Day: September 29, 2010

You can’t create national security policy in a vacuum

Stephen Biddle has a spot-on piece over at Foreign Policy on how Presidents, and Obama in particular, must take into account domestic politics when setting national security strategy.  With the release of Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, many have jumped on the President’s alleged quote that he can’t lose the entire Democratic Party to justify the need to set a troop draw-down date for Afghanistan as evidence that he’s putting politics above national security (as if anything can be separated from politics).

Biddle responds:

…I do know that it’s no sin for a president to consider the domestic politics of military strategy. On the contrary, he has to. It’s a central part of his job as commander in chief.

Waging war requires resources — money, troops, and equipment — and in a democracy, resources require public support. In the United States, the people’s representatives in Congress control public spending. If a majority of lawmakers vote against the war, it will be defunded, and this means failure every bit as much as if U.S. soldiers were outfought on the battlefield. A necessary part of any sound strategy is thus its ability to sustain the political majority needed to keep it funded, and it’s the president’s job to ensure that any strategy the country adopts can meet this requirement. Of course, war should not be used to advance partisan aims at the expense of the national interest; the role of politics in strategy is not unlimited. But a military strategy that cannot succeed at home will fail abroad, and this means that politics and strategy have to be connected by the commander in chief.

State leaders must always balance the domestic and international when formulating policy.  What may be possible internationally may not be sustainable domestically, and vice versa.  Ignoring either one typically leads to disaster.  Political scientists have long argued that outcomes are the result of simultaneous negotiations between domestic and international audiences, as well as the difficultly states face when trying to sustain public supporter for wars of choice.  Condemning leaders for being prudent may make for good copy, but it makes no sense given all we know about policymaking.


Applied Signaling: Pajamas and 3-year olds

Every night, about 15 minutes or so after we’ve put my 3-year old daughter to bed, we inevitably hear a knock at the door.  She’s typically knocking because she needs to go the bathroom.  She’s also knocking because she wants to scope out what we are doing, find out if she is missing anything.  One thing that bothers her is if me or my wife leaves the house after she goes to bed.  In order to go to sleep she needs some kind of guarantee that we aren’t leaving and are getting read to go to bed just like her.  It appears she’s found one–whether me or my wife have gotten changed into our pajamas.

If we come to her door in our pajamas–or at least different clothes (e.g. sweatpants, etc) than when she last saw us–she takes it as a signal that we are in for the night.  If we were going out or not going to bed soon we would still be in our regular clothes that we wore earlier.  If we haven’t changed, she probes–“why aren’t you in your jammies?”  This let’s us know that she suspects we aren’t in for the night.  It also means that she will likely spend a fair amount of time looking out her window to see if our cars stay in the driveway before she will settle in and go to sleep.  Now, putting on pajamas isn’t that costly of signal–there is nothing stopping us from putting them on and then changing back into regular clothes to leave the house or host guests.  (However, in all honestly this isn’t likely to happen.)

The lesson here is that a) the idea of seeking out signals is intuitive for people and we start at a very early age, and b) rather than fight with our daughter about going to bed we might be better served just changing into our pajamas out the outset to demonstrate to her that we aren’t leaving the house, no one is coming over, and we are also getting ready for bed.  She may not believe our words, but she seems to believe the signal that she’s identified.  Leveraging that signal can lead to better communication and the outcome that we want.

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]


Prisoners of America’s Wars (A shameless self-promotion kinda morning…)

My (first) book, Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo is now shipping on (or,, etc.). Considering that this would be the closest thing to offspring that I have ever produced, I thought that I would post it in the hope that it may be of some interest to some Duck readers. I’ve pasted the abstract below for that very reason:

Prisoners of war have been a significant feature of virtually every conflict that the United States has engaged in since its revolutionary beginnings. Today visitors to Washington DC will frequently see a black POW flag flying high on government buildings or war memorials and monuments in silent memory. This act of fealty towards prisoners reflects a history where they have frequently been a rallying point, source of outrage and problem for both military and political leaders. This is as true for the 2003 Iraq War as it was the American Revolution.

Yet, the story of prisoners in American wars (both enemies taken and soldiers captured) helps to reveal much about the nation itself; how it fights conflicts and its attitudes towards laws of war. A nation born out of an exceptional ideology, the United States has frequently found itself faced with the contradictory imperatives to be both exemplary and secure, resulting in situations that were sometimes ironic and sometimes tragic. At the same point American diplomats might be negotiating a treaty at The Hague, American soldiers might be fighting against a bloody insurrection where it seemed that little to no rules applied. 

The complex relationship between America, prisoners of war and international law is not one entirely based on exemplary culture or carnage, but on a blend of ideology, historical experience and national imperatives that has challenged presidents from Washington through to Obama. By taking a historical approach, this book demonstrates that the challenges America faced regarding international law and the war on terror were not entirely unique or unprecedented, despite the claims made by the Bush administration or its policies, as claimed by its critics.  Rather, to be properly understood, such dilemmas must be contextualized within the long history of those prisoners captured in American wars.

Stephen King, eat your heart out. 

Metrics for Winning Hearts and Minds

I often find myself in disagreement with Amitai Etzioni, but he does makes some sense in his recent Politico op-ed on Petraeus’ “metrics” for progress in Afghanistan:

The newest way General Petraeus plans to measure success in the war in Afghanistan reminded me of what the government did when its campaign to persuade the public to stop smoking did not make much headway. It stopped counting how many people had had their last cigarette – and started counting how many anti-smoking pamphlets it mailed.

…Gen. Petraeus has outlined five metrics of military success, including: ‘the elimination of Taliban sanctuaries outside the city of Kandahar and continued targeting of senior and mid-level insurgent leaders by U.S. Special Operations forces, an increase in the disappointing number of Taliban fighters brought into a government reintegration scheme, the development of newly authorized local defense forces, and improvement in the capabilities of Afghanistan’s national security forces.’

These measurements correlate very poorly with what the U.S. is seeking and with what General Petraeus argued to date was what he sought to achieve. Petraeus is famous for his counterinsurgency strategy, according to which one cannot win the war militarily, but only by building a ‘legitimate and effective’ government composed of the citizens of the country, so that those who would rebel will be enticed to come in from the cold.

True. The “metrics” the US needs to be looking for are the extent to which civilian sentiment is moving toward the government rather than toward the Taliban. But then Etzioni tells us that’s not happening – through reference to the same kind of irrelevant indicators (like how many areas the Taliban hold) that tell us something about Taliban strength but nothing about the views of the Afghan citizenry on the legitimacy of the government or US presence in the country:

To measure progress on this front one, would have to know, for instance, that, if following the last election, the public does feel that the Karzai government is more representative and less fraudulent? Hardly. Does the public feel that the Karzai government and its local representatives, including the police and army, are less corrupt? No indication to this effect. Do they feel minimally secure in their homes and public spaces? Evidence shows to the contrary; the Taliban has been spreading in the northern, non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and holding on to most of the Southern ones. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office, Afghanistan is more dangerous now than at any time since 2001. Four years ago, insurgents were active in only four Afghan provinces. Now, they are active in 33 of 34.

Etzioni doesn’t cite the data he is quoting from, but recent polling data – precisely the type you would look at if you wanted to gauge Afghan sentiment re. their government and ISAF forces – suggests his interpretation is a wee bit too gloomy. The latest ABC poll from Afghanistan reports:

Sharp regional differences remain, with optimism much weaker in the main conflict zone in the country’s South. Nonetheless, overall 63 percent of Afghans interviewed in May said their country was going in the right direction, 66 percent expected improvements in their own lives a year off and 61 percent expected better lives for their children than for themselves. Each is a key measure of national cohesion. Two were lower than their levels last winter – positive ratings of the country’s direction, off by 7 points from late December; and expectations for a better life in the next year, down by a slight 5 points. Yet all remained far above their levels in early 2009, when development was stalled and the Taliban were seen as gaining strength.

If Etzioni is right that the correct metric for measuring success in Afghanistan is not insurgent body counts but rather the optimism of Afghan citizens – and I think he is – then by at least some indicators ISAF is not doing half-badly. Afghanis do see corruption as an issue, but the complete report shows this is not the key issue causing disaffection from the government:

Few in this survey, 8 percent, mentioned corruption as the single most important issue in bringing stability to the country, and 23 percent mentioned it as one of the top three issues (peaking at 31 percent in the South). That compares to 50 percent, as noted, calling security the single top issue, and 75 percent calling it one of the top three concerns. While corruption may be a serious obstacle to progress, security reigns as the top concern.

Moreover, the regions of the country where security is the worst are those regions where Afghans report the greatest willingness to work with Westerners.

However there’s a hitch in the poll that would support Etzioni’s claim that ISAF is losing ‘hearts and minds’: support for a democratically elected government is declining somewhat:

Preference for democracy as the best political system for the country fell from 32 percent in December to 23 percent in May; it now ranks third behind preference for an Islamic state, 45 percent, or a “strong leader,” 30 percent.

As the Langer report also points out, answers to the “strong leader” question (in both Iraq and Afghanistan) have historically spiked during periods of instability, so addressing the security situation in Afghanistan may reinvigorate Afghanis’ confidence in democracy as well.

A final note: how useful is public confidence in one’s government as an indicator of national stability? I don’t know, but for what it’s worth, Gallup reports only 17% of Americans trust their government to do the right thing most of the time, and 55% of Americans polled believe that quite a few government officials are “crooked.”

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


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