National Security Experts


Recent Responses

February 6, 2012 01:11 PM

The end of the "combat mission" doesn't mean the end of combat. As long as we have troops in a country at war -- or civilian personnel for that matter -- those troops will be a target, no matter what you call the mission. That's particularly true here because our troops will transition from "combat" to a so-called "advise and assist" mission. Effective advisors don't just hang out at safe training bases and wave "bye-bye" to their students march off to battle, they accompany them into combat. (At least according to the Afghan war veterans who spoke to me about the subject; see my story for National Journal here).

Even in Iraq, after we officially ended the "combat" mission at the end of August, 2010 and merely "advised and assisted" thereafter, we still took casualties in the 16 months before we got out of the country altogether: 38 dead and over 300 wounded from hostile action, plus another 28 deaths from su

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December 21, 2011 07:51 PM

An Iraq veteran I recently had the pleasure to meet, Lt. Col. (retired) Nathan Freier, had an interesting take on this question that's well worth reading. In particular, whereas I suspect that Iraq is too burned out by nine years of war to provide much traction for the Arab Spring, Freier thinks it's more volatile -- but not necessarily in a good way.

Some highlights from Freier's piece follow -- click anywhere on the paragraph to jump to the piece itself:

Iraq is a mess and will be for some time; meanwhile, a number of key states in close proximity to Iraq are either already on fire with runaway political unrest or teetering dangerously close to ignition....the Arab Spring's rampant political disaffection and tech-enabled populism are potentially as potent in Iraq as they are anywhere else in the Arab world. And, as Iraq is still in the midst of dislocating political transition

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December 20, 2011 10:07 AM

I normally try for guarded optimism on this blog, but the latest news from Iraq makes that hard. The situation increasingly sounds like one of Shakespeare’s darker history plays about England’s slide into civil war, with the Sunni Arab vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi not only fleeing arrest on dubious charges but taking refuge in the de facto autonomous Kurdish territory, beyond the reach of the Shia-dominated central government. Now all three major factions are involved. At the very best, this is a recipe for dysfunction, paralysis, and continued low-level violence, with the Sunni Arabs and (mostly) Sunni Kurds stalemating the Shia Arabs.

At worst? My mind recoils at the idea of Iraq sliding back into genocidal civil war. The Iraqi people already stepped back from that brink, with our help (the “surge”), and I pray the horror of what occurred in 2006-2008 will inoculate all parties against heading back in that direction. But c

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November 11, 2011 04:20 PM

Going through the transcript of Wednesday’s debate, I’m baffled that not one of the candidates made even a nod to our veterans – in wartime, just before Veterans’ Day, and in a room full of Republicans. (I can’t find a mention in the last debate, either.) I understand it’s a televised debate with eight participants getting 60 seconds a question, so I didn’t expect profound policy analysis. I understand the debate was focused on the economy, so I didn’t expect a lot of time on veterans’ issues.

But not one word?

Not even a perfunctory reassurance amidst all the talk of cuts that “of course we can’t slash veterans’ benefits”?

So let me offer six sentences of my own. Imagine I’m trying to fit it all in 60 seconds:

1) We still have tens of th

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October 31, 2011 03:10 PM

The people we really need to talk to about North Korea are the Chinese. It's useful to keep the North Koreans talking simply to keep them talking, but I have no faith in their good faith. What we need is some kind of common strategy with the Chinese to manage this enormous source of potential instability in their back yard -- or at least some secret agreement on whose intervention force goes where if North Korea collapses.

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October 3, 2011 10:21 AM

Imagine an FBI sniper who’s got a criminal in his sights. Law enforcement is in a high-stakes standoff with a deadly gang, negotiation is impossible, and use of deadly force is authorized. This particular target isn’t armed – at the moment – but he’s a known leader of the gang. Sending a team in to capture him is technically possible, but the gang is so well-entrenched and well-armed that the risk of casualties would be prohibitive. So the practical alternatives are kill him or let him go.

I’d say, take the shot.

No trial. No due process. No attempt to take him alive. Just pull the trigger.

My hypothetical scenario is an unlikely and extreme one for domestic law enforcement – but it happens all the time in international counterterrorism. It’s better legally, morally, and tactically to take terrorists alive, especially the leaders, since they may yield valuable intelligence. But they tend to hole up in places where even Special Operations can’t penetrate without a high risk of casualties, up to the death or

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September 26, 2011 09:44 AM

Here’s the strategic bottom line for Israel:

Six million people cannot continue indefinitely to piss off three hundred million without consequences.

Mahmoud Abbas is not Israel’s real problem. The problem is the Arab Spring. Israel has survived for sixty years because of Arab weakness. But Israel’s strategic advantage has been eroding since at least 1982 and will evaporate if the Arab countries ever gets their act even halfway together – which they are finally starting to do. Israel needs to cut a deal with Palestine soon while it’s still in a position to get tolerable terms.

As for our part, the United States needs to stop enabling Israel’s self-destructive intransigence before it’s too late. We should start by not vetoing Palestinian statehood when it comes before the Security Council.

I know the veto’s going to happen. Then everyone can go home and play to domestic audiences: Obama to the Israel lobby in the U.S., Netanyahu to the Israeli right, Abbas to the Palestinian infatuation with f

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August 31, 2011 02:15 PM

The latest worrisome news out of Libya is that different rebel militias are carving up Tripoli and bickering over who's in charge, with the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council nominating and then retracting an overall commander and generally slow to get its people into the capital.

That's not great, though it's not a spiral into violent chaos, either. But the situation only argues MORE for moving the money, because (as I've argued before) money with proper strings attached can be used to bride different factions to work peacefully together under a unified leadership that serves as a conduit for cash. The message to the local militias needs to be, "Respect the TNC and don't shoot each other, or no dough," while the message to the TNC needs to be, "Listen to the locals, or no dough."

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August 29, 2011 08:45 PM

First of all: Wow, you guys are gloomy. The Libyan rebels have accomplished something extraordinary, NATO airpower played a critical role in helping them do it, and the US played a critical role enabling NATO. This is what success looks like.

Certainly it's a mess. Certainly, everyone involved screwed up in ways that cost human lives - but war is like that even when you win. Certainly, Libya is just beginning a long and dangerous journey that could lead to chaos or renewed tyranny - but revolutions are like that, including ours in 1775. And frankly even a new authoritarian regime would be an improvement on Qaddafi as long as the new strongman met the minimum standards of (1) not sponsoring terrorism, (2) not gunning down crowds of protestors, and (3) not being batshit insane. But I think Libya can do a lot better than that.

So how can we help them? I'd agree with Dr. Adams that the US and Europe should not be thinking in terms of ground troops now any more than they did before Qaddafi fell. A few military advisors would help the rebels regularize their militias into

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August 22, 2011 07:12 PM

Whoa, slow down. We're "preparing for a post-Assad Syria"? Contingency planning is a good idea - look what a mess we made of Iraq when we didn't plan - but Assad's exit probably won't come soon, if it comes at all. Whether, how, and when he falls, furthermore, has very little to do with what any outside power says or does, and arguably least of all what the U.S. might do, because we have few commercial ties with Syria and therefore few carrots or sticks we can apply to pressure the regime. But short of military intervention, which no one has the stomach for, no outside power will play a decisive role in Assad's ouster. In fact, even the domestic opposition within Syria can't force a decision, not as long as Assad's security forces remain loyal enough to commit mass murder in his defense. So far, I see no signs that fingers are coming off the trigger. Worse, with the regime run by an often-persecuted minority, it's hard to imagine them voluntarily relinquishing power and leaving their community to the mercy of majority rule. I'd personally bet on a post-Assad regime goi

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August 8, 2011 01:09 PM

I can’t stand the Tea Party, but I give them points for consistency. There’s always been a bizarre bifurcation in the Reagan Republican mind that all government programs are a waste of money and should be cut, except for the military, which in this worldview miraculously avoids the problems of waste, fraud, abuse, and bureaucracy that afflict, say, Food Stamps or Head Start. (There used to be an equal-and-opposite irrationality on the Democratic left, namely that all government programs are great and should be preserved from cuts, except for the military, but for good or ill there isn’t much of a Left left).

The Republicans’ newfound willingness to address the defense budget is frankly sensible in the context of our ongoing economic mess. Defense spending deserves at least as hard a look as domestic programs do. And after a decade of increasingly unpopular wars which most people only want to end, I think that even conservative voters are more willing than ever to take that hard look.

That said, the real drivers of the deficit are entitlement

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July 30, 2011 02:55 PM

It’s now clear that the Transitional National Council’s senior military commander, General Abdul Fattah Younis, was assassinated by fellow rebels. That’s deeply disturbing. Younis was arguably the highest-ranking defector from the Qaddafi government, having been interior minister, and was one of the rebels’ most experienced officers. But he was also suspected of retaining ties to the regime and was on his way to be cross-examined by his civilian superiors – and it’s to the rebels’ credit that they have put civilians in charge – when he was killed.

When a revolution turns on its own, the result can be a feeding frenzy of self-destruction, like the Terror in revolutionary France. But the Libyan rebels aren’t there, at least not yet, and Younis’s murder does not discredit the Transitional National Council.

In fact, I’d argue that this assassination makes it only

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July 25, 2011 12:55 PM

My answers, in brief: Yes, very, yes, yes, yes, no. (That was easy).

To go into a bit more detail:

Regular readers of this blog (or my own site) know that I’ve been cheerleading for the Libyan rebels since the beginning. I agree with Dr. Brenner’s post below that the U.S. and European intervention has been neither decisive or impressive, and I think we should do more – in terms of airstrikes and advisors, not ground troops – but the decisive force on the ground has to be the Libyan rebels.

Considering that the vast majority of them have no military training, no armored vehicles, and grossly inadequate weaponry, the rebels have done remarkably well. They’ve not only kept Qaddafi’s forces out of the eastern half of the country – which is traditionally ambivalent about being ruled from Tripoli, in the west – they’ve also expelled the regime from several cities in the western half, preventing them uprising f

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July 20, 2011 01:29 PM

I'm clearly a voice in the wilderness on this issue, but shutting up has never been my strong suit. So:

I understand that people are profoundly weary of both our current wars. I understand that our war in Iraq in particular began with deceit, descended into disaster, and has still only barely clawed its way back up to a situation that's tolerable, if unstable. And I understand that the "sunk costs" argument – that we've spent so much blood and treasure on Iraq that we can't dishonor the dead by just walking away – is an emotional justification, not a logical one.

But what I see a lot of here is another kind of sunk costs thinking, and it's equally emotion-driven and illogical: Our presence in Iraq has already cost us too much blood and treasure, therefore we should not invest a penny more. But what matters is our marginal cost going forward and our rate of return on investment.

World War II and Korea were even more appalling nightmares than Iraq has been. Korea in particular began with an even worse strategic mistake – specifically

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July 18, 2011 11:40 AM

If the Iraqi government can get its act together to ask us to stay, we should stay. If they don’t, we shouldn’t strong-arm them. (Nudge them, maybe, but no sharp elbows). The benefit of keeping a small American contingent in Iraq after December outweigh the costs unless those costs include Iraqi resentment.

What do I mean by a “small” U.S. force? According to official data, the Army alone still has over 41,000 soldiers in Iraq, so there’s plenty of room to come down. But we have to remember that Iraqi democracy is still inchoate, the relationship between the Arabs and Kurds is still tense, and the Iraqi air force has no ability to defend the nation’s airspace. America is going to have to guarantee Iraq against both civil war and foreign aggression for years to come, and it’d be a lot easier to do that with some forces on the ground.

At a minimum we want to keep, say, a hundred liaison officers in place to maintain our close relationship with the Iraqi security forces, share intelligence on terrorists, coordinate air d

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June 29, 2011 11:56 AM

Given the number of “I agree” clicks that Col. Lang is getting, I’m clearly fighting a losing battle here, but I’ll keep trying:

Surely some insurgencies/revolutions/whatevers are bad things, either for the people of the country involved or for U.S. interests or for both. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge come to mind. So does the Iranian Revolution of 1979, at least once it got hijacked by Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious extremists. So do the Taliban today in Afghanistan and the narco-terrorists in Colombia and Mexico. As Col. Lang implies, we were probably on the wrong side in Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh was originally interested in U.S. support, as I recall, and more of a Vietnamese nationalist than a Communist – but there are always going to be some places where both morality and strategy agree that we should oppose revolutionaries, and sometimes that will require inserting U.S. forces.

I’m not particularly thrilled at the prospect, but our military needs to be prepared for it. We invest billions in preparing for a glo

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June 28, 2011 11:08 AM

Counterinsurgency is here to stay. It’s something the U.S. military will have to keep doing around the world for decades to come, because insurgencies that threaten U.S. interests are going to keep occurring around the world for decades to come. I sincerely hope we’ll never again have to do something on the scale of Afghanistan or Iraq, where we provide essentially all the troops required for years on end while we try to build local security forces from scratch – it is much more cost-effective in both blood and treasure for the U.S. to provide advisors and high-tech support to indigenous light infantry – but there’s no way to guarantee that won’t happen, so the Defense Department had better be ready. Yes, land wars in Asia are things to avoid, but sometimes the alternative to intervention is something worse.

I certainly understand the exhaustion with counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, but most of that exhaustion is with the Afghan war in general, not with the COIN strategy specifically, which we’ve only been undertaking in a serio

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June 20, 2011 11:38 AM

I call bullshit. Even if the War Powers Act is valid constitutionally – and I don’t think it is – it’s morally a dodge.

To be clear: I support intervention in Libya (and I’ve said so repeatedly). I think the War Powers Act is constitutionally dubious at best. But I also think Congress should “assert itself.”

The War Powers Act is simply bad law because, as written, it’s a way for Congress to avoid its constitutional responsibility to declare war. Look at Section 5(b) (or skip to my next paragraph: if legalese makes your eyes glaze over):

Within sixty calendar days after a report is submitted or is required to be submitted pursuant to section 4(a)(1), whichever is earlier, the President shall terminate any use of United States Armed Forces with respect to which such report was submitted (or required to be submitted), unless the Congress (1) has declared war or has enacted a specific autho

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June 6, 2011 10:56 AM

Why do people keep calling Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh a U.S. ally? (The term gets millions of Google hits, depending on exact wording). He’s another frenemy of the States, like the Pakistani military. Like the Pakistanis, he takes our money whenever offered and helps us when it suits him. Like the Pakistanis, he’s played a double game, arresting some terrorists while protecting others. Also like the Pakistanis, Saleh actively allied with jihadis before 9/11. In the 1990s, when many Arab countries would not allow their citizens who had fought in Afghanistan to come home for fear they had become too radical, Saleh welcomed these now-stateless mujahideen and deployed them against his domestic enemies So was Saleh, as the question states, “essential to U.S. operations”? He’s sometimes been useful, yes, but let’s have no illusions that he was ever trustworthy.

The United States has no national interest in Saleh’s survival. We do

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June 2, 2011 05:18 PM

I'm with Wayne on this one. Sadly, I just don't see the signs that the regime is cracking, which makes sense on several levels.

First, as Wayne White has said, the Syrian dictatorship is long-established, with strong institutions of repression.

Second, the ruling Alawite minority knows that losing power would not just be a personal disaster for them and their families but a general disaster for the entire Alawite community. Considered heterodox by other Shia, let alone Sunnis, Alawites were shunned and oppressed for generations before the current, Alawite-dominated regime took power. They naturally fear being oppressed again. The worse the violence the regime inflicts on the orthodox Sunni majority, the greater the chance of reprisals.

In most revolutions I’ve studied – from France in 1789 to Russia in 1917 to Egypt in 2011 – the crucial moment is when the regime’s troops refuse to fire on the revolutionaries. If the security forces hav

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May 19, 2011 10:33 AM

Our love-hate relationship with Pakistan is definitely at stake, as Wayne White and others have discussed. In my 2006 article on what it would take to get Osama(which holds up pretty well today with its discussion of Special Operations, intelligence, and the likelihood of him being in a major city), I myself argued that backlash in Pakistan would be the major risk -- although in hindsight I was too alarmist and bought into the proposition that if Musharraf fell, it'd be doomsday. Now we have serious discussions about whether to continue our massive aid packages for Pakistan. What are we paying those guys for, again? In brief: we're paying them not to be even worse. This sounds crappy, but it's a time-honored tool of great powers dating back at least to the Roman Empire, which often found it most cost-effective to bribe a barbarian tribe not to invade rather than expend troops to fight it. I know the old saying that "if you pay the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane," but the

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May 13, 2011 07:51 PM

Far from Abbottabad and out of the public eye, the war from Afghanistan is being won or lost one village at a time. Footslogging counterinsurgency holds less glamour than airborne counterterrorist raids, but both are essential to American strategy - and each reinforces the other.

Over at my website,, I've just published a detailed narrative of one such fight, in the words of two participants who both received the Bronze Star for Valor. Some highlights:

They had a whole trench network laid out, they had bunker complexes. They were prepared for us….

It was probably only a couple seconds before one of the enemy from on the hilltop was able to get a shot off and shot the other medic in the head….

…we were taking rounds just over my head and it was hitting a wall beside me, so I had to move the patient again into one of the

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May 9, 2011 09:05 PM

The first person I discussed bin Laden's death with was my daughter. She was born in 2004 and has known since she could speak full sentences that "our soldiers" are fighting "the terrorists" and "bandits." (Yes, I discuss the war on terror with someone who still believes in Santa Claus. My wife was not pleased back in early 2008 when our then-three-year-old kept talking about the death of "Minister Bhutto.") Now seven, my daughter thought about the news, said it was good we didn't use a bomb because it might've killed the wrong people, and then asked who the next "chief terrorist" would be. Afterwards, she finished breakfast and went to kindergarten.

My daughter was right to take Osama's death in stride. While it's a significant victory in the war that's been raging all her life, it's only one small step on a long, hard road to anything resembling peace. Osama bin Laden was more than a figurehead, but he was still only the highly visibl

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May 3, 2011 01:56 PM

I’ll agree with Gordon Adams that this is a national security team steeped in counterinsurgency. I’ll disagree with his fear that this might be a bad thing.

This is a long-running (respectful) argument Dr. Adams and I have had on this blog (e.g. here) and elsewhere. Yes, we never want to repeat Afghanistan or Iraq. Yes, we never want to be once again the position of rebuilding a country even as we fight a guerrilla war there. But we said the same things after Vietnam, and forty years later, there we went again. We are as good at staying out of these wars as we are at getting out of them, i.e. not at all.

Besides, all is not bleak defeat. The jury is still out on Afghanistan, though I’m actually almost optimistic. But Iraq, while a costly self-inflicted wound, appears to be ending in some sort of victory; certainly it’s a far cry from the Vie

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April 25, 2011 11:16 AM

The US relationship with Pakistan is deeply disfunctional. It is not a disaster. To borrow a word from high school "mean girls," we are frenemies. It's a mess -- but being plain old enemies would be a lot worse.

At the very highest and very lowest levels, our national security agenda in Afghanistan is actually compatible wth -- though hardly identical with -- that of the Pakistani establishment. (Pakistan as a country is too diverse and divided to speak of it having a single agenda or set of interests). In the broadest strategic strokes, both of us would prefer a stable Afghanistan. At the most day-to-day tactical level, both of us would prefer at least the anti-Pakistani elements of the Taliban be neutralized or destroyed. It's everything in between that's the problem. The Pakistani military won't accept stability in Afghanistan at the price of Indian influence - they fear being outflanked by their longtime and much larger rival -- and they see violent Islamic extremists as at least insurance against such an outcome and often as a legitimate tool of

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April 18, 2011 03:44 PM

(Everything else? Fire at will)

I'm not a budget expert. I'm not a business process expert. But I do know military personnel, I do know weapons, and I know what our troops think about what works and what doesn't, having interviewed (as of last week) 199 servicemembers about their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. And as much as I agree with Gordon Adams about the need to cut the Defense Department's bloated overhead, attempts to save money purely through “efficiencies” have a distinctly poor track record. Cutting costs always requires cutting troops and weapons.

I'm going to do this backward, however, and say what I think should not be cut. Government cutbacks have a nasty tendency to hurl the baby out the window along with the bathwater. Almost everything should be on the table, but there should be a few exceptions. Based on t

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April 11, 2011 02:41 PM

I'll steer a middle course between Dr. Carafano's doomsaying on the right – the claim that we're shortchanging defense – and Dr. Vlahos’s doomsaying on the left – the claim that defense has grown to a nation within the nation. We can't keep doing everything we do now on the current budget, let alone a smaller one, but the current budget is only going to shrink. And Secretary of Defense who asked for more in today's environment would be laughed out of the room. Yes, we used to spend a much larger share of GDP on defense than we do today, but (a) that was in the Cold War when we faced a real threat of nuclear war and/or a Soviet blitzkrieg in Central Europe (b) our fiscal situation has gotten worse and keeps deteriorating in profound ways – national debt, trade deficit, entitlements – that aren't going away even if the economy recovers. The security situation perm

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April 6, 2011 04:03 PM

Yes, it’s true, as Paul Sullivan said, that Japan is “the third largest economy in the world,” measured by GDP adjusted for purchasing power. (An important adjustment since the cost of living in Japan is notoriously high; raw, unadjusted GDP figures actually put Japan at #2, but that’s arguably misleading).

But look at those figures more closely. Third place is a distant third indeed to the global #1, which is still the United States, which has three times Japan’s adjusted GDP, and to the #2, China, which has more than twice Japan’s adjusted GDP. Then #4, India, is breathing down Japan’s neck and growing more rapidly. After that, it’s another step down to the major West European economics, Russia, and Brazil. But going by country is potentially misleading since the EU nations are already integrated economically and stumbling towards a common foreign policy, so

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March 31, 2011 09:39 AM

This morning's New York Times reports that CIA and British agents have been on the ground in Libya “for several weeks.” So Washington and London did indeed send covert operatives in just about the time I was recommending they do so and hoping the agents were already secretly in place. But I also called for providing intelligence and tactical advice to the rebel leaders as soon as we figure out who they are. And boy do they need it, as their latest rout shows.

I'm beginning to feel like a Chicago Cubs fan here. Guys, stop running straight up and down the highway already and try outflanking someone for a change. As long as Qaddafi's forces know you're strung out somewhere on the road, they can fire their artillery blind and still have a decent chance of hitting you. Get out into the desert where at least you can maneuver in two dimensions and, while they're s

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March 29, 2011 03:51 PM

I thought the President’s speech yesterday on Libya was a good one, as far as it went, which was probably about as far as practical politics allow. (A truly great leader might have transcended those limits by redefining the debate, but Obama is merely a good one). But there is a lot more that he didn’t say but that I hope he was thinking – or, if Obama isn’t thinking it, someone in government had better be.

Obama framed his argument largely in terms of universal moral principles. That’s fine. But he only touched on the reasons that we are actually acting on those principles here and now, having done nothing in so many places and times before. Libya is different because it is in a critical place at a critical time.

Right now, as I write this, the Arab world is in the midst of its most hopeful moment in living memory. It’s a chaotic, messy, often brutal moment, true. But despite civil war in Libya and – maybe &ndas

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March 24, 2011 12:43 PM

Napoleon Bonaparte famously said he’d rather fight against a coalition than as part of one. On the other hand, it was a coalition that ultimately defeated him, so let’s take the Corsican’s wisdom with a grain of salt. A lone authoritarian ruler can act faster and more decisively than any group of governments, but isolation takes its toll in the end. I would rather have the current messy coalition of France, Britain, and the United States, backed half-heartedly by various Arab states, than any one Western power going it alone.

Clarity about your objectives is, likewise, a traditional maxim of war. But in practice clarity and coalitions don’t go well together, because every partner goes in with different international objectives and domestic political constraints. The official, public rationale often needs to be the least common denominator to keep weak partners aboard – which, in turn, can enable the real, more radical agenda of the most committed and aggressive partners. The best you can usually hope for is that those committed partners

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March 18, 2011 10:02 AM

Yesterday, the United Nations Security Council approved an Arab League request to authorize “all necessary measures" in Libya. (After I’d given up on both international bodies; I’ve rarely been happier to be wrong). On the ground, the rebels in Ajdabiya are still holding out in the city center, barely, and even with the city surrounded Qaddafi can’t easily or securely bypass it to attack Benghazi. With swift action by the U.S., the British, and especially the French -- who've been most vocal in favor of intervention -- the rebellion in Libya might still stand a chance. I repeat, might.

The tide can only turn if we go beyond a no-fly zone and accompanying attacks on Libyan air defenses to airstrikes against Qaddafi's ground forces outside Ajdabiya and against his increasingly strained supply lines from Tripoli. (I would not advocate airstrikes against regime forces already inside Ajdabiya, because even with most civilians reportedly gone, we just don't have any reliable spotters on the ground and can't easily distinguish rebels

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March 16, 2011 07:54 AM

Qaddafi’s forces are in the critical crossroads town of Ajdabiya. Reports are confused, which is typical of an ongoing battle. Reading between the lines, the news articles saying that the town has fallen are based on interviewing the refugees and rebel troops who are fleeing east, who are naturally going to say the situation’s already hopeless. (There’s a military commander’s maxim that the man who shows up at headquarters claiming to be only survivor of something is usually just the fastest runner). So I’d trust the reports that the battle is still ongoing.

If Ajdabiya falls, the loyalists have two roads open that will allow them both to attack Benghazi directly and to circle round and cut it off. Depending on what remains of the rebels’ morale, that means anything from a swift rebel collapse followed by mass arrests and executions to prolonged city fighting with civilian casualties and starvation. Either way, the cost of a Western intervention will escalate beyond what any government is willing to bear.

So it’s now or n

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March 14, 2011 10:59 PM

As the Libyan rebellion collapses, we meanwhile have the Saudis and other Gulf Cooperation Council states sending forces to support the regime in Bahrain. The Bahraini monarchy is hardly as bad as Qaddafi, nor are the largely non-violent protests there anything comparable to the civil war in Libya. Nevertheless the precedent is disturbing: It's apparently okay for Arab states to intervene in support of an authoritarian regime, but not in support of a pro-democratic rebellion.

But there's a silver lining here, albeit very thin: Can we argue now that what's good for the Bahraini goose is good for the Libyan gander? If brotherly Arab neighbors can intervene on behalf of stability in Bahrain, where there isn't even rioting, couldn't they also intervene on behalf of stability in Libya? Perhaps Bahrain might make it just a bit easier for the Egyptian military and democratizers to coalesce around limited intervention in Libya.

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March 14, 2011 02:49 PM

The Libyan revolution has reached its do-or-die moment – and I mean “or die” entirely literally. The ugly fact is that the rebels are losing. We can no longer cross our fingers and hope the Libyans will overthrow their dictator on their own. Now the U.S., Europe, and the Arab world have to choose which is the least-bad option: We intervene militarily on behalf of the rebellion or we let Qaddafi win.

Military intervention means potentially American casualties, possibly a regional backlash (though I’m increasingly confident there won’t be much of one), and definitely a messy entanglement that will last for years. I’m not happy about it. But letting Qaddafi win doesn’t mean return to the ugly-but-tolerable status quo ante as of January. It would mean something much worse. It means escalating urban warfare. It means a humanitarian crisis in Benghazi when the city is besieged and starts running out of food. It means the massacre of anyone linked to the rebellion – dictators find ways around their promises of amnesty – and a

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March 10, 2011 12:18 PM

I spoke about this topic to blog contributor Robert Killebrew the other day, and he made an important point: That Egypt far outweighs Libya -- or any of the Arab countries -- in both sheer population and political & cultural influence, and anything we do in Libya has to keep Egypt in mind. In Colonel Killebrew's words to me: "The real prize here is Egypt, and I worry that precipitate action on our part might tip the balance there."

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March 8, 2011 09:28 AM

What a great discussion on a critical issue.

Since Richard Hart Sinnreich, one of my intellectual mentors, gently questioned my sanity, I should respond to him first. Yes, I absolutely agree that we should tread lightly before intervening militarily in other countries, especially when we do it in the name of overthrowing dictators and setting up democracy, because our track record is pretty awful. No, I don’t think what I’m proposing for Libya is repeating our mistakes in (deep breath) “Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” Here’s why:

1) NO PRETENSE OF NEUTRALITY. The root of our disaster in Somalia was that we came in as neutral humanitarians, mission-creeped into becoming peacekeepers – still ostensibly neutral – and then got involved in inter-clan rivalries we didn’t understand and ended up backing into all-out ur

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March 7, 2011 11:49 AM

I’m delighted by the quality, quantity, and velocity of comments this morning. Now I’ll allow myself to take off my moderator hat for a moment and put on my commentator hat.

In brief: I think supporting the Libyan rebels is in our national interest, and our assistance to the Croatians during the Yugoslav civil war shows us how to do this with minimum exposure, moderate investment, and maximum effect.

To get you all to that conclusion, I need to start with some basics.

First, the United States needs to be clear about our objective in Libya: We want Qaddafi gone. He’s a threat to his people, to his neighbors, and to us. We could live with him while he was relatively restrained and while there was no alternative, but now there’s an alternative that’s getting stronger every day while he’s getting more brutal and erratic. The man I can’t help thinking of as Qaddaffy Duck, the bad joke of the Middle East, just isn’t funny anymore.

Second, we need to be clear about our wider regional constraints: W

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February 23, 2011 01:10 PM

Eight years ago, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz argued that the Middle East was so mired in authoritarianism, so politically stagnant, that the only way to bring democracy to the region was by force. We would kick over the table and start a new game by installing a democracy in Iraq. I’ll confess I was one of the people who bought this argument back then, at least on the level of “that’s so crazy it just might work!” (Forgive me; I was only 29). After eight years, 2.2 million U.S. servicemembers deployed, 4,400 troops killed, and about 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians, Iraq has moved from dictatorship through civil war to a genuine chance at lasting freedom. That is a huge accomplishment. But a free Iraq is hardly a sure thing, even the best outcome in Iraq will be nothing like the vision we were sold, and no one in the Middle East is looking to what has happened in Iraq as a model for democratization.

Certainly the Administration and the military made crippling mistakes of implementation, but I see now that the policy itself was ba

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January 31, 2011 05:52 PM

Three things today made me guardedly optimistic:

- Col. Collins’s remark that Turkey may be a model for Egypt;

- Prof. Sullivan’s praise for the Egyptian Army;

- and the news that the Army has officially refused to fire on peaceful demonstrators (but note the qualification, “peaceful”).

Turkey has had its decades of authoritarian military or military-backed rule, but today the military seems content to guard secular values in a delicate balance with moderate Islamist governments. If Egypt can achieve the same balance, it may not be the most comfortable partner for the West, but it’ll be a lot better than Mubarak.

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January 31, 2011 10:40 AM

Whoa. We’re seeing the most encouraging events in the Middle East in living memory, and National Journal wants to focus on the worst-case scenario? I understand the need to avoid irrational exuberance, but too much pessimism can blind people to opportunities. The worst-case scenarios are 1979 and 1989 – the Iranian Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre – and I really don’t think either is going to happen.

A Tiananmen-style crackdown looks unlikely because the army rank-and-file are fraternizing with the protesters, however ambiguous their superiors’ position is. That does not bode well for anyone ordering the troops to start shooting or even to pull back and let the security police start shooting. Remember also that the Chinese democracy movement back then was socially isolated in a few big cities, especially Beijing, which is only about 1.5% of China’s population (caveat: that’s based on 2010 figures). The Egyptian protesters today are concentrated in Cairo, sure, but one out of every ten Egyptians live in Cairo: Mub

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January 14, 2011 11:00 AM

I’m a great admirer of Gordon Adams, and I criticize his argument reluctantly and with all due deference, but criticize it I must.

On the hardware side, the awkward fact is that our current dominance is based on an arsenal built in the Reagan era, if not before, and the airplanes in particular are physically wearing out. Technological obsolescence doesn’t worry me that much, because the only remotely plausible high-tech threat is China, and Dr. Adams is right that they’re a long way from catching up, even with their expensive purchases from Russia and their alleged “stealth fighter.” The problem is really metal fatigue. Time and stress fractures wait for no man, however brilliant his budget figures are.

On the human side, the awkward fact is we may well try to avoid future counterinsurgencies, but that doesn’t mean the national interest will never drag us into one, and those fights are manpower intensive. There are ways to shift uniformed personnel in administrative jobs to genuinely military tasks and replace them with civilians,

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January 11, 2011 11:38 AM

These cuts are sensible -- and marginal. $78 billion would be a big bite even for the Pentagon budget, except that it's spread over five years. That means more than just dividing by five, because it's an open secret that budget figures even four years out are basically guesswork, especially when there may well be a new president between now and then. So, by my off the cuff estimate (nobody quote this, I don't have the actual budget figures in front of me), we're talking about less than $20 billion a year for the next three years, and after that, who knows? And this is out of an annual budget that has hit $600 billion. (If you count "contingency" funding for Iraq and Afghanistan). The annual savings are in the vicinity of 3 percent. Whoopee.

Now, I support a strong defense budget. I think America's tradition of steep drawdowns after a major conflict ends – or in this case, before it ends – is dangerous. And, as I wrote the last time we discussed defense spe

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January 5, 2011 09:38 PM

China and the United States, regrettably, are 80 percent rivals and only 20 percent partners. But rivalry in and of itself is not necessarily dangerous. What is deeply dangerous is rivalry without rules.

I agree with Michael Vlahos’s argument that arch-rivals can also be partners to their mutual benefit, although I’m not so cynical about it: Mixed rivalry and partnership is a hell of a lot better than unrestricted and unregulated enmity. The US and USSR spent at least the first two decades of the Cold War in a push me-pull you dance that eventually settled on such things as spheres of influence – we won’t put our nuclear missiles in Cuba if you don’t put yours in Turkey, for example. The US and Britain, by contrast, evolved from armed conflict – the Revolution and the War of 1812 – to a nonlethal rivalry – although Britain toyed with the idea of aiding the Confederates in the Civil War – to an abiding, if occasionally strained, alliance. Germany and its neighbors, especially Britain, France, and Russia, took the two de

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November 29, 2010 07:36 PM

So US and allied intelligence don’t know who runs the Taliban. This is bad. But what’s worse is that the Taliban don’t know who runs the Taliban, either. Does the “Quetta Shura” really command? Certainly not in Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s territory, and probably not in the Haqqani networks’ either – but what about the core Taliban territory in Kandahar? Does anyone really think that Mullah Omar or any of his aides can give an order to a local commander inside Afghanistan and be certain that it’s obeyed? Afghanistan didn’t work like that in the 19th century, let alone in the 21st. Every warlord, every cell leader, is constantly calculating and recalculating his approach based on individual self-interest, multiple overlapping loyalties, and an individual interpretation of Islam.

This is the dark side of the amorphous, decentralized, bottom-up, “the followers are the leaders and the leaders follow” movements extolled in books like “The Starfish and the Spider” as the internet-enabled wave of a bett

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November 19, 2010 02:18 PM

This morning’s Washington Post reports that a company of M1 Abrams main battle tanks will deploy to Afghanistan. The current orders call for only about sixteen of the 70-ton monsters, but it’s still a dramatic departure, since we’ve never used any of them in Afghanistan before. (Or, for that matter, not even any of the less well-armed and protected 35-ton M2 Bradley infantry carriers, to my knowledge).

What on earth does this have to do with defense budgets? Some “COINistas,” the more revolutionary advocates of a counterinsurgency (COIN) approach, argue that future conflicts will only involve lightly armed guerrillas and that the future ground forces, both Army and Marine Corps, will not require the kind of expensive heavy weaponry which spearheaded conventional fights in 1991 and 2003. This faction argues we can become more effective with cheaper forces – which of course is immensely attractive to the budget-conscious.


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November 17, 2010 01:36 PM

Chris Preble writes, as his punchline, that "it is simply crazy to be spending more in real, inflation-adjusted dollars on the military today than we did during the height of the Korean or Vietnam Wars. " Point taken, but that was the draft era, when the US military had essentially a limitless pool of cheap labor, its cost held low by federal law -- something which Preble, as a Cato libertarian, should consider a great wickedness. The true cost of conscription would include the foregone income of those drafted and the lost value of their labor in economically productive occupations, a calculation I've never seen anyone make. Without that calculation, any comparison of defense spending pre- and post-1973 is highly subsidized apples to full-price oranges.

Today's all-volunteer force has to compete for talent on the open labor market, with requirements for a high school diploma and physical fitness that rule out most of the population, and at a time when occupational hazards include people actively trying to kill you. And yet it is far more professional, highly skil

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November 17, 2010 11:24 AM

I'm not afraid that the Tea Party can't take on the defense budget. It was Dick Cheney, no leftie peacenik, who hacked the first big slice out of the Pentagon in what became the drawdown of the 1990s. Even the GOP's patron saint, Ronald Reagan, had begun to apply the brakes on defense spending before he left office. (Just as Jimmy Carter actually began what became the Reagan buildup). Republicans of whatever stripe can cut defense just fine. And if anyone right now has both the political momentum and the everything-on-the-table mindset needed to make real cuts, it's the Tea Partiers.

What worries me is that maybe Congress, as an institution, can't cut defense. There are too many contracts in too many districts -- as part of deliberate "political engineering" by contractors and their Pentagon allies, as well as earmarking and logrolling by legislators -- and not enough political incentives to offer up YOUR program that employs people in YOUR district on the altar of fiscal prudence. We all agree it's a good idea, but who bells the freakin' cat? It's like

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November 12, 2010 04:58 PM

First of all:

I am glad President Obama backed India for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. They deserve it. For all our differences, they are not merely a more natural ally than most nations but, in the long term, the best candidate for our successor as the leading power of what is called, with ever-greater inaccuracy, "the West." These are good things.


I see such good things where many others on this blog see bad, and grounds for optimism where they see doom. It is true that the US and Europe have been, on the whole, shamefully improvident in their public spending. It is true that the balance of global economic power is shifting and that, ultimately, political and military power, which flow from economic power will follow. It is true that China's rise in particular is profoundly problematic because it is accompanied by all the insecure, erratically aggressive nationalism that Europe largely outgrew after nearly destroying itself in two World Wars. But I agree with Kori Schake [

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September 16, 2010 03:50 PM

It looks like Senator Kerry's gamble has paid off, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passing New START by a vote of 14 to 4, with three Republican votes.

Statements praised the committee and urging the full Senate to pass the treaty swiftly have already been issued by the White House and, jointly, by the Secretaries of Defense and State.

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September 2, 2010 05:14 PM

As we wrap up our August discussion, I'd like to recommend one more classic of Cold War apocalyptic fiction, 1959's A Canticle for Liebowitz. The book is deeply spiritual, darkly funny, and damned depressing; the author, Walter Miller, later killed himself. The story postulates not one civilization-wrecking nuclear war, but two: In the new Dark Ages that follow World War III, Christian monks faithfully preserve scraps of scientific knowledge until the world is ready to rebuild itself -- at which point the new superpowers nuke each other into oblivion, again.

The sense that humanity would inevitably self-destruct is striking in many of these pre-1989 works of fiction. When my science-fiction book group discusses Canticles last week, we were all struck by how narrow an escape the human race has had. (And that we are not entirely out of the woods

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August 9, 2010 08:41 AM

As the father of two adorable but time-consuming children, I confess I rarely have brainpower left at the end of the day to plow through profound works of policy, so I’ll take advantage of the movie clause.

Last week, I stumbled upon the scenes from the 1983 film The Day After and its British counterpart Threads that depict an all-out nuclear attack. (Typically, the British film has somewhat worse special effects and is otherwise far superior). I expect I’ll watch the rest of the films, about the aftermath and the fate of the survivors, when I can muster the moral courage. In the post-9/11 era, when people keep repeating that the world is “more dangerous than the Cold War,” I think it’s profoundly instructive to remember just how dangerous the Cold War really was. Yes, a major nuclear exchange was always a slim possibility – but it was a real one, and with billions of lives at stake, “probably won’

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August 13, 2010 11:40 AM

Yesterday, the Congressional Research Service sent legislators its attempt at nailing down what Secretary Gates's efficiencies might actually be worth. The full report is online here and key points follow:

"The largest savings appear likely to come from a 30% reduction over three years in funding for 'service support contractors.'... [but] There appears to be some significant overlap in the proposals, so their impact may not be cumulative..... Aside from the overlaps, several of the initiatives involve only relatively small amounts.... Many of the potentially larger savings appear to involve scrubbing the recent very large increases in intelligence spending."

My thanks to expert blogger Winslow Wheeler for pointing this link out to me.

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August 5, 2010 11:37 AM

So far, our bloggers are running eight-to-one against the Hadley-Perry report. Only Daniel Gouré defends the panel's recommended program as both affordable and necessary, while our other contributors argue it is neither. Gordon Adams, Michael Brenner, Christopher Preble, Paul Sullivan, and Winslow T. Wheeler point out the mismatch between expensively "imperial" ambitions, the relatively few genuine threats, and economic circumstances strained by recession in the near term an

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August 2, 2010 04:30 PM

Our readers and contributors alike might be interested in the interview just posted with Hadley-Perry commission member John Lehman, former Navy Secretary under Ronald Reagan, now online here.

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June 22, 2010 10:25 AM

Normally I'd wait until later in the week to update the topic, but this morning brings an extraordinary barrage of bad news on Afghanistan and the region:

US commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal is recalled to Washington after publicly apologizing for his own and aides' caustic remarks about their interagency peers and political superiors in a forthcoming piece in Rolling Stone;

The House Oversight Committee slams US supply operations for subsidizing warlords, criminals, and even the Taliban;

and US and allied deaths in Afghanistan for June are on track to break records.

When it comes to "the narrative," as such negative stories mount, is the Administration running out of time to make a co

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June 4, 2010 04:11 PM

At 3:45 today, Secretary Gates formally announced his goals for cost savings from reducing Defense Department overhead (click here for the press release, here for details). By July 30th, the services and defense agencies must submit "specific, actionable, and measurable" proposals for cuts amounting to a total $566 million for Fiscal Year 2012 and $3 billion over 2012-2017. That's less than one percent of a Defense Department base budget (as proposed for FY 2011) that, counting the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, totals $708 billion.

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June 2, 2010 09:48 PM

Our contributors have cut through the particulars of Obama's National Security Strategy to a fundamental question: Is the U.S. economy, the ultimat source of America's global power, in decline? And -- a critical nuance -- is that decline relative or absolute? Relative decline means that we are simply becoming less "dominant" than during the heady years of the post-Cold War "unipolar moment" as our economic growth slows down and other countries, chiefly China, catch up. Absolute decline is decline of the "...and fall" variety, where things in the U.S get measurably worse.

As I read the bloggers, Paul Sullivan is the most clearly fearful of absolute decline, the result of a three-way collision of public debt, private debt, and rising entitlements. Gordon Adams speaks explicitly of an end of US "dominance" and says "the political-economic playing field is leveling" -- the language of relative decline. Michael Bremer seems to straddle both camps, with one breath speaking of &qu

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June 2, 2010 11:41 AM

[Blog contributor Paul Pillar spoke on this very subject recently at the Nixon Center's annual National Policy Conference. Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno wrote up the conference at Tom Ricks's blog, The Best Defense -- click here for the whole item, but I've reproduced the section sppcifically about Dr. Pillar below:]

Only Paul Pillar truly got at the larger issue of how our growing commitment in Afghanistan fits inside of a changed global strategic context for the United States.

Some of his tough questions: Why are we actually in Afghanistan? Is the availability of "sanctuary" (in a world of myriad sanctuaries) really important? Do the benefits of denying sanctuary in Afghanistan fit into any cost-benefit logic for the U.S.? (vs. benefits of Afghan sanctuary to the terrorists)

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May 26, 2010 02:04 PM

Over at National Journal's sister publication, The Atlantic Monthly, politics editor Marc Ambinder posted a story earlier today saying that the Administration is considering an overhaul of the office of the Director of National Intelligence, with the favored solution being some variation on absorbing the DNI into the White House staff. The full story is worth reading, but I've excerpted the essential sentences below:

"Obama asked members of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB) consider whether the next DNI needs to be incorporated into the executive office of the president and given a West Wing office....A final variant of a reinvigorated DNI would turn the position into a -- wait for it -- czar, with a small staff, who would coordinate conflicts among executive agents and who would be more or less a problem-solver. This person would not testify before Congress. He or she would not make public

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May 5, 2010 08:41 PM

The “bolt from the blue” scenario, in Paul Pillar’s words, that worries our contributors is that of a Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program. Such a strike Wayne White, for one, sees as increasingly probable the longer the diplomatic standoff with Iran drags on. But above and beyond the anti-U.S. backlash in the Islamic world from any act seen as “American-endorsed Israeli violence,” to use Michael Brenner’s phrase, an Israeli attack on Iran poses a unique geostrategic problem for the United States. The best path from Israeli airfields to Iranian targets passes through the airspace of Iraq – not only a sovereign Arab nation, not only a U.S. ally, not only one whose internal sectarian politics make attacking Iran especially unpopular, but the only Arab state whose sovereignty overall, and whose airspace in particular, is physically guarded by U.S. forces.

So if Israeli aircraft violate Iraq’s frontiers en route to Iran, what does the U.S. do? Let them through, in the most explicit endorsement possible of Israel&rs

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March 5, 2010 04:15 PM

[A note from your moderator: From time to time, we invite a guest comment from an expert who is not one of regular roster of contributors but who has particular insight and influence regarding the topic of discussion. This afternoon, I'm very pleased to have a response to this week's question from Colonel Gian Gentile, United States Army, a veteran of Iraq and a leading critic of the current counter-insurgency doctrine. Col. Gentile's words follow below. -- Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.] It is the theory that underpins population centric counterinsurgency (Coin)—which essentially is the operational method of clear, hold, and build, the winning of hearts and minds, and ultimately nation building—that needs to be looked at critically. According to the theory of Coin when a counterinsurgent kills civilians through imprecise use of firepower or other inadvertent military activities then as a rule those actions create an exponentially higher number of insurgents who will fight the US military and host government. This is at least what the theory states which allows many fo

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March 3, 2010 11:16 AM

The consensus of our experts so far is running six to one in favor of maximum caution to prevent civilian casualties, with only one contributor, Ron Marks, arguing that "holding back, sending a political message, and showing the enemy that we are willing to compromise simply shows not mercy, but weakness.....we simply have to grasp that war is hell." The other six argue that, while liberal use of firepower that kills more Afghan civilians may well save some U.S. troops in the short term, it will harden resistance, provoke revenge attacks, and ultimately kil more Americans iin the long term. But how long a long term can the country support? As Col. Joseph Collins wrote, 'Both Afghan and Western public opinion are at stake here." With officially confirmed U.S. deaths in Operating Enduring Freedom at 999 after eight years of fighting, when do we hit the point where public support for the war, long fraying, collapses altogether?

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February 26, 2010 12:26 PM

On this subject: Yesterday, Tom Ricks broke the news that Gen. Ray Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, is requesting an additional brigade of combat troops -- probably to be relabeled an "advise and assist brigade" -- to stay in Iraq past the August withdrawal deadline, specifically to keep a lid on Kurdish-Arab-Turkmen-etc. conflict in Kirkuk. Ricks updated with Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell's response today. P.S. If the hyperlinks above don't work on your machine, you can copy and paste the following into your browser:

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