material but also the territory to plot something bigger than beheading French tourists, all the more so since they seem to have taken possession of much of Muammar Qadhafi’s loose weaponry.
  • Nigeria: The seventh-most populous country on earth is also one of Africa’s most diverse. While counter-terror experts once celebrated the demise of al-Qaeda’s short-lived Nigerian affiliate, the rapid growth of the violent Boko Haram jihadist group should concern just about everyone. Boko Haram’s slaughter of Christians threatens to take sectarian violence to a new level. The spread of jihadism into Nigeria’s urban slums, let alone state failure, would also have profound repercussions.
  • Somalia has actually been somewhat of a good news story in recent months, although if there’s one lesson from recent Somali history, it is that no one should take positive security trends for granted in the Horn of Africa.

We can chase Joseph Kony around Africa’s Great Lakes region, and his capture or killing would strike a blow for human rights. But, while it’s all well and good to pursue a humanitarian policy, the White House should never forget those areas that could pose a growing threat to American national security. Radical Islamism and state failure is never a good mix. There is no easy answer about what to do in Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia, but failing to have a conversation is policy malpractice.

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Obama Sends Terrorists to Sub-Gitmo Hell

Among the unfortunate things about the ObamaCare ruling is that it’s taking oxygen away from some important stories. None more important than Eli Lake’s sensational scoop at the Daily Beast on the wretched facilities in Somalia where America is sending alleged terrorists caught in the expanded U.S. war on terror in that country. When Barack Obama came to office he described Guantanamo Bay as a “misguided experiment,” owing to the facility’s supposedly harsh conditions. He has since decreed that the United States will no longer accept new prisoners there (he was unable to close the facility altogether); Obama also shuttered CIA black site prisons in Europe. But if Gitmo was a “misguided experiment” and CIA sites beneath American standards of humane treatment, what on earth is this?

Overcrowded, underfunded, and reeking of urine, the Bosaso Central Prison could make even the most dedicated insurgent regret ever getting into the terrorism business. Many inmates don’t have shoes, and instead of uniforms, they wear filthy T-shirts and ankle-length garments wrapped around their waists that resemble sarongs (called ma-awis in Somali). When I visited earlier this year, the warden, Shura Sayeed Mohammed, told me he had 393 prisoners in a place designed to hold no more than 300. He said that since 2009, he had received 16 inmates captured by Americans.

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Among the unfortunate things about the ObamaCare ruling is that it’s taking oxygen away from some important stories. None more important than Eli Lake’s sensational scoop at the Daily Beast on the wretched facilities in Somalia where America is sending alleged terrorists caught in the expanded U.S. war on terror in that country. When Barack Obama came to office he described Guantanamo Bay as a “misguided experiment,” owing to the facility’s supposedly harsh conditions. He has since decreed that the United States will no longer accept new prisoners there (he was unable to close the facility altogether); Obama also shuttered CIA black site prisons in Europe. But if Gitmo was a “misguided experiment” and CIA sites beneath American standards of humane treatment, what on earth is this?

Overcrowded, underfunded, and reeking of urine, the Bosaso Central Prison could make even the most dedicated insurgent regret ever getting into the terrorism business. Many inmates don’t have shoes, and instead of uniforms, they wear filthy T-shirts and ankle-length garments wrapped around their waists that resemble sarongs (called ma-awis in Somali). When I visited earlier this year, the warden, Shura Sayeed Mohammed, told me he had 393 prisoners in a place designed to hold no more than 300. He said that since 2009, he had received 16 inmates captured by Americans.

Something tells me Bosaso’s inmates wouldn’t mind a transfer to Club Gitmo, where prisoners fatten up on halal chow, play pick-up basketball, take finance courses, and write poetry. As Lake explains, “Obama’s plan to get America out of the international jailer business means that developing-world prisons have picked up the slack.” So we’ve gone from the evil “Cheneyist” standard to the failed-state model, in which, according to Lake’s source, “guys end up with skin disease that spreads very quickly. It’s like a heat rash, they start bleeding, it passes onto the other prisoners.” And Lake was denied access to inmates associated with the al-Shabab terrorist group because, in the warden’s words, those men constitute a “virus” and “if we let them mix with the rest of the public, they can transmit the virus to the rest of the population.”

Far be it from me to shed a tear for terrorists rotting away in hellholes like Bosaso. The point is the president’s campaign against Gitmo was rooted in superficial moral vanity, not a deep morality. If he was so concerned about the treatment of captured terrorists it’s hard to see how he could sleep at night after having outsourced terrorist detention to Somalia. The same goes, of course, for his attendant war on waterboarding and enhanced interrogation. Under George W. Bush, the United States waterboarded three terrorists, all of whom gave up life-saving intelligence and then ended the enhanced interrogation program. Obama, on the other hand, made anti-enhanced-interrogation pronouncements, changed the definition of enemy combatant to any 18-year-old male in a given geographical area, and proceeded to incinerate scores of nameless such men in ramped up drone strikes in Muslim lands. Again, no one should have any illusions about the war on terror being a gruesome business. But it would be nice if one of Bush’s full-time amateur accusers pointed out Obama’s gargantuan moral hypocrisy and asked the president to comment on the nature of his post-Gitmo redemption plan for America.

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U.S. Can’t Lead From Behind on Pirates

First in Libya, and now in Somalia, the Europeans, amazingly enough, seem to be taking the lead in Western military operations. European Union warships off the coast of Somalia are now attacking pirate lairs inland, targeting and destroying pirate vessels. This is a long-overdue step to put some teeth into the anti-piracy campaign.

As long as a dozen or even two dozen Western warships are forced to police an area of ocean the size of Texas, hoping they will catch pirates in the act, they have little hope of stopping pirates. The only way to be effective is to hunt down the Somali pirates, on both the sea and on land, and mete out swift and certain justice.

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First in Libya, and now in Somalia, the Europeans, amazingly enough, seem to be taking the lead in Western military operations. European Union warships off the coast of Somalia are now attacking pirate lairs inland, targeting and destroying pirate vessels. This is a long-overdue step to put some teeth into the anti-piracy campaign.

As long as a dozen or even two dozen Western warships are forced to police an area of ocean the size of Texas, hoping they will catch pirates in the act, they have little hope of stopping pirates. The only way to be effective is to hunt down the Somali pirates, on both the sea and on land, and mete out swift and certain justice.

The U.S. has mounted a few daring operations that show the spirit required; in 2009, for example, SEALs killed three pirates who were holding an American merchant skipper. The U.S. Special Operations Command and CIA have also launched some strikes against Islamist terrorists in Somalia. But we have resisted doing what the Europeans just did–attacking pirate lairs. Presumably, this is another example of President Obama’s “lead from behind” doctrine which is thrusting European military forces, willy nilly, into the lead in all sorts of areas. It is a good thing the Europeans are doing more, but one can only imagine how much more effective anti-piracy efforts would be if the U.S. were to be as aggressive as our European partners, who have seldom been noted in recent years for a surplus of martial spirit.

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Is Diplomacy a Threat to Airline Security?

Media scrutiny boils airline security down to X-ray machines, pat downs, and perhaps some psychological profiling. Even the most thorough American passenger screening, however, does not address the problem of terrorist baggage handlers or employees overseas. In an age of airline alliances and increasing international travel, the real vulnerability to air travel may be overseas.

I have written here before about the problem at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, destination for many European airlines and a frequent hub which I often use during vacations in Beirut or onward travel to Iraq. Hezbollah’s aborted putsch in Beirut in 2008 involved, among other things, control over the lucrative airport. One of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s more short-sighted compromises was to agree to the Doha Accords which empowered Hezbollah in Lebanon’s domestic scene in exchange for quiet. Along the way, Hezbollah regained sway over airport operations, even if its members wear Lebanon Army Uniforms when at the facility. It should give every American chills that many of the airport workers handling Lufthansa, Air France, and other flights which transfer luggage to the United States swear fealty to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

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Media scrutiny boils airline security down to X-ray machines, pat downs, and perhaps some psychological profiling. Even the most thorough American passenger screening, however, does not address the problem of terrorist baggage handlers or employees overseas. In an age of airline alliances and increasing international travel, the real vulnerability to air travel may be overseas.

I have written here before about the problem at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, destination for many European airlines and a frequent hub which I often use during vacations in Beirut or onward travel to Iraq. Hezbollah’s aborted putsch in Beirut in 2008 involved, among other things, control over the lucrative airport. One of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s more short-sighted compromises was to agree to the Doha Accords which empowered Hezbollah in Lebanon’s domestic scene in exchange for quiet. Along the way, Hezbollah regained sway over airport operations, even if its members wear Lebanon Army Uniforms when at the facility. It should give every American chills that many of the airport workers handling Lufthansa, Air France, and other flights which transfer luggage to the United States swear fealty to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Alas, Beirut is no longer alone. Turkish Air, a member of the Star Alliance and a partner to United Airlines and USAir, has initiated service to Mogadishu, Somalia. Bags checked in Mogadishu can now find their way to New York, Washington, and Los Angeles among other destinations. Simultaneously, Turkey has announced that it is brokering talks with Ash-Shabaab, Somalia’s al-Qaeda’s affiliate, in a move which would see it join the central government and integrate into Somalia’s national security service. What could ever go wrong here?

Diplomats do not want to undermine Lebanon’s shaky political situation by voicing concerns over its airport, nor do they want to undercut their desperate hope for resolution in Somalia by questioning the wisdom of Turkey or its state airline. It seems history, therefore, could very well repeat. The Lockerbie bombing occurred when Libyan agents smuggled a bomb onto a Pan Am feeder flight in Malta. The Malta leak may be plugged, but do American security officials truly believe the same is true in either Beirut or Mogadishu? American airlines remain vulnerable, and despite the TSA’s approach, patting down four-year-olds and strip searching grannies will not be enough to plug the holes.

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Bravo Zulu to Special Ops in Somalia

As they say in the military: Bravo Zulu to the Special Operations Forces who successfully rescued two Western hostages, an American woman and a Danish man, in Somalia–and to the commander-in-chief who ordered the operation.

The mission, with the Navy’s SEAL Team Six in the lead, displayed the professionalism and daring we have to come expect of our elite forces. But there was nothing routine about a rescue mission deep in “denied territory,” which is what Somalia is: a haven for pirates and Islamist terrorists. This was a major intelligence coup, to locate the camp where they were held, and a triumph of the military art to secure the two hostages unharmed in the midst of a firefight in which nine pirates were killed but all the members of the assault force survived.

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As they say in the military: Bravo Zulu to the Special Operations Forces who successfully rescued two Western hostages, an American woman and a Danish man, in Somalia–and to the commander-in-chief who ordered the operation.

The mission, with the Navy’s SEAL Team Six in the lead, displayed the professionalism and daring we have to come expect of our elite forces. But there was nothing routine about a rescue mission deep in “denied territory,” which is what Somalia is: a haven for pirates and Islamist terrorists. This was a major intelligence coup, to locate the camp where they were held, and a triumph of the military art to secure the two hostages unharmed in the midst of a firefight in which nine pirates were killed but all the members of the assault force survived.

President Obama authorized this mission knowing that much could go wrong–this is not as low-risk as a drone strike. It could easily have become another “Black Hawk Down,” in which case he would have been subject to withering criticism as President Clinton was about that earlier Special Operations mission in Somalia.

But he accepted the risk and forged ahead, which is what we expect a commander-in-chief to do. I have had my differences with President Obama about national security policy, but this, like the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, shows the president at his steely best.


		

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Why Somali Pirates Consider the U.S. Navy a Paper Tiger

Without question, the main joy of teaching for the military is the students. When I taught undergraduates, students would talk in class but few would say anything: They’d argue theory, but would have few facts and even less life experience to back up their arguments. Today’s servicemen and women are different. They have accrued a lifetime of experience in just a few years. Heading off to eat with them at a DFAC (dining facility) at North Fort Hood, or in the wardroom of a U.S. navy carrier is about as valuable a learning experience as one can get.

I’m just off the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is currently heading across the Pacific to support our troops in far hotter waters. One of the more interesting conversations I had was with an officer who had, in an earlier deployment, spent a good deal of time doing anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia. He said his ship once came across a pirate “mother ship” apparently dead in the water. It was not in imminent danger, however, nor was the ship itself engaged in piracy—that was the job of the small boats which launched from the mother ship. As the cruiser hovered nearby, the pirates threw over the side a life preserver with a message attached to it. The cruiser grabbed the life-preserver, and opened the attached plastic bag with the message in it. It read, in perfect English, “Unless you’re going to give us booze, women, and money, why don’t you just get the f—k away from here?” And, because of U.S. rules of engagement, that is exactly what we did.

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Without question, the main joy of teaching for the military is the students. When I taught undergraduates, students would talk in class but few would say anything: They’d argue theory, but would have few facts and even less life experience to back up their arguments. Today’s servicemen and women are different. They have accrued a lifetime of experience in just a few years. Heading off to eat with them at a DFAC (dining facility) at North Fort Hood, or in the wardroom of a U.S. navy carrier is about as valuable a learning experience as one can get.

I’m just off the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is currently heading across the Pacific to support our troops in far hotter waters. One of the more interesting conversations I had was with an officer who had, in an earlier deployment, spent a good deal of time doing anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia. He said his ship once came across a pirate “mother ship” apparently dead in the water. It was not in imminent danger, however, nor was the ship itself engaged in piracy—that was the job of the small boats which launched from the mother ship. As the cruiser hovered nearby, the pirates threw over the side a life preserver with a message attached to it. The cruiser grabbed the life-preserver, and opened the attached plastic bag with the message in it. It read, in perfect English, “Unless you’re going to give us booze, women, and money, why don’t you just get the f—k away from here?” And, because of U.S. rules of engagement, that is exactly what we did.

It is no surprise that piracy thrives when the pirates know our rules of engagement and know they have little to fear for their actions. Today, our sailors are instructed to consider piracy a matter for the courts rather than simply a military matter. As soon as the Oval Office and Pentagon allow our sailors to truly crackdown on piracy and destroy both the ships that enable it and the properties on shore built with its proceeds, its curse will continue to hamper international shipping. The alternative is simply a very expensive pageant and, frankly, our servicemen and women deserve far better than spending holidays and kids’ birthdays away from their families simply to sit off the coast of Africa in a show of force which the pirates no longer take seriously.

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Fight Off, Don’t Pay Off, Pirates

Good for South Korea. Last week its commandos staged a daring assault on a freighter ship hijacked by pirates off Somalia. Eight pirates were killed, five captured. All 21 hostages were released; only one of them — the captain of the ship — was wounded.

This raid comes only a few months after the ship in question, the Samho Jewelry, was freed by Somali pirates from a previous period of captivity. South Korea reportedly paid a ransom $9.5 million — the highest ever. Ransom payments to the pirates have been going up dramatically. According to the Financial Times: “A recent study from the US-based One Earth Future foundation showed the average ransom paid to Somali pirates rose nearly 60 per cent from 2009 to 2010, reaching $5.4m. The average ransom paid in 2005 was $150,000.”

The experience of the Samho Jewelry should  confirm that paying off pirates is not a wise move. Fighting them makes more sense. After all, the Somali pirates are lightly armed; professional military forces like South Korea’s can make mincemeat of them. The problem is that most of the countries that have sent naval vessels off the coast of Somalia have been reluctant to give them the kind of robust rules of engagement that would allow them to take the fight to the pirates. Too often, even when pirates have been captured, they have been released because Somalia has no functioning courts and no other country is eager to try them. Shipping lines have operated under the assumption that it’s cheaper to cooperate with pirates than to fight them. Under those circumstances, is it any wonder that piracy has grown and grown? If the risk is low and the payoff high, it’s safe to expect that more Somalis will take to the seas to take down merchant shipping.

The key to securing this vital shipping lane is to unleash all the naval power that is already in the region. The U.S. and our allies should give our fleets shoot-on-sight orders when they detect suspected pirates — the same kind of order our troops operate under when dealing with armed insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan. It would not take many gunfights, I suspect, to deter all but the most foolhardy or daring pirates from continuing with their criminal racket.

Good for South Korea. Last week its commandos staged a daring assault on a freighter ship hijacked by pirates off Somalia. Eight pirates were killed, five captured. All 21 hostages were released; only one of them — the captain of the ship — was wounded.

This raid comes only a few months after the ship in question, the Samho Jewelry, was freed by Somali pirates from a previous period of captivity. South Korea reportedly paid a ransom $9.5 million — the highest ever. Ransom payments to the pirates have been going up dramatically. According to the Financial Times: “A recent study from the US-based One Earth Future foundation showed the average ransom paid to Somali pirates rose nearly 60 per cent from 2009 to 2010, reaching $5.4m. The average ransom paid in 2005 was $150,000.”

The experience of the Samho Jewelry should  confirm that paying off pirates is not a wise move. Fighting them makes more sense. After all, the Somali pirates are lightly armed; professional military forces like South Korea’s can make mincemeat of them. The problem is that most of the countries that have sent naval vessels off the coast of Somalia have been reluctant to give them the kind of robust rules of engagement that would allow them to take the fight to the pirates. Too often, even when pirates have been captured, they have been released because Somalia has no functioning courts and no other country is eager to try them. Shipping lines have operated under the assumption that it’s cheaper to cooperate with pirates than to fight them. Under those circumstances, is it any wonder that piracy has grown and grown? If the risk is low and the payoff high, it’s safe to expect that more Somalis will take to the seas to take down merchant shipping.

The key to securing this vital shipping lane is to unleash all the naval power that is already in the region. The U.S. and our allies should give our fleets shoot-on-sight orders when they detect suspected pirates — the same kind of order our troops operate under when dealing with armed insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan. It would not take many gunfights, I suspect, to deter all but the most foolhardy or daring pirates from continuing with their criminal racket.

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Send in the Mercenaries

The New York Times reported last week in horrified tones about an apparent plan by Saracen International — a South African security firm — to offer its services to the government of Somalia. According to the Times, Erik Prince, the former SEAL who started Blackwater, is somehow involved in the deal, which is reportedly being financed by the United Arab Emirates.

There is more than a whiff of disapprobation about the entire article, with its mention of apartheid-era connections on the part of one of Saracen’s principals and of the scandals that have plagued Blackwater. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s good news.

Somalia, after all, is a country with hardly any functioning security force of its own. Its government is hanging on by its fingernails in the face of a concerted assault by the Islamist group known as the Shahab. An 8,000-strong African Union force has been bolstered the government only a little. Battles continue to rage daily in Mogadishu, often only a few hundred yards from the center of government. In those circumstances, what’s wrong with the Somali government looking for outside help? The U.S. and our European allies have no interest in sending in our own troops, so why not send in mercenaries?

In fact, as I’ve argued in the past,  the mercenary option can work when nothing else is viable. Blackwater and other contractors have caused their share of problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would undoubtedly have been better to have had their work performed by American troops. But there were not enough American troops to do all that was required. In Somalia, there are no American troops at all (aside from occasional forays by Special Operations Forces).

In this article in the American Interest, I pointed out the successes scored by the closely linked South African firms Executive Outcomes and Sandline:

[I]n their heyday in the 1990s they helped the governments of Papua New Guinea, Liberia, Angola and Sierra Leone, among others, to put down savage insurgencies at a time when the rest of the world stood idly by. In 1995–96, for instance, Executive Outcomes made short work of a rebel movement in Sierra Leone known as the Revolutionary United Front, which was notorious for chopping off the limbs of its victims. As a result, Sierra Leone was able to hold its first free election in decades. Another private firm, MPRI, helped to bring peace to the former Yugoslavia in 1995 by organizing the Croatian offensive that stopped Serbian aggression. Today MPRI provides trainers who operate side by side with local poppy-eradication forces in Afghanistan—a mission that NATO refuses to take on.

Saracen International, as it happens, is the successor to Executive Outcomes.  According to the Times, it is already “training a 1,000-member antipiracy militia in Puntland, in northern Somalia, and plans a separate militia in Mogadishu.” Now, after the Times article, those plans may be endangered. A follow-up account in the Times quotes a Somali official saying, “We need help but we don’t want mercenaries.”

Who, then, is going to help Somalia? Those who sniff at this option should be required to come up with an alternative that could work half as well to prevent Somalia from falling into the clutches of radical Islamists.

The New York Times reported last week in horrified tones about an apparent plan by Saracen International — a South African security firm — to offer its services to the government of Somalia. According to the Times, Erik Prince, the former SEAL who started Blackwater, is somehow involved in the deal, which is reportedly being financed by the United Arab Emirates.

There is more than a whiff of disapprobation about the entire article, with its mention of apartheid-era connections on the part of one of Saracen’s principals and of the scandals that have plagued Blackwater. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s good news.

Somalia, after all, is a country with hardly any functioning security force of its own. Its government is hanging on by its fingernails in the face of a concerted assault by the Islamist group known as the Shahab. An 8,000-strong African Union force has been bolstered the government only a little. Battles continue to rage daily in Mogadishu, often only a few hundred yards from the center of government. In those circumstances, what’s wrong with the Somali government looking for outside help? The U.S. and our European allies have no interest in sending in our own troops, so why not send in mercenaries?

In fact, as I’ve argued in the past,  the mercenary option can work when nothing else is viable. Blackwater and other contractors have caused their share of problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would undoubtedly have been better to have had their work performed by American troops. But there were not enough American troops to do all that was required. In Somalia, there are no American troops at all (aside from occasional forays by Special Operations Forces).

In this article in the American Interest, I pointed out the successes scored by the closely linked South African firms Executive Outcomes and Sandline:

[I]n their heyday in the 1990s they helped the governments of Papua New Guinea, Liberia, Angola and Sierra Leone, among others, to put down savage insurgencies at a time when the rest of the world stood idly by. In 1995–96, for instance, Executive Outcomes made short work of a rebel movement in Sierra Leone known as the Revolutionary United Front, which was notorious for chopping off the limbs of its victims. As a result, Sierra Leone was able to hold its first free election in decades. Another private firm, MPRI, helped to bring peace to the former Yugoslavia in 1995 by organizing the Croatian offensive that stopped Serbian aggression. Today MPRI provides trainers who operate side by side with local poppy-eradication forces in Afghanistan—a mission that NATO refuses to take on.

Saracen International, as it happens, is the successor to Executive Outcomes.  According to the Times, it is already “training a 1,000-member antipiracy militia in Puntland, in northern Somalia, and plans a separate militia in Mogadishu.” Now, after the Times article, those plans may be endangered. A follow-up account in the Times quotes a Somali official saying, “We need help but we don’t want mercenaries.”

Who, then, is going to help Somalia? Those who sniff at this option should be required to come up with an alternative that could work half as well to prevent Somalia from falling into the clutches of radical Islamists.

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USAID: Mend It, Don’t End It

The Republican Study Committee, a group of 165 conservative House members, has just unveiled a proposal for cutting the federal budget. Their push for cuts and their willingness to be specific is to be commended. Many of their nominees for cuts are traditional Republican targets, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Legal Services Corporation. I would not lose any sleep if these agencies were defunded tomorrow, but I am concerned about one of the proposals: a cut of $1.39 billion in the budget of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Since USAID’s budget is only $1.65 billion, this would all but put the agency out of business.

I share the concerns expressed by many over how foreign aid is being spent. No doubt much of it goes to useless or even counterproductive projects. USAID is notorious for poor management and for judging results by how much money it spends — not by what kinds of effects it achieves. In Afghanistan and Iraq, where the agency has been asked to cooperate in military-led counterinsurgency projects, some of its work has been valuable, but a good deal of it has also fueled corruption and been too disconnected from the broader campaign.

Does that sound as if I agree with the desire of these House Republicans to all but eliminate USAID? I don’t, because I do think foreign aid can be a valuable tool of American diplomacy, and it’s not as if USAID is a big drag on the budget — it represents a whopping .04 percent of estimated federal spending this year ($3.8 trillion). We are not going to balance the budget by eliminating USAID. Calling for its virtual eradication will only make it easy for Democrats to brand the GOP as an isolationist party.

The Republicans’ message should be “mend it, don’t end it.” USAID needs a major overhaul, which should involve hiring more full-time officers. In recent decades, it has been too reliant on contractors of dubious reliability because its workforce has been cut. It also needs a more sharply defined mission rather than simply bolstering generic “development” — it ought to be targeted specifically at enhancing nation-building in states of key concern to the U.S., such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. In other words, it should be an adjunct of our broader “war against terrorism” and an instrument that the U.S. government can use to bolster failed or failing states. It sounds as if Rajiv Shah, current head of USAID, is planning to move the agency in that direction.

Hill Republicans should work with him, helping to overcome institutional resistance and holding him accountable for results, rather than trying to wish the agency away.

The Republican Study Committee, a group of 165 conservative House members, has just unveiled a proposal for cutting the federal budget. Their push for cuts and their willingness to be specific is to be commended. Many of their nominees for cuts are traditional Republican targets, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Legal Services Corporation. I would not lose any sleep if these agencies were defunded tomorrow, but I am concerned about one of the proposals: a cut of $1.39 billion in the budget of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Since USAID’s budget is only $1.65 billion, this would all but put the agency out of business.

I share the concerns expressed by many over how foreign aid is being spent. No doubt much of it goes to useless or even counterproductive projects. USAID is notorious for poor management and for judging results by how much money it spends — not by what kinds of effects it achieves. In Afghanistan and Iraq, where the agency has been asked to cooperate in military-led counterinsurgency projects, some of its work has been valuable, but a good deal of it has also fueled corruption and been too disconnected from the broader campaign.

Does that sound as if I agree with the desire of these House Republicans to all but eliminate USAID? I don’t, because I do think foreign aid can be a valuable tool of American diplomacy, and it’s not as if USAID is a big drag on the budget — it represents a whopping .04 percent of estimated federal spending this year ($3.8 trillion). We are not going to balance the budget by eliminating USAID. Calling for its virtual eradication will only make it easy for Democrats to brand the GOP as an isolationist party.

The Republicans’ message should be “mend it, don’t end it.” USAID needs a major overhaul, which should involve hiring more full-time officers. In recent decades, it has been too reliant on contractors of dubious reliability because its workforce has been cut. It also needs a more sharply defined mission rather than simply bolstering generic “development” — it ought to be targeted specifically at enhancing nation-building in states of key concern to the U.S., such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. In other words, it should be an adjunct of our broader “war against terrorism” and an instrument that the U.S. government can use to bolster failed or failing states. It sounds as if Rajiv Shah, current head of USAID, is planning to move the agency in that direction.

Hill Republicans should work with him, helping to overcome institutional resistance and holding him accountable for results, rather than trying to wish the agency away.

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The True ‘Cost’ of Defeat in Afghanistan

If you want any further evidence of conservative support for the war effort in Afghanistan, look no further than Grover Norquist’s laughable effort to organize a “center-right” coalition against the war. Apparently, Grover wants to pull out of Afghanistan as a money-saving measure — a line of argument, which if followed to its natural conclusion, should also have led us to pull out of World War II while Hitler or Tojo were still in power or to end the Civil War while Jefferson Davis still ruled the South. Think of all the millions we could have saved by ending wars prematurely — quite a bonanza, especially if you ignore the rather substantial costs of defeat.

Norquist seems quite enamored of Ronald Reagan’s pullout from Lebanon after the suicide car-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. Perhaps he is not aware that this incident was routinely cited — along with the U.S. pullout from Somalia in 1993 — by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s to justify his belief that the U.S. was a “weak horse” that could be attacked with impunity. Note to Grover: Even the great Ronald Reagan was not infallible.

With arguments like that, it is no surprise that Norquist has attracted to his cause such conservative luminaries as … Steve Clemons? Jim Pinkerton? Charlie Kupchan? If those are genuine representatives of the conservative movement, then I’m Donald Duck.

Somehow I think the conservative base is pretty secure for the war effort, because it understands what Grover does not: that we are locked in an existential struggle against Islamist extremists and that defeat in Afghanistan would have severe consequences for us that make the cost of winning the war seem cheap by comparison. It’s the lack of liberal support for the war effort that we have to worry about.

If you want any further evidence of conservative support for the war effort in Afghanistan, look no further than Grover Norquist’s laughable effort to organize a “center-right” coalition against the war. Apparently, Grover wants to pull out of Afghanistan as a money-saving measure — a line of argument, which if followed to its natural conclusion, should also have led us to pull out of World War II while Hitler or Tojo were still in power or to end the Civil War while Jefferson Davis still ruled the South. Think of all the millions we could have saved by ending wars prematurely — quite a bonanza, especially if you ignore the rather substantial costs of defeat.

Norquist seems quite enamored of Ronald Reagan’s pullout from Lebanon after the suicide car-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. Perhaps he is not aware that this incident was routinely cited — along with the U.S. pullout from Somalia in 1993 — by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s to justify his belief that the U.S. was a “weak horse” that could be attacked with impunity. Note to Grover: Even the great Ronald Reagan was not infallible.

With arguments like that, it is no surprise that Norquist has attracted to his cause such conservative luminaries as … Steve Clemons? Jim Pinkerton? Charlie Kupchan? If those are genuine representatives of the conservative movement, then I’m Donald Duck.

Somehow I think the conservative base is pretty secure for the war effort, because it understands what Grover does not: that we are locked in an existential struggle against Islamist extremists and that defeat in Afghanistan would have severe consequences for us that make the cost of winning the war seem cheap by comparison. It’s the lack of liberal support for the war effort that we have to worry about.

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Defense Cuts Invite Someone to Test Our Will — and Power

My editorial in the new Weekly Standard criticizing plans to cut back defense, and especially to cut back ground forces, has sparked a fair amount of Internet chatter. Leaving aside the vast volume of ad hominem attacks (one of which I dealt with in my last post), much of the criticism has focused on two sentences.

Complaining about the 32 percent decline in army strength between 1991 and 2001, I wrote: “That 32 percent decline in active-duty strength severely limited our options for a military response to 9/11, practically dictating that the forces sent to Afghanistan and Iraq would be too small to pacify two countries with a combined population of nearly 60 million.”

Then, suggesting that President Obama cannot be certain that there will not be some contingency in the near future that will require large ground forces, I wrote: “How certain is he that Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia won’t be the staging ground for another 9/11, thereby requiring another massive commitment of U.S. troops?”

Regarding the first point: critics say that Bush and his civilian and military officials decided to send a small force to Afghanistan and then Iraq not because of force constraints but because they were wedded to the ideology of the “small footprint.” There is a great deal of merit in this assertion, but even if they had been convinced that sending a large force was the way to go, they would have been hard-pressed to do so because of the post–Cold War cuts in army strength. Indeed as the Iraq war went along, it became clear that our force was too small to get the job done, but senior generals such as Casey and Abizaid did not push Rumsfeld to send more troops, in part because they thought there simply were not enough army troops available and they didn’t want to “break” the army. I recognize that they had other reasons for preferring to keep the force too small, but this was certainly a major part of their calculus.

Finally, in late 2006, Bush decided to disregard their (bad) advice and send more troops. He was able to send only five brigades when the architects of the surge had hoped for eight or nine at least. But there were only five available and even that was a stretch. Increasing our troop strength by just 30,000 required placing a huge strain on the force; many units were extended from 12-month deployments to 18 months, a long time to be in combat. Luckily, the five-brigade surge proved sufficient, but what if the situation had been so bad that we really needed eight or nine? In that case, we would have lost the war. That’s a risk we shouldn’t have to run.

Indeed, even as we were winning in Iraq, we were losing in Afghanistan, because we didn’t have enough troops to adequately garrison both countries. In the 1990s, it never occurred to force planners from the Bush and Clinton administrations that we would be making such large ground-force commitments, so they did not create an army big enough to handle such commitments. Today we are hearing the same refrain we heard back then: that there is scant chance we will fight a major ground war in the future, so why bother preparing for one? Unfortunately, history has a tendency to make a mockery of such certainties, in part because our very unreadiness to fight increases the odds that we will have to do so by encouraging potential enemies to test our will.

My editorial in the new Weekly Standard criticizing plans to cut back defense, and especially to cut back ground forces, has sparked a fair amount of Internet chatter. Leaving aside the vast volume of ad hominem attacks (one of which I dealt with in my last post), much of the criticism has focused on two sentences.

Complaining about the 32 percent decline in army strength between 1991 and 2001, I wrote: “That 32 percent decline in active-duty strength severely limited our options for a military response to 9/11, practically dictating that the forces sent to Afghanistan and Iraq would be too small to pacify two countries with a combined population of nearly 60 million.”

Then, suggesting that President Obama cannot be certain that there will not be some contingency in the near future that will require large ground forces, I wrote: “How certain is he that Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia won’t be the staging ground for another 9/11, thereby requiring another massive commitment of U.S. troops?”

Regarding the first point: critics say that Bush and his civilian and military officials decided to send a small force to Afghanistan and then Iraq not because of force constraints but because they were wedded to the ideology of the “small footprint.” There is a great deal of merit in this assertion, but even if they had been convinced that sending a large force was the way to go, they would have been hard-pressed to do so because of the post–Cold War cuts in army strength. Indeed as the Iraq war went along, it became clear that our force was too small to get the job done, but senior generals such as Casey and Abizaid did not push Rumsfeld to send more troops, in part because they thought there simply were not enough army troops available and they didn’t want to “break” the army. I recognize that they had other reasons for preferring to keep the force too small, but this was certainly a major part of their calculus.

Finally, in late 2006, Bush decided to disregard their (bad) advice and send more troops. He was able to send only five brigades when the architects of the surge had hoped for eight or nine at least. But there were only five available and even that was a stretch. Increasing our troop strength by just 30,000 required placing a huge strain on the force; many units were extended from 12-month deployments to 18 months, a long time to be in combat. Luckily, the five-brigade surge proved sufficient, but what if the situation had been so bad that we really needed eight or nine? In that case, we would have lost the war. That’s a risk we shouldn’t have to run.

Indeed, even as we were winning in Iraq, we were losing in Afghanistan, because we didn’t have enough troops to adequately garrison both countries. In the 1990s, it never occurred to force planners from the Bush and Clinton administrations that we would be making such large ground-force commitments, so they did not create an army big enough to handle such commitments. Today we are hearing the same refrain we heard back then: that there is scant chance we will fight a major ground war in the future, so why bother preparing for one? Unfortunately, history has a tendency to make a mockery of such certainties, in part because our very unreadiness to fight increases the odds that we will have to do so by encouraging potential enemies to test our will.

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Don’t Balance the Budget on the Back of Defense

I am struck by the juxtaposition of two news items. First, it is being reported that Bob Gates is proposing $100 billion in defense cuts over the next five years, including the cancellation of the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Second it is being reported that China’s military modernization program is moving ahead faster than expected. In recent days, China has unveiled a new stealth fighter, the J-20, and a new ballistic missile that has been dubbed a “carrier killer” because it is designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers. China is also reportedly building its own aircraft carriers and taking other actions to beef up its arsenal.

Granted, China has a long way to go before it approaches parity with the U.S. — but then again, it doesn’t need parity. Much of our military spending goes to enable operations thousands of miles from home. China, by contrast, seems to lack global ambitions, at least for the moment. It is concerned with dominating its region. And that does not require that it match U.S. military capacity across the board. All it has to do is raise the cost to the U.S. of taking action to keep in check Chinese expansionism, whereas the U.S. must worry not only about the threat from China but also about North Korea, Iran, al-Qaeda, Somalia, Yemen, and myriad other concerns.

The cuts proposed by Secretary Gates do not seriously threaten America’s military position in the world. Heck, I’ve expressed my own skepticism about the utility of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. I am also not that alarmed about the cancellation of the F-22 or the pushing back of the Marine Corps’s vertical-takeoff version of the F-35; I think the Marine version of the F-35 could be canceled altogether, because the vertical takeoff and landing capability of the Harrier jump jet has so seldom been utilized in combat.

But I am concerned about talk of delaying or downsizing the overall F-35 program at a time when China and Russia are both fielding their own stealth fighters. More than that, I am worried that Gates’s cuts may be only the beginning of a drawdown that is happening even as we are still fighting a major war in Afghanistan. Already proposals are circulating — see, for instance, this Foreign Affairs article — for massive cutbacks, including the loss of hundreds of thousands of service personnel, that would eviscerate American power-projection capabilities. Alas, many in Congress, even some Republicans, appear to be open to deeper defense cuts.

I am all for addressing our runaway federal spending — but we won’t balance the budget on the back of the Defense Department. Not when defense spending is less than 20 percent of the budget and less than 5 percent of GDP. Getting our fiscal house in order requires cutting entitlement spending. Downsizing the military, by contrast, will contribute to future insecurity and turn out to be the most costly option in the long run. That is a lesson we should have learned in the past, many times over (as I argued in this op-ed).

I am struck by the juxtaposition of two news items. First, it is being reported that Bob Gates is proposing $100 billion in defense cuts over the next five years, including the cancellation of the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Second it is being reported that China’s military modernization program is moving ahead faster than expected. In recent days, China has unveiled a new stealth fighter, the J-20, and a new ballistic missile that has been dubbed a “carrier killer” because it is designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers. China is also reportedly building its own aircraft carriers and taking other actions to beef up its arsenal.

Granted, China has a long way to go before it approaches parity with the U.S. — but then again, it doesn’t need parity. Much of our military spending goes to enable operations thousands of miles from home. China, by contrast, seems to lack global ambitions, at least for the moment. It is concerned with dominating its region. And that does not require that it match U.S. military capacity across the board. All it has to do is raise the cost to the U.S. of taking action to keep in check Chinese expansionism, whereas the U.S. must worry not only about the threat from China but also about North Korea, Iran, al-Qaeda, Somalia, Yemen, and myriad other concerns.

The cuts proposed by Secretary Gates do not seriously threaten America’s military position in the world. Heck, I’ve expressed my own skepticism about the utility of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. I am also not that alarmed about the cancellation of the F-22 or the pushing back of the Marine Corps’s vertical-takeoff version of the F-35; I think the Marine version of the F-35 could be canceled altogether, because the vertical takeoff and landing capability of the Harrier jump jet has so seldom been utilized in combat.

But I am concerned about talk of delaying or downsizing the overall F-35 program at a time when China and Russia are both fielding their own stealth fighters. More than that, I am worried that Gates’s cuts may be only the beginning of a drawdown that is happening even as we are still fighting a major war in Afghanistan. Already proposals are circulating — see, for instance, this Foreign Affairs article — for massive cutbacks, including the loss of hundreds of thousands of service personnel, that would eviscerate American power-projection capabilities. Alas, many in Congress, even some Republicans, appear to be open to deeper defense cuts.

I am all for addressing our runaway federal spending — but we won’t balance the budget on the back of the Defense Department. Not when defense spending is less than 20 percent of the budget and less than 5 percent of GDP. Getting our fiscal house in order requires cutting entitlement spending. Downsizing the military, by contrast, will contribute to future insecurity and turn out to be the most costly option in the long run. That is a lesson we should have learned in the past, many times over (as I argued in this op-ed).

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Morning Commentary

It looks like President Obama has finally found some backbone in his diplomatic spat with Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan president rejected the U.S.’s choice for ambassador to Caracas and dared Obama to cut diplomatic ties with the country. Today Obama responded by kicking the Venezuelan ambassador out of the U.S.

Americans are still displaying a lack of confidence in both political parties, according to a new poll released by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation. While pundits from all parts of the political spectrum have lauded President Obama’s successes during the lame-duck session of Congress, a plurality of Americans remains skeptical about the president’s ability to push his policies, according to the survey. And even though a majority of the public agrees that GOP control of the House will benefit the country, that optimism isn’t necessarily due to increased trust in the Republican Party. Only a quarter believe that the Republicans will do a better job running Congress than the Democrats.

The U.S. State Department has come out strongly against the Palestinian Authority’s newest effort to push through a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, suggesting that the Palestinians may be alienating the best friend they’ve had in the White House for years. However, State Department officials still haven’t commented specifically on whether the U.S. would veto the resolution.

The Huffington Post reported recently that the number of uninsured Americans has soared to “over 50 million.” But is that really the case? At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey H. Anderson notes that the numbers come from a recent report published by the Census Bureau, which even the bureau has admitted was largely inaccurate: “The Census report also admits within its own pages that recognition of its inaccuracy led to ‘a research project to evaluate why CPS ASEC estimates of the number of people with Medicaid are lower than counts of the number of people enrolled in the program from CMS’ — in other words, to evaluate why the CPS ASEC lists millions of Americans as being uninsured while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs Medicaid and keeps the official tally of enrollees, says that these people are on Medicaid.”

Islamists are apparently still having trouble getting over that Danish Mohammed cartoon from six years ago. Five terror suspects were arrested in Denmark and Sweden yesterday for plotting to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper headquarters, which published the cartoon in 2005.

With the rest of the world unwilling to combat the growing problem of Somali pirates, the transitional federal government of Somalia has finally taken the problem into its own hands by creating a paramilitary force to fight piracy. Sources say that the militia is being funded by donors in Muslim countries, including the United Arab Emirates.

Ron Radosh joins the growing ranks of writers criticizing New Yorker editor David Remnick’s hostile rant against Israel last week. Radosh also highlights the insidious anti-Israel sentiment among today’s liberal Jewish intellectuals: “Today’s New York intellectuals are a pale imitation of their ancestors. The original group had a fidelity to the truth, and to bold assertions  they believed to be true, regardless of whom they offended. Today’s group, of which Remnick is most typical, runs to join their fellow leftist herd of no longer independent minds in Britain, assuring them of their loyalty to the influential [among] journalists and opinion makers, and if they are Jewish, making their assurance known by joining in the stampede to dissociate themselves from defense of Israel.” Jonathan Tobin discussed Remnick’s Israel problem in CONTENTIONS on Sunday.

It looks like President Obama has finally found some backbone in his diplomatic spat with Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan president rejected the U.S.’s choice for ambassador to Caracas and dared Obama to cut diplomatic ties with the country. Today Obama responded by kicking the Venezuelan ambassador out of the U.S.

Americans are still displaying a lack of confidence in both political parties, according to a new poll released by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation. While pundits from all parts of the political spectrum have lauded President Obama’s successes during the lame-duck session of Congress, a plurality of Americans remains skeptical about the president’s ability to push his policies, according to the survey. And even though a majority of the public agrees that GOP control of the House will benefit the country, that optimism isn’t necessarily due to increased trust in the Republican Party. Only a quarter believe that the Republicans will do a better job running Congress than the Democrats.

The U.S. State Department has come out strongly against the Palestinian Authority’s newest effort to push through a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, suggesting that the Palestinians may be alienating the best friend they’ve had in the White House for years. However, State Department officials still haven’t commented specifically on whether the U.S. would veto the resolution.

The Huffington Post reported recently that the number of uninsured Americans has soared to “over 50 million.” But is that really the case? At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey H. Anderson notes that the numbers come from a recent report published by the Census Bureau, which even the bureau has admitted was largely inaccurate: “The Census report also admits within its own pages that recognition of its inaccuracy led to ‘a research project to evaluate why CPS ASEC estimates of the number of people with Medicaid are lower than counts of the number of people enrolled in the program from CMS’ — in other words, to evaluate why the CPS ASEC lists millions of Americans as being uninsured while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs Medicaid and keeps the official tally of enrollees, says that these people are on Medicaid.”

Islamists are apparently still having trouble getting over that Danish Mohammed cartoon from six years ago. Five terror suspects were arrested in Denmark and Sweden yesterday for plotting to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper headquarters, which published the cartoon in 2005.

With the rest of the world unwilling to combat the growing problem of Somali pirates, the transitional federal government of Somalia has finally taken the problem into its own hands by creating a paramilitary force to fight piracy. Sources say that the militia is being funded by donors in Muslim countries, including the United Arab Emirates.

Ron Radosh joins the growing ranks of writers criticizing New Yorker editor David Remnick’s hostile rant against Israel last week. Radosh also highlights the insidious anti-Israel sentiment among today’s liberal Jewish intellectuals: “Today’s New York intellectuals are a pale imitation of their ancestors. The original group had a fidelity to the truth, and to bold assertions  they believed to be true, regardless of whom they offended. Today’s group, of which Remnick is most typical, runs to join their fellow leftist herd of no longer independent minds in Britain, assuring them of their loyalty to the influential [among] journalists and opinion makers, and if they are Jewish, making their assurance known by joining in the stampede to dissociate themselves from defense of Israel.” Jonathan Tobin discussed Remnick’s Israel problem in CONTENTIONS on Sunday.

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Give Petraeus a Chance

Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, but the debate over the former sure sounds a lot like the debate over the latter. Once again, David Petraeus is overseeing a surge to rescue a failing war effort, and once again a legion of critics isn’t waiting to see if he will succeed. Many are ready to write off initial gains on the ground as “unsustainable” and to argue that the indigenous political class is so weak, corrupt, and self-serving that long-term security is impossible. Instead, those critics urge us to downsize preemptively to a small force focused primarily on hunting down terrorists.

Good thing President Bush didn’t follow that advice in Iraq. If he had, the civil war that was starting to break out in 2006 would have raged out of control, with civilian casualties accelerating and possibly reaching Rwanda-like levels. American commandos would have been incapable of stopping this slide to disaster — just as they have been incapable of ending the chaos in Somalia and curbing the growing power of Islamists there. Or in Pakistan.

Instead, for all its imperfections, Iraq has been remarkably successful in drawing back from the brink of disaster. It’s true that Iraq’s politicos have not solved all or even most of their quarrels, but they have managed to keep their quarrels nonviolent. It’s true that Iraq is still a mess in terms of inadequate infrastructure and overly bureaucratic, ineffective governance, but it’s also one of the freest countries in the Middle East. The Iraqi security forces have matured and taken on much of the burden of defending their country. Terrorist atrocities have continued sporadically, but the situation is infinitely better than it was in 2006 — and infinitely better than if we had aborted the surge prematurely. Iraq’s progress is symbolized by this week’s ratification of a new government and by the letting of oil contracts to foreign companies that promise to unlock vast riches beneath the country’s soil.

Again, Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, and simply because a counterinsurgency strategy worked in Iraq doesn’t mean it will work in Afghanistan. But at the very least, critics should give Petraeus a fair shot to implement his strategy — meaning at least a year — before starting to look for a Plan B. Especially when the most prevalent Plan B — a counterterrorism strategy carried out by a much smaller force — is one we already tried in Afghanistan and found wanting.

Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, but the debate over the former sure sounds a lot like the debate over the latter. Once again, David Petraeus is overseeing a surge to rescue a failing war effort, and once again a legion of critics isn’t waiting to see if he will succeed. Many are ready to write off initial gains on the ground as “unsustainable” and to argue that the indigenous political class is so weak, corrupt, and self-serving that long-term security is impossible. Instead, those critics urge us to downsize preemptively to a small force focused primarily on hunting down terrorists.

Good thing President Bush didn’t follow that advice in Iraq. If he had, the civil war that was starting to break out in 2006 would have raged out of control, with civilian casualties accelerating and possibly reaching Rwanda-like levels. American commandos would have been incapable of stopping this slide to disaster — just as they have been incapable of ending the chaos in Somalia and curbing the growing power of Islamists there. Or in Pakistan.

Instead, for all its imperfections, Iraq has been remarkably successful in drawing back from the brink of disaster. It’s true that Iraq’s politicos have not solved all or even most of their quarrels, but they have managed to keep their quarrels nonviolent. It’s true that Iraq is still a mess in terms of inadequate infrastructure and overly bureaucratic, ineffective governance, but it’s also one of the freest countries in the Middle East. The Iraqi security forces have matured and taken on much of the burden of defending their country. Terrorist atrocities have continued sporadically, but the situation is infinitely better than it was in 2006 — and infinitely better than if we had aborted the surge prematurely. Iraq’s progress is symbolized by this week’s ratification of a new government and by the letting of oil contracts to foreign companies that promise to unlock vast riches beneath the country’s soil.

Again, Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, and simply because a counterinsurgency strategy worked in Iraq doesn’t mean it will work in Afghanistan. But at the very least, critics should give Petraeus a fair shot to implement his strategy — meaning at least a year — before starting to look for a Plan B. Especially when the most prevalent Plan B — a counterterrorism strategy carried out by a much smaller force — is one we already tried in Afghanistan and found wanting.

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Whither Defense Spending?

The Washington Post‘s symposium on defense spending is revealing. The argument for maintaining and, indeed, increasing defense spending is aptly set forth by Fred Kagan and Kim Kagan:

Cutting U.S. defense spending would put the nation and the current global order at grave risk. International stability and American security are threatened by dangerous contingencies that are becoming increasingly likely. Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a world-changing event. The persistence of Islamist militant groups in Pakistan threatens stability on the subcontinent and security throughout the West. Militant Islamist sanctuaries are expanding in Somalia, Yemen, and equatorial Africa. A growing number of Islamist groups are seeking recognition from al-Qaeda and declaring their intentions of attacking the United States and its allies. Security and stability in Iraq remain fragile. The war in Afghanistan is at its height. This list of current conflicts and threats excludes the kinds of potential future threats for which the U.S. military must also be prepared, including conflict with China, serious challenges to the U.S. satellite constellation, the continued proliferation of long-range missile and nuclear technology, cyber-conflict, and many others.

The neo-isolationist position is presented by Ron Paul, who argues, in essence, that we can cut spending without harming our defense as long as we adopt the outlook of “Fortress America”:

We must realize that cutting military spending is not the same as cutting defense, nor will it harm our ability to protect the United States. The problem with military spending is philosophical. Who determined that the United States should maintain a worldwide empire, with troops stationed in some 700 bases over more than 100 countries across the globe?

For starters, it’s bunk that we are maintaining an “empire” — we are not occupiers or puppeteers of other nations. And the answer is that a bipartisan coalition of responsible liberals and conservatives has determined that in a post-9/11 world, there is no safety in the myth of Fortress America. The administration has accepted this premise. And so it must, to be intellectually consistent and to fulfill our role as that “indispensable” defender of the West, fund a defense that is commensurate with the threats we face.

Paul’s statement is nevertheless useful: how can the administration, which rejects neo-isolationism, argue cogently for less defense spending. In short, it can’t.

The Washington Post‘s symposium on defense spending is revealing. The argument for maintaining and, indeed, increasing defense spending is aptly set forth by Fred Kagan and Kim Kagan:

Cutting U.S. defense spending would put the nation and the current global order at grave risk. International stability and American security are threatened by dangerous contingencies that are becoming increasingly likely. Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a world-changing event. The persistence of Islamist militant groups in Pakistan threatens stability on the subcontinent and security throughout the West. Militant Islamist sanctuaries are expanding in Somalia, Yemen, and equatorial Africa. A growing number of Islamist groups are seeking recognition from al-Qaeda and declaring their intentions of attacking the United States and its allies. Security and stability in Iraq remain fragile. The war in Afghanistan is at its height. This list of current conflicts and threats excludes the kinds of potential future threats for which the U.S. military must also be prepared, including conflict with China, serious challenges to the U.S. satellite constellation, the continued proliferation of long-range missile and nuclear technology, cyber-conflict, and many others.

The neo-isolationist position is presented by Ron Paul, who argues, in essence, that we can cut spending without harming our defense as long as we adopt the outlook of “Fortress America”:

We must realize that cutting military spending is not the same as cutting defense, nor will it harm our ability to protect the United States. The problem with military spending is philosophical. Who determined that the United States should maintain a worldwide empire, with troops stationed in some 700 bases over more than 100 countries across the globe?

For starters, it’s bunk that we are maintaining an “empire” — we are not occupiers or puppeteers of other nations. And the answer is that a bipartisan coalition of responsible liberals and conservatives has determined that in a post-9/11 world, there is no safety in the myth of Fortress America. The administration has accepted this premise. And so it must, to be intellectually consistent and to fulfill our role as that “indispensable” defender of the West, fund a defense that is commensurate with the threats we face.

Paul’s statement is nevertheless useful: how can the administration, which rejects neo-isolationism, argue cogently for less defense spending. In short, it can’t.

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Ending Piracy: We Did It Before, We Must Do It Again

The news from the piracy front is all bad. The New York Times reports:

Last week, a band of [Somalian] pirates received what is widely believed to be a record ransom — around $10 million — for a hijacked South Korean supertanker, the Samho Dream. … Some of the bigger pirate bosses in this part of Somalia have been building mini armies from the millions they receive in ransoms, and it is widely believed that much of the money from the Samho Dream will go toward more weapons. At the same time, the Shabab, the powerful Islamist insurgent group that vows to enforce strict Islamic law across Somalia, seems to be getting more deeply involved in piracy.

This is more than a nuisance. It is a serious threat to global commerce, yet it is not getting a commensurate response. The U.S. and various other nations have sent naval vessels to patrol off the coast of Somalia but with extremely limited authority. They can only shoot at or detain pirates who are actually caught in the act of hijacking a ship — which doesn’t happen often. They are not allowed to blast suspected pirate vessels or raid pirate havens onshore. Even when pirates are actually caught, most of them are released. There had been hope that Kenya would try them, but as the Times notes, ”On Tuesday, a Kenyan court ordered the release of nine piracy suspects, saying the country could not prosecute them for crimes committed outside its territory.”

There is no secret about how to fight pirates. As I pointed out in this Foreign Affairs article, the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy successfully eradicated piracy in the 18th and 19th centuries with a combination of measures ranging from quick executions of captured pirates to attacks on pirate safe havens. We don’t have to string up pirates from the yardarm today, but what we should do is bring them back for trial in the U.S., since piracy is the original crime of “universal jurisdiction.” Failing that, we will continue to see the problem metastasize and combine with the Islamist insurgency in Somalia to create a strategic and commercial nightmare.

The news from the piracy front is all bad. The New York Times reports:

Last week, a band of [Somalian] pirates received what is widely believed to be a record ransom — around $10 million — for a hijacked South Korean supertanker, the Samho Dream. … Some of the bigger pirate bosses in this part of Somalia have been building mini armies from the millions they receive in ransoms, and it is widely believed that much of the money from the Samho Dream will go toward more weapons. At the same time, the Shabab, the powerful Islamist insurgent group that vows to enforce strict Islamic law across Somalia, seems to be getting more deeply involved in piracy.

This is more than a nuisance. It is a serious threat to global commerce, yet it is not getting a commensurate response. The U.S. and various other nations have sent naval vessels to patrol off the coast of Somalia but with extremely limited authority. They can only shoot at or detain pirates who are actually caught in the act of hijacking a ship — which doesn’t happen often. They are not allowed to blast suspected pirate vessels or raid pirate havens onshore. Even when pirates are actually caught, most of them are released. There had been hope that Kenya would try them, but as the Times notes, ”On Tuesday, a Kenyan court ordered the release of nine piracy suspects, saying the country could not prosecute them for crimes committed outside its territory.”

There is no secret about how to fight pirates. As I pointed out in this Foreign Affairs article, the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy successfully eradicated piracy in the 18th and 19th centuries with a combination of measures ranging from quick executions of captured pirates to attacks on pirate safe havens. We don’t have to string up pirates from the yardarm today, but what we should do is bring them back for trial in the U.S., since piracy is the original crime of “universal jurisdiction.” Failing that, we will continue to see the problem metastasize and combine with the Islamist insurgency in Somalia to create a strategic and commercial nightmare.

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The Policies That Keep Us Safe

The foiled package-bomb plot originating in Yemen is the latest sign of how determined Islamist extremists remain in trying to strike the United States. Just in the past year, we have seen the shooting at Fort Hood, which left 13 people dead; an attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with explosives hidden in underwear; an attempt to set off an explosion in Times Square with explosives hidden in a vehicle; and the arrest of a suspect accused of plotting to attack the Washington subway. These attacks serve as a reminder, as Andy McCarthy notes, that our homeland remains very much in danger. So why isn’t terrorism more of an election issue? Largely because this is an area where there is — mercifully — a high degree of bipartisan agreement.

That hasn’t always been the case. Barack Obama ran for president not only pledging to pull out of Iraq but also to end what he viewed as the abuses of George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” The very term “war on terror” has been banished from the Obama administration’s lexicon, but luckily, most of the practices instituted by Bush have been continued.

Obama, recall, promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year, to try terrorists in civilian courts, to end “renditions” of terrorist suspects, to end torture, and to end or severely curtail warrantless wiretaps. What has he actually done?

He has limited the use of interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects — but they had already been curtailed by Bush, who banned the use of most “stress techniques” in his second term. But Obama hasn’t closed Gitmo, largely because of overwhelming congressional opposition. His plan to try Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in a civilian court came to naught. The military commissions are still in business. Suspected terrorists continue to be  held without trial, not only at Gitmo but also in the Parwan detention facility in Afghanistan. He signed an extension of the Patriot Act, which provides most of the surveillance authorities instituted after 9/11. Renditions continue. And Obama has actually stepped up the use of drone strikes to kill terrorists, especially but not exclusively in Pakistan. He has even placed an American citizen (Anwar al-Aliki, a leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch) on the list for elimination without any judicial overview. Finally, he has essentially continued the Bush policy of drawing down slowly in Iraq while building up our forces in Afghanistan.

Thus Obama has, in most important respects, essentially ratified the post-9/11 measures instituted by the Bush administration. He has not instituted a “law enforcement” approach to terrorism, as was feared by so many of his critics and expected by so many of his supporters. A Republican president might approve harsher interrogation techniques or make some other changes at the margins, but I doubt that anything very substantial will change no matter who succeeds Obama — unless there is some horrific new attack on American soil, in which case the balance will swing even more against civil liberties.

Just as we have a wide degree of agreement now on how to fight terrorism at home, so we have bipartisan uncertainty about how to fight it in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. No one seriously suggests invading them barring another 9/11. The debate is mainly about how much and what kind of aid we should give to the governments in question, how much we can trust them to act on our behalf, and how many unilateral strikes we should carry out. These are not ideological questions; they are tough judgment calls on which experts of all stripes can disagree.

Obama, to his credit, hasn’t hesitated to approve drone strikes and other covert actions against terrorists in places like Somalia and Yemen, but there is a limit to what such measures can do. Defeating the terrorists who hide in these unstable areas requires improving their level of governance — a difficult, long-term project that we are attempting to undertake but without any great prospects of immediate success.

More than nine years after 9/11, we have made great strides in countering terrorism, especially in toughening up domestic security, increasing intelligence-gathering, and lowering barriers between law enforcement and intelligence. We still have more to do domestically — for instance, the latest plots highlight the need for better inspection of cargo. And there is much more to do abroad to try to root al-Qaeda out of its foreign bastions. But the greatest progress we have made is to reach a high degree of domestic consensus about what it takes to fight terrorism.

Give Obama credit for breaking his campaign pledges and essentially adopting the Bush approach. And of course, give Bush credit for weathering years of abuse from Senator Obama and other critics to hang tough and institute policies that have helped keep us safe.

The foiled package-bomb plot originating in Yemen is the latest sign of how determined Islamist extremists remain in trying to strike the United States. Just in the past year, we have seen the shooting at Fort Hood, which left 13 people dead; an attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with explosives hidden in underwear; an attempt to set off an explosion in Times Square with explosives hidden in a vehicle; and the arrest of a suspect accused of plotting to attack the Washington subway. These attacks serve as a reminder, as Andy McCarthy notes, that our homeland remains very much in danger. So why isn’t terrorism more of an election issue? Largely because this is an area where there is — mercifully — a high degree of bipartisan agreement.

That hasn’t always been the case. Barack Obama ran for president not only pledging to pull out of Iraq but also to end what he viewed as the abuses of George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” The very term “war on terror” has been banished from the Obama administration’s lexicon, but luckily, most of the practices instituted by Bush have been continued.

Obama, recall, promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year, to try terrorists in civilian courts, to end “renditions” of terrorist suspects, to end torture, and to end or severely curtail warrantless wiretaps. What has he actually done?

He has limited the use of interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects — but they had already been curtailed by Bush, who banned the use of most “stress techniques” in his second term. But Obama hasn’t closed Gitmo, largely because of overwhelming congressional opposition. His plan to try Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in a civilian court came to naught. The military commissions are still in business. Suspected terrorists continue to be  held without trial, not only at Gitmo but also in the Parwan detention facility in Afghanistan. He signed an extension of the Patriot Act, which provides most of the surveillance authorities instituted after 9/11. Renditions continue. And Obama has actually stepped up the use of drone strikes to kill terrorists, especially but not exclusively in Pakistan. He has even placed an American citizen (Anwar al-Aliki, a leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch) on the list for elimination without any judicial overview. Finally, he has essentially continued the Bush policy of drawing down slowly in Iraq while building up our forces in Afghanistan.

Thus Obama has, in most important respects, essentially ratified the post-9/11 measures instituted by the Bush administration. He has not instituted a “law enforcement” approach to terrorism, as was feared by so many of his critics and expected by so many of his supporters. A Republican president might approve harsher interrogation techniques or make some other changes at the margins, but I doubt that anything very substantial will change no matter who succeeds Obama — unless there is some horrific new attack on American soil, in which case the balance will swing even more against civil liberties.

Just as we have a wide degree of agreement now on how to fight terrorism at home, so we have bipartisan uncertainty about how to fight it in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. No one seriously suggests invading them barring another 9/11. The debate is mainly about how much and what kind of aid we should give to the governments in question, how much we can trust them to act on our behalf, and how many unilateral strikes we should carry out. These are not ideological questions; they are tough judgment calls on which experts of all stripes can disagree.

Obama, to his credit, hasn’t hesitated to approve drone strikes and other covert actions against terrorists in places like Somalia and Yemen, but there is a limit to what such measures can do. Defeating the terrorists who hide in these unstable areas requires improving their level of governance — a difficult, long-term project that we are attempting to undertake but without any great prospects of immediate success.

More than nine years after 9/11, we have made great strides in countering terrorism, especially in toughening up domestic security, increasing intelligence-gathering, and lowering barriers between law enforcement and intelligence. We still have more to do domestically — for instance, the latest plots highlight the need for better inspection of cargo. And there is much more to do abroad to try to root al-Qaeda out of its foreign bastions. But the greatest progress we have made is to reach a high degree of domestic consensus about what it takes to fight terrorism.

Give Obama credit for breaking his campaign pledges and essentially adopting the Bush approach. And of course, give Bush credit for weathering years of abuse from Senator Obama and other critics to hang tough and institute policies that have helped keep us safe.

Read Less

Middle East Chaos

It is not simply that Iran is moving steadily toward membership in the nuclear powers’ club. It is not only that the UN is plotting to carve up Israel. No, these are symptoms of an underlying problem: the U.S.’s retreat from the Middle East and the decline of American influence. There are other signs as well.

The administration has been demonstrating abject weakness with Syria. It mounted no meaningful response to violations of UN Resolution 1701. It has attempted to confirm and redeploy an ambassador to Damascus. Back in March, Elliott Abrams reeled off the list of “engagement” moves that bore an uncanny resemblance to appeasement:

* High level envoys have been sent to Damascus: Under Secretary of State William Burns visited Syria in mid-February, the highest ranking U.S. official to set foot there in more than five years, and Middle East envoy George Mitchell has visited three times. High-ranking Central Command officers have been sent to Damascus to discuss cooperation against terrorism.

* President Obama has now nominated an ambassador to Damascus, the first since Margaret Scobey was withdrawn in 2005 after the murder of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in Lebanon (which was widely blamed on the Assad regime).

* The president has also removed the American block to Syria’s attempt to join the World Trade Organization.

* The United States has eased some export licenses for Syria, mostly in the area of aircraft.

* Syria’s deputy foreign minister was invited to Washington in October, the first such visit in several years.

So how’s that working out? As we’ve seen, Bashar al-Assad has moved ever closer to Iran (the opposite reaction intended by the Obama team), even as he displays his contempt for the U.S.:

Syria’s president has accused the United States of sowing chaos overseas, snubbing Washington’s efforts to improve ties with Damascus. Syrian President Bashar Assad told Al-Hayat newspaper in an interview published Tuesday that the US “created chaos in every place it entered.” “Is Afghanistan stable? Is Somalia stable? Did they bring stability to Lebanon in 1983?” Assad asked, referring to US intervention in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

To this, the U.S. replied, “Are not.” In diplomatic terms: “Spokesman P.J. Crowley charged that Syria is destabilizing Lebanon by supplying arms to militants and issuing arrest warrants for Lebanese officials. ‘These activities by Syria directly undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty and directly undermine Syria’s stated commitments to Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence,’ Crowley said. ‘We believe we’re playing a constructive role in the region, and we believe that Syria is not.”’ This “tough retort,” according to the press account, is what passes for the administration’s Syria policy.

And speaking of Lebanon:

The Obama administration, already struggling to stave off a collapse of Middle East peace talks, is increasingly alarmed by unrest in Lebanon, whose own fragile peace is being threatened by militant opponents of a politically charged investigation into the killing in 2005 of a former Lebanese leader.

With an international tribunal expected to hand down indictments in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in the coming months, the Hezbollah militia is maneuvering furiously to halt the investigation, or failing that, to unseat Lebanon’s government, which backs it.

The New York Times helpfully offers that the Obama team has, contrary to appearances, really (honestly!) not been obsessed with the failed Palestinian-Israeli non-peace talks. It has instead been focused on this looming crisis:

The administration’s worries go beyond Lebanon itself, and help explain why it, and not the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has been the major preoccupation of American foreign policy officials for the last few weeks. The diplomatic activity follows a splashy tour of Lebanon by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who got an ecstatic reception from members of Hezbollah, the Shiite movement financed and equipped by Iran. American officials were particularly struck by Mr. Ahmadinejad’s trip to a small town a few miles north of the Israeli border, where he called for the “Zionists to be wiped out.”

With unintended comedic effect, the dispatched U.S. envoy, Jeffrey D. Feltman, proclaims: “You don’t want the perception of a vacuum. … You don’t want the perception that Ahmadinejad is the only game in town.” Umm, it’s a little late for that realization, isn’t it? And if that’s the problem, then throwing ourselves at the mullahs’ feet in order to restart the charade of nuclear talks is hardly going to improve matters.

It is not simply that Iran is moving steadily toward membership in the nuclear powers’ club. It is not only that the UN is plotting to carve up Israel. No, these are symptoms of an underlying problem: the U.S.’s retreat from the Middle East and the decline of American influence. There are other signs as well.

The administration has been demonstrating abject weakness with Syria. It mounted no meaningful response to violations of UN Resolution 1701. It has attempted to confirm and redeploy an ambassador to Damascus. Back in March, Elliott Abrams reeled off the list of “engagement” moves that bore an uncanny resemblance to appeasement:

* High level envoys have been sent to Damascus: Under Secretary of State William Burns visited Syria in mid-February, the highest ranking U.S. official to set foot there in more than five years, and Middle East envoy George Mitchell has visited three times. High-ranking Central Command officers have been sent to Damascus to discuss cooperation against terrorism.

* President Obama has now nominated an ambassador to Damascus, the first since Margaret Scobey was withdrawn in 2005 after the murder of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in Lebanon (which was widely blamed on the Assad regime).

* The president has also removed the American block to Syria’s attempt to join the World Trade Organization.

* The United States has eased some export licenses for Syria, mostly in the area of aircraft.

* Syria’s deputy foreign minister was invited to Washington in October, the first such visit in several years.

So how’s that working out? As we’ve seen, Bashar al-Assad has moved ever closer to Iran (the opposite reaction intended by the Obama team), even as he displays his contempt for the U.S.:

Syria’s president has accused the United States of sowing chaos overseas, snubbing Washington’s efforts to improve ties with Damascus. Syrian President Bashar Assad told Al-Hayat newspaper in an interview published Tuesday that the US “created chaos in every place it entered.” “Is Afghanistan stable? Is Somalia stable? Did they bring stability to Lebanon in 1983?” Assad asked, referring to US intervention in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

To this, the U.S. replied, “Are not.” In diplomatic terms: “Spokesman P.J. Crowley charged that Syria is destabilizing Lebanon by supplying arms to militants and issuing arrest warrants for Lebanese officials. ‘These activities by Syria directly undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty and directly undermine Syria’s stated commitments to Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence,’ Crowley said. ‘We believe we’re playing a constructive role in the region, and we believe that Syria is not.”’ This “tough retort,” according to the press account, is what passes for the administration’s Syria policy.

And speaking of Lebanon:

The Obama administration, already struggling to stave off a collapse of Middle East peace talks, is increasingly alarmed by unrest in Lebanon, whose own fragile peace is being threatened by militant opponents of a politically charged investigation into the killing in 2005 of a former Lebanese leader.

With an international tribunal expected to hand down indictments in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in the coming months, the Hezbollah militia is maneuvering furiously to halt the investigation, or failing that, to unseat Lebanon’s government, which backs it.

The New York Times helpfully offers that the Obama team has, contrary to appearances, really (honestly!) not been obsessed with the failed Palestinian-Israeli non-peace talks. It has instead been focused on this looming crisis:

The administration’s worries go beyond Lebanon itself, and help explain why it, and not the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has been the major preoccupation of American foreign policy officials for the last few weeks. The diplomatic activity follows a splashy tour of Lebanon by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who got an ecstatic reception from members of Hezbollah, the Shiite movement financed and equipped by Iran. American officials were particularly struck by Mr. Ahmadinejad’s trip to a small town a few miles north of the Israeli border, where he called for the “Zionists to be wiped out.”

With unintended comedic effect, the dispatched U.S. envoy, Jeffrey D. Feltman, proclaims: “You don’t want the perception of a vacuum. … You don’t want the perception that Ahmadinejad is the only game in town.” Umm, it’s a little late for that realization, isn’t it? And if that’s the problem, then throwing ourselves at the mullahs’ feet in order to restart the charade of nuclear talks is hardly going to improve matters.

Read Less




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