My Op-Ed for the Busan Ilbo on the Paris Attacks: Korea should Not Overreact like the West did

This is a re-print, in English, of an editorial I wrote last month in the Busan Daily newspaper. Here is that Korean version.

BI contacted me, because I teach a course on terrorism at Pusan National University. As far as I can tell, it is one of the only such courses in Korea. So when the global reaction to Paris arrived in Korea, they asked me for a few thoughts. The most important point is: Don’t go bananas.

After the Paris attack, the Korean government is talking seriously about passing counter-terrorism (CT) laws and developing a domestic CT capability. This is wise, but there is a lot for Korea to learn from all the mistakes the West has made in the GWOT. By now it is pretty widely accepted that the US wildly over-reacted to the 9/11. The Iraq war especially helped create a helluva lot more terrorists than we were facing before, and ISIS would not exist without the invasion. Remember:

1. Modern democratic societies are pretty safe.

2. Some domestic crime and violence is part of the cost we pay for freedom and our open societies.

3. Flipping out about Muslims in our countries does no good; they’ll just turtle, rather than helping the security services.

So the big post-9/11 lesson from the West for Korea on jihadist terrorism: Keep it all in perspective. You are far more likely to be killed by lightning or your HDTV falling off the wall than a jihadi.

The full essay follows the jump:

Continue reading

Kim Ki Jong, likely a Nutball Lone Wolf ‘Terrorist’-wannabe, will have Zero Impact on US-Korea Relations

So it’s been a week since the US ambassador to Korea got attacked, and the consensus here is pretty much that he is a lonely nutball who drank too much Nork kool-aid. The South Korean police are investigating to see if he is connected to North Korea in any meaningful way. Apparently he went there a few times, but I find it highly unlikely that actually acted on orders or training he got in Pyongyang. The NK regime is not that suicidal, as an open attack on the US ambassador might well precipitate a US counter-strike.

I think it is pretty important to note that while lots of Koreans on the left are uncomfortable with the US presence and have even protested it (such as the candlelight vigils back in 2008), the mainstream Korean left does not call for anti-American violence or physical harm of Americans. The SK left may be too pro-Pyongyang – which is a big reason it keep losing elections; it really needs a Tony Blair/Bill Clinton-style centrist reformation – but its definitely not violent or revolutionary.

So forget about Kim – he’s likely more a loon than a revolutionary. Little will change.

The piece after the jump was originally written for the Lowy Interpreter here.

Continue reading

Iraq 10 Years Later (3): Why the Neocon Theory behind the War Failed


Here are part one and two of this post.

The arguments below expand on my second recent JoongAng Daily op-ed on the Iraq war.

My first post on the Iraq War asked if academic IR had any responsibility to slow the march to war.

The second tried to formulate what the   neoconservative theory of the war was, because many of us, in retrospect of a conflict gone so badly, desperately want to un-remember that there really was a logic to the war, that it was at least somewhat intellectually defensible, and that a lot of us believed it. We may want to retroactively exculpate ourselves by suggesting it was just W the cowboy acting ridiculous, or a neocon hijacking of the policy process, or Halliburton oil imperialism, and all the other reasons so popular on the left. And some of that is true of course.

But it ducks the crucial point that the war was popular until it flew wildly off-the-rails, which in turn revealed the staggering incompetence of the Bush administration to act on the neocon logic the country had embraced by March 2003. In short, I argued that the Iraq invasion was not about WMD, preemption, or democracy, although that rationale was played up in the wake of the failure to find WMD. The real neocon goal was to scare the daylights out of the Arabs and their elites by punching one of their worst regimes in the face, thereby showing what was coming to rest of the region unless it cleaned up its act, i.e., crack down on salafism and liberalize so as to defuse the cultural extremism that lead to 9/11. (Read Ajami saying in January 2003 that the war is ‘to modernize the Arabs;’ that’s about as a good a pre-war summary of this logic as you’ll get.)

So what went wrong?

Continue reading

Iraq 10 Years Later (1): How Culpable is Academic International Relations?


This post is in three parts. Here are two and three.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the war this month. I’ll be teaching it in the next few weeks at school because of the decade anniversary (March 20). To my mind, it is the most important geopolitical event, for the US, possibly the planet, since the USSR’s collapse. It also pre-occupies me to this day, because I initially supported it, and didn’t really turn against it until 2008/09. I had students who told me, late in the war, that I was the only instructor they knew who still supported the invasion. Finally, I gave in, and accepted the by-then conventional wisdom that the war was a ‘fiasco.’ I will argue in my next post in a few days, that there was in fact an at least minimally defensible argument for the war, but the execution of it was so awful, disorganized, mismanaged, and incompetent, that any moral justification was lost in the sea of blood and torture we unleashed.

The whole episode became just shameful, and regularly teaching and conferencing with non-Americans these last few years has made this so painfully clear. My students particularly are just bewildered to the point of incredulity. Again and again, the basic thought behind the questions is, ‘what the hell happened to you people? 9/11 made you lose your minds there?’ *sigh* (NB: when Asians ask me about guns in the US, the ‘what the hell is wrong with you people?’ bafflement is the same.)

Hence, the post title purposefully implies that the invasion was a bad idea. But to be fair, that should be the first question: what, if any, arguments at this point can be mustered to defend the war? IR should try to answer this seriously, because I’m all but positive that the journalistic debate will be not be driven by the state of Iraq or US foreign policy today, but by the high personal reputational costs faced by so many pundits supportive of the war. It would not surprise me at all if folks like the Kagans, Krauthammer, or Thomas Friedman miraculously found that the war was worth it after all. McNamara-style mea culpas only happen at the end of a career (so I give Sullivan and Fukuyama credit for theirs on Iraq). But academic international relations (IR) should be more honest than that.

Continue reading

And now We Killed Awlaki’s Son, again a US Citizen, again without Due Process…


In the last two weeks, I got pulled into another round of the endless debate on the role of US forces in Korea, so I missed this yet further depressing story of the US government flirting with extra-judicial, not-really-very-oversighted killings in the field of Americans.

I worried a few weeks ago that the killing over Alwaki, a US citizen, without due process, had crossed yet another, and to my mind, major civil liberties threshold in the history of the war on terror.

And here we are again. As usual, Greenwald has all the depressing details that we would all rather not discuss. Among other things, he was an American. He was only 16. He was killed by accident. The government first tried to spin the boy as an older AQ fighter, but the most basic journalistic digging uncovered that as bogus. Wow. This is just appalling.

We really need to have the moral courage to say this to our own government. (I thought this is why we voted for Obama?) I used to really support the GWoT, and I concur that Islamism is clear challenge to Western liberalism that we must defeat, but this is just awful. If the government can just do this to multiple US citizens abroad, then doesn’t that set a terrible, terrible precedent? So who is beyond the pale, and what is the process (please tell us!) for making these sort of ‘hit-list’ determinations? The government didn’t even apologize or admit any regret as far as I know – for an accidental killing of a US, teenaged citizen. This can’t just go on and on like this. There must be some limit.

Note the problem is not the use of drones per se. Drones are simply a tool, and to the extent they limit the personal exposure of US forces, that is a good thing. However, it seem increasingly likely that, because drones limit US ‘transaction costs’ (i.e., the likelihood of US combat fatalities), drones tempt the administration to use forces in ways and places that would otherwise be politically impossible because of the possibility of US casualties. Unfortunately, this just reinforces the instincts of the imperial presidency unleashed by the war on terrorism. Certainly, the unregretted, accidental killing of a 16-year American should be proof of that.

Awlaki was an American Citizen & Entitled to Some Kind of Due Process – Updated


Everyone has an opinion on this; I thought this, this, this, and this were the best on the debate. It does appear that Awlaki was a genuinely dangerous nut-job, but Greenwald makes the obvious point that the government should demonstrate that. That is the whole point of due process, and no one really has any idea what the process was that allowed the president to unilaterally execute a citizen. As nasty as the guy may have been, he was an American (born in New Mexico in 1971). So this is a yet another civil liberties threshold crossed in the global war on terror (GWoT), and a fairly big one to my mind. (I am an American living abroad too. Have my rights just contracted? Can anyone really say?)

Like everyone, I have mixed feelings, because it does look like Awlaki was a huge threat, moving among openly-declared enemies of the US, and committed to attacking the West violently. I imagine this is why the outcry is so minimal. But he was an American citizen, and I can’t think of anything like this ever. Our government is now performing targeted killings of our own citizens? Wow. Where is the legal authority for that? Doesn’t that violate all sorts of basic protections enshrined in the Amendments to the Constitution? I am not a lawyer, but what possible ‘due process’ is there for this the pre-empts the Constitution? Obama and the National Security Council simply decreed him a threat? At the very least, please tell us how these determinations get made, and what processual checks there are so that this doesn’t devolve into a open-ended kill authority.

But even if we see the case file, I find this genuinely scary. The precedent this lays down, especially as it seems to be going uncontested in the US, is very unnerving. I was willing to swallow that the ‘targeted killing’ of OBL was within the pale, but citizenship is a crucial red-line in a world of states. At this point, who exactly can the president not order terminated? And do the Obama people really want to hand over such power to a possible tea-party president in the future?! Can one imagine Sarah Palin with clandestine, ‘targeted assassination’ authority? Isn’t that terrifying?

I find it a heartbreaking paradox of the GWoT that Awlaki’s father tried to sue the US government to stop it from killing his son. More generally, this whole mess shows how protracted warfare corrodes democracy (a lesson going all the way back to Thucydides) and why it is very important to stop the war on terror. American liberties are eroding under the strain of the 10 years of angry, frustrating conflict, and the reliance on drones, with few rules or agreed norms about their use, show the growing disregard for due process that semi-permanent conflict entrains.

This can be included with all the other GWoT misdeeds like torture, warrantless wiretaps, and indefinite detention. The domestic liberty costs of the GWoT now clearly outweigh the benefits. Killing a US citizen in what is basically an assassination is yet another red-line crossed that shows how we are forgetting ourselves and the whole liberal point of the GWoT to begin with. Why would anyone listen to the ‘freedom agenda’ or take Obama’s Nobel Prize seriously at this point? I wonder if the Nobel Committee would like to retract it now. Why even vote for Obama when he feels he has the authority to do even this? Honestly, I am not even sure McCain would have done this. Targeted  assassination, especially of the citizenry itself, is an astonishingly capacious read of executive power, and clearly not a power ever explicitly delegated by Congress. No wonder Cheney wants an apology. Obama is doing stuff not even W would have done.

The US has banned assassination since the 1970s because of misdeeds during the Vietnam war. So not only did the administration violate constitutional rights of a citizen, it also violated another statue. I saw J Toobin on CNN this week say basically that no administration has followed the assassination ban anyway, so that is not a real violation (!). Then Toobin argued that Obama’s likely defense is authority under the post-9/11 ‘Authorization for the Use of Military Force’ (AUMF), but that, with this killing now, no one really knows where that power ends. Toobin, who strikes me as a reasonably serious guy, looked genuinely troubled as he said this. What can a legal correspondent comment if the ‘law’ is this malleable? I had the sense Toobin wanted to protest, but American public opinion is so desensitized to rule-violation in the name of the GWoT, I think Toobin ducked so as not to look like he defended a terrorist. Also, read the AUMF closely; it targets the planners behind 9/11. But Awlaki wasn’t a part of the plot, even though he was sympathetic. If it was just because he was a rabble-rousing anti-American cleric, then a good chunk of clerisy of the Middle East would probably qualify…

So again my question is, what use of force does the Authorization not permit? Can the president order a hit like this on US soil? Bush already detained Jose Padilla unfairly and with no recourse for years. That the Obama administration doesn’t really know how to answer that became very clear in a CNN interview I saw with SecDef Leon Panetta. Asked if he was on firm legal ground, he only repeated, in worst manner of Bush evasiveness, that Awlaki was a threat and we had to take him out. Presumptive threat overthrows process: we’re all Cheneyites now.

Finally, I found it a particularly glaring contrast that Awlaki was assassinated in the same week that the American media got in a terrible huff about due process in Italy (Amanda Knox) and Iran (those two hikers). (Btw, America’s record of giving due process to foreigners arrested in the US is atrocious, so don’t be so indignant.) Knox and the hikers’ experiences were regularly described as brutal ‘ordeals,’ and their homecomings covered in great, chest-thumping detail. Yet here we hellfire our own citizens (another American was killed with Awlaki) without trial or public presentation of a detailed case… and no one says anything. We just believe what the government tells us about him. The government has flim-flammed so much in the GWoT though, that we really should demand more. Congress should lay down a framework as soon as possible for targeted killings in general, and for Americans especially; otherwise this could slide toward widespread, casual use, just as the torture regime spread from Guantanamo initially, into the entire US GWoT-detention system, because no one really knew what the ‘new rules’ were.


Read this on the limits of drone warfare.

Transformers 3 (1): “We will Kill them all in the name of Freedom” – Yikes!




In the name of freedom, we will kill them all!

– Optimus Prime (the protagonist in the clip above) updates the Bush Doctrine after a decade of war



Part 2 of this post is here.

I missed this over the summer, but the blu-ray just came out, and it’s a nasty, harsh, rah-rah militaristic mess. I won’t bother with the story. You already saw it and know how ridiculous it was. (Try here if you don’t.) I’ll only note that great actors like Malkovich, McDormand, Turturro, and Nemoy are complicit now in the militarization of American cinema, as is Buzz Aldrin (sooo embarrassing that was – wow). The Asian racism and gay jokes are a just as offensive (and painfully unfunny) as the black racism of the second one. And the new ‘Bay girl’ is even worse than Megan Fox, who at least had a grittiness. This one is just living plastic and skin-cream. Bay never misses a chance to promote emotionally debilitating lookism to young girls. (Even Bay’s female corpses must be hot. That must take a sexism award somewhere.)

No one captures the ups-and-downs for popular consumption of current American attitudes toward war as well as Michael Bay. Bay’s films obviously carry the moral weight and approval of the American Right. This is most clear when he guiltlessly references signature moments in US history like the collapse of the Trade Towers, the moon landing, or Challenger explosion. More leftish action directors like James Cameron or George Lucas would be relentlessly criticized were they to do that. Consider the Right’s response to Avatar and Star Wars III, compared to Transformers. But ‘America’s director,’ just like ‘America’s newsroom,’ can do this, because he is reliably nationalistic and pro-military. As Time put it, Bay has become the “CEO of Hollywood’s military-entertainment complex.”

As a result of Bay’s signature position as the filmic voice of the US populist-militarist right, no movies better capture the US emotional arc regarding the war on terror than his Transformers trilogy. As Americans have become more and more frustrated by an unwinnable war, more tolerant of brutality like torture, and less compromising, so has Bay. The films have become progressively more jingoistic, bitter, macho-sexist, and cruel. This is entertainment for the Tea-Party. In this most recent installment, there are even four battlefield-executions (!) in this Steven Spielberg (!) production based on a line of toys and aimed at young boys. But I guess that’s good stuff in the GOP primary these days.

The antagonists (the Decepticons) are nastier than usual, but the protagonists (the Autobots) are extraordinarily brutal for mainstream heroes, and Bay revels in it. The usual story about how the Decepticons are ‘evil’ is thrown in to provide a moral fig-leaf for the Autobots’ violence, but it’s a sham. Bay really wants to show us a vengeful bloodbath (the last hour), and here is where the Tea-Partier frustration and anger at the confusion over the GWoT’s course is most obvious. The film, like current the Tea Party-influenced GOP primary season, is filled with a deeply disturbing bloodlust for brutality. This is not a fun action film for the comfortable, amiable America of the 1990s (like Bay’s Armageddon). This is war carnage for a bitter America desensitized to vengeance and brutality after a decade of torture, confusion, wounded veterans, ‘ingratitude’ from Iraqis and Afghans at being ‘liberated,’ sky-rocketing costs, and global condemnation. T3 is wish-fulfillment for the people who hoo-rahed at OBL’s death: if only we could just go and kick the s— out of all them.

The Decepticons execute an Autobot made up to look like an old-man by shooting him in the back of the head. This came off so harsh, that a woman sitting next to me gasped and looked at her rather shocked boyfriend. When a Decepticon fighter crashes, the Autobots dismember the pilot alive to the jokingly-delivered line, ‘this is going to hurt.’ Holy c—! Sadism is hilarious? Kids are supposed to find that line humorous? At the end, Optimus Prime – remember, this is main good guy – kills one bad guy (Megatron), who had actually just assisted him, by hatcheting him unsuspectingly in the back of the head and them pulling out his entire brain stem, complete with arterial spray. Next the chief bad guy is dispatched after he is badly wounded and crawling on the ground begging for mercy. Nevertheless, Optimus Prime shot-guns him in the back at close range. Twice. And the camera lingers on his pained face as he’s being shot. Wow. WTH happened to Michael Bay (and Steven Spielberg)? Does Bay really expect us to endorse this kind of brutality as entertainment? Both antagonists are in morally compromised positions, yet the hero effectively executes them?! Are we supposed to cheer on the Autobots (allied with the US military in the film) when they brazenly disregard the rules of engagement (which makes liberal states’ use of force more trustworthy) and just execute people?

9/11 a Decade later (2): Flirting with Empire


Part 1 of this post is here.

Terrorism is the weapon of the weak; terrifying your enemies is a lot less satisfying than actually defeating them. If OBL had an army, no doubt he would have invaded NYC. But terrorists have limited force, so much of their impact depends on how the target responds. Hence, in my previous 9/11 post I argued that the largest change came not from 9/11’s actual material impact, but from the US over-response. The most obvious elements of that would be the freedom-eroding homeland security clampdown, the badly misguided Iraq War, and the catastrophic budgetary consequences of a ‘military,’ rather than law-enforcement response to 9/11. Why GWoT (global war on terror) defenders and Bush partisans are so proud of that last claim strikes me as bizarre given the growing consensus that the GWoT has really lost it way and became much too expensive.

1. The idea that ‘9/11 changed everything’ was a self-fulfilling prophecy made so by America’s (specifically the Bush administration’s) reaction to it. It didn’t need to be this way. Ten year’s out now from 9/11 it should be apparent to everyone how little 9/11 actually changed, except for the changes that we wrought. The mantra ‘9/11 changed everything’ morphed into a blank check. It started as a defensible justification for an assertive foreign policy – on terror, in central Asia – plus better border control (long needed anyway because of out-of-control illegal immigration). But increasingly it turned into a fig leaf for something akin to a barracks state at home and semi-imperialism abroad – the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, rendition, torture, indefinite detention, the Iraq War, exotic and probably illegal drone warfare, spiraling national security spending, etc.

Remember too that in the wake of 9/11 we were told relentlessly how vulnerable we were and how we should expect a progression of attacks against the US. No matter what you think of Michael Moore, he captures well the paranoia and wild over-speculation of this period in Fahrenheit 9/11. My favorite in the film is the Fox News report on pen-bombs. Did we really believe that sort of stuff in 2002ff? I remember teaching international security courses in those years with students writing endless papers about terrorist attacks on dams, bridges, ports, airports, even theme parks. I was at OSU, and we actually debated in class the economic impact on Ohio of barbed wire and armed guard patrols at King’s Island and Cedar Point. One student wrote that we should use nuclear weapons in Iraq; another that we should put SAMs on top of the Sears Tower in Chicago. I remember the students and I gaming out how easy it would be for a few terrorists to attack a shopping mall, based on the Columbine school assault and Sang-Hui Cho’s Virginia Tech massacre. My syllabi from that time describe terrorism as the ‘central national security threat to the US for a generation’ and approvingly cite Rumsfeld’s moniker, ‘the long war.’

Yet none of this happened. There was no wave of attacks. Muslim-Americans did not turn out to be a fifth column as loopy righties like Frank Gaffney or Rod Parsley insisted. For all the vulnerabilities – the easy-to-penetrate border with Mexico, the obese security guards at your local stadium, the hundreds of power plants with minimal security, the terrifying scenarios of 24 or Die Hard 4 – nothing like 9/11, no mega-terror, happened again. Yes, the Bush crowd will argue that that is because of the counter-measures put in place by the Bush administration, but there is no empirical evidence to support that statement and much missing evidence that demolishes it. Specifically, as I argued in the last post, 6M Americans live overseas – soft targets in expat clubs and bars all over the world that are easy targets of opportunity. Yet nothing happened to them. Nor have we yet seen any meaningful, independent study on serious plots foiled by DHS to actually verify that we needed the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, torture, Guantanamo, etc, in order to achieve reasonable security. Perfect security is impossible, and do we really want to try to torture our way to the ‘one percent doctrine’? As early as 2006, we knew this was overblown.

But the bureaucratic incentives for threat inflation are obvious. No one wants to say we can let our guard down, and then have the next attack happen on her watch. So we get one report after another about how we need to harden this or that part of American life; in the end we look likea garrison state. Here is a nice example of how even when a report finds little to worry about, the authors can still encourage more ‘vigilance,’ more money, and more hysteria. Does it even matter anymore to remind people once again that you are more likely to get hit by lightning than die in a terrorist incident?

2. The GWoT turned out to be a spectacular error that probably didn’t do much a far narrower and less hysterical counter-terror (CT) effort could have done. Fairly quickly it turned into a global counterinsurgency that CT advocates have bemoaned ever since as far too expensive, intrusive, and corroding of the US military. As the Atlantic notes, a lot of the martial, ‘kill-em-all,’ Jack Bauer posturing of the early GWoT days not only didn’t work, but in fact backfired.  I agree with the conventional wisdom that Afghanistan was a war of necessity, and Iraq a war of choice. Early I supported both, but it is pretty obvious now that Iraq was not worth it. Far too many people died – mostly Iraqis who’d made no choice to be put in the firing line – to justify the modest improvements in Iraqi governance. On top of that, the US military got badly run-down, America’s global image cratered, and the country went bankrupt.

There is no doubt that Iraq is a better place, but the US forced this on Iraq (unlike in Libya), and we did so in such an inept way (‘fiasco’) that our staggering mis-execution of the whole operation invalidates the arguably defensible principle behind the war. That is, the basic neo-con idea that the Middle East needed a hammer strike to break up the horrible nexus of authoritarianism, religious medievalism, terrorism, oil corruption and social alienation that gave birth to 9/11 is actually a good argument. It may be true, and certainly looked that way ten years ago, long before Arab Spring. So I don’t buy any of this ‘neo-con cabal, they did it for Israel’ schtick. This was supposed to be a demonstration strike against the Arabs to warn them that their local pathologies were morphing into global problems and would no longer be tolerated by the West.

But the execution of that hammer strike in the heart of a dysfunctional ME was so awful, so catastrophically badly managed, that it invalidated the whole premise by suggesting the US is simply incapable of acting properly on that otherwise arguable neo-con logic. And the rhetoric surrounding it, particularly the wild hype of WMD ‘mushroom clouds’ and then Bush’s grandiosely frightening second inaugural, made the US look like a liar and then a revisionist imperialist. This is why I supported the Iraq war until around 2007/08, at which point it became painfully obvious that we had no idea what we were doing there – despite the good arguments for the war – and that hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis were paying their price of our incompetence. (This is yet another reason why my support of the Libya R2P operation has never endorsed ground forces; it’s just not something we can do.) On of all that, we were morphing into a semi-empire under the globalist pressure of neoconservatism, so a vote for Obama became a necessity.

3. Finally, the GWoT has become ridiculously, astonishingly expensive. This sounds callous, of course. As we remember 9/11, we feel that we should do anything we can to kick these people in the head, and I am as glad as anyone that OBL is dead. But of course there are opportunity costs; there must be. That is how scarce resources, i.e. everyday life, work. The GWoT has contributed substantially to the US budget crisis, which will, connecting the relevant dots in the GOP’s preferred language, leave us ‘less safe’ in the future because we can’t spend the money we may need on security later on. Stiglitz has famously argued that the Iraq conflict will total around $3T when it’s all over. Worse, the Bush administration borrowed to pay for it, and actually cut taxes just as the GWoT’s costs began to spiral. This is inexcusable, and has substantially accelerated the global power shift from the US to China, because it is China that funds much of the US’ debt. By 2020, I guess most Americans will regret that we ever launched the GWoT and chose a ‘military’ path, instead of learning from Britain’s CT struggle with the IRA or Israel’s (earlier) quiet ‘sub-war’ response to Arab terror. It didn’t have to be this way…

Here is part one if you missed it.

9/11 a Decade Later (1): The Apocalypse that Wasn’t…


Part two of this post is here.

The 9/11 anniversary commentary will be endless, so here are a few I thought were good.

First, a few thoughts on what to avoid:

I am increasingly suspicious of stuff from the mainstream foreign affairs crowd: Council on Foreign Relations, CSIS, Brookings, and (especially) the conservative think-tank set. They are so Washington, predictable, and establishmentarian (because the all want gigs in the next administration of their choice), that you already know what you will read: no suggestion that the 20-year US massive presence in the Gulf infuriates Muslims and Arabs and helped catalyze 9/11; laundry lists of expensive ideas for the US to ‘do more in the region’ rather than to let locals be themselves; little hint that America’s relations with Muslims would improve dramatically if we were more even-handed on the Palestinians; no suggestion that America might have been better off doing much, much less in response to 9/11; full endorsement of the liberal internationalist-neocon position that 9/11 is a once-in-a-generation justification for continuing America’s massive globocop presence after the Cold War; minimal criticism of the massive Bush national security state overkill in response; shameless exploitation of 9/11 to prevent reductions in America’s gargantuan national security budget, etc. Stick with Foreign Policy, the American Review, the Atlantic, Slate or the New Republic (sometimes) for views that at least challenge the status quo and don’t just recycle what Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and the rest of the DC pundit class will tell you.

Next, avoid the emotional manipulative 9/11 retrospectives. This may sound callous – it was an awful day for everyone, and a truly horrible day for some. But far too often since 9/11, politicians, especially W, played to our emotions from that day, and used and manipulated them to support policy we would almost certainly not have agreed to otherwise, and which we will regret with shame in the future. Here’s the Wall Street Journal telling you that ‘Old Glory’ waved on 9/11 (you’re a patriot and love America, right?), and that’s why they called it the Patriot Act. But then the ACLU and Democrats sabotaged the GWoT, cause they hated W over the Florida recount. So the American left, completely out of power from 2000 to 2006, nonetheless made us ‘less safe’ – for a personal vendetta no less. This is Rovism, wrapped in the flag, but still manipulative and hardball. Further, I have little doubt that, just as we look back today in shame at the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII, we will do the same in 20-30 years when look at how we tortured people in the GWoT. Don’t let torture’s defenders – Yoo, Cheney, Thiessen – emotionally roll you by telling you they stopped the next 9/11 and more grieving widows by ‘legalizing’ waterboarding, ‘walling,’ and generally beating the s— out of people in the name of ‘America.’ Keep your wits (and it ain’t true anyway).

In line with this resistance to inevitable grandstanding, posturing, and macho heroics, my own sense is that 9/11’s importance is wildly over-exaggerated – perhaps because I live in Asia, and I increasingly see the Chinese challenge looming for decades to come. But know this – as just about any American living in Asia can tell you – the Chinese sure are happy that we got lost in the Middle East for a decade.

There are a million possible ‘lessons’ from 9/11, but the big one is actually a non-lesson – 9/11 actually changed very little (beyond the changes we made for ourselves, like Iraq and torture). As early as 2006, we were starting to realize just how much we had over-hyped 9/11. The tectonic plates of international relations change slowly. Al Qaeda could not in fact dent unipolarity. (China can, but that is another story.) The stock market didn’t crash. The US military didn’t suddenly collapse. The actual material loss on 9/11 was ‘only’ about $100B out of a $12T economy, and 2700 people from a citizenry of 300M+. (I don’t intend to sound cold; every life is ontologically unique and valuable. But from a national point of view, these numbers are small. Recall that almost 38,000 Americans died in car accidents in 2001.) 9/11 did not unravel NATO or US alliances. US GDP in the proximate quarters continued to expand. China and Russia did not suddenly become nice or nasty. Bin Laden’s much hoped-for Islamic revolution did not occur (one goal of the attack was to spark a global Muslim revolution with al Qaeda in a leninist ‘vanguard party’ role). The much-predicted ‘wave’ of terrorist attacks and plots against the US did not occur, at home or abroad. (Bush defenders will say this is because Bush improved US security at home, but what about the roughly 6M Americans living outside the US? If there really was a global Islamist conspiracy to kill us, there’d be kidnappings and assassinations of US businessmen, students, and tourists all over Eurasia. It never happened.) In the end, well over 99% of the population went to work the next day; unipolarity rolled on.

In short, from a national power perspective, 9/11 is more like Hurricane Katrina – an awful yet manageable one-time disaster – than Hiroshima – a city-breaking catastrophe that promised to be the first in a pattern leading to national collapse. 9/11 was a sucker-punch – a cheap shot al Qaeda managed to slip in because the US wasn’t paying attention (even though the CIA warned Rice and Bush a month earlier). 9/11 did not galvanize the Muslim world, nor provoke a fiery revolt. And given even reasonable homeland security measures (far less draconian than what we choose), repeat attacks at that magnitude are unlikely. In the end, the real reason 9/11 is seared into everyone’s mind is not its catalyst effect toward a global war or clash of civilizations – it is because it was a surprise attack, and because it targeted civilians.

That we permitted that one-shot sucker-punch to drive into us hysterics, to capture our dark imagination, zealous vengeance, and righteous fury is where 9/11 really changed things. American psychology – perhaps insulated too long from the world by US power and distance from Eurasia’s problems – is what changed, not the world.

Continue to part two.

The US Drawdown & National Debt Debate: AfPak, Korea, etc

Afghanistan rocket

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the scale of US commitments and how to reduce them so as to not bankrupt the US in the medium-term. I have gotten a fair amount of criticism that I don’t know what I am talking about, US warfighters are superlative, US forces in various places like Korea or Afghanistan augment US national security, pull-outs jeopardize our credibility, etc. Ok. I am learning like the rest of us on this. I agree that US commitments are sticky, and I have little doubt that US servicemen are professional enough to win conflicts in places like Korea and AfPak (Afghanistan & Pakistan), so long as we have the resources to stay.

Further, I will admit that a ‘post-American’ world is a little unnerving. I say this not as an American who likes ‘empire’ (I don’t), but more generally because I still do think, even post-Iraq, that US involvement generally makes the world a better place. The dollar and US engagement help keep the world economy open, and US force can sometimes be the last line against truly awful acts that shame the conscience. This is why I supported the Libya intervention, and this is why I hope the US can keep forces in Korea. A retrenched, bankrupted, and sullen America worries more than just Americans. To clarify to my critics, my concern is whether the US can support allies around the world, not if it should. I don’t want US Forces in Korea (USFK) to leave any more than anyone else. I can think of few more valuable uses of US force than to help defend a democracy against the last worst stalinist despotism on earth. I just wonder whether we can afford it.

I think we need to be a lot more honest about the huge defense cuts that will be required to balance the US budget. The US deficit ($1.5 trillion) is a staggering 10% of GDP and 35% of the budget; publicly-debt ($9T) is at 60% of US GDP ($15T); and the integrated national security budget (DoD, Veterans, relevant parts of Homeland Security and Energy) exceeds $1T. You hardly need to be an economist to think that this is unsustainable and smacks of imperial overstretch. For an expert run-down on the US budget mess, try here.

This gap could of course be filled with tax increases, but a central GOP policy commitment since roughly the Ford administration has been ‘no new taxes.’ Unless this changes dramatically – and the recent Ryan budget proposal showed no GOP movement on tax increases – this means that most of the $1.5T hole must be filled with spending cuts. My own sense is that allowing the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to sunset, as is current statute, plus tax reform and a carbon tax, could in fact generate a lot of new revenue at tolerable and intelligent levels of pain. This would reduce some of the pressure to cut defense (and all other US government programming). But without such new taxes, the $1.5T hole calls for huge cuts, and the axe would inevitably land on defense too, including US bases and commitments overseas.

I am genuinely agnostic on whether this is a good idea. Part of me thinks that wealthy US allies, especially Japan and Germany, free-ride. They should spend more so that we can spend less. But others have retorted that encouraging wealthy Asian allies like Korea and Japan to spend more could trigger an arms race in Asia that might also go nuclear. Barnett has a nice post on how Asian elites are aware of this and worry about a weak US. (On the other hand, there is not actually a lot of empirical evidence that denuclearization brings peace.)

In response to my commenters at Busan Haps on a US withdrawal from Korea, I wrote:

“America’s economic problems will likely compel the rebalancing all of you are thinking about. Importantly, even if the US wanted to stay and provide ‘extended deterrence’ as we have for 60 years, the dollars are not there for it.

Whether or not we should go is a different question. My sense is that Korea does actually try harder than many US allies. Korea spends 2.7% of GDP on defense. Germany and Japan spend around just 1%. The US spends close to 6%. But like Germany and Japan, Korea is now wealthy enough to spend a lot more. This raises the free-riding question you all worry about.

If Korea really wants USFK to stay no matter what, then the most likely way is for Korea to pay for ALL of the expense of USFK here. Right Korea and the US split the bill roughly so far as I can tell.

But I find great resistance to this thinking. My sense is that within the Beltway, there is strong elite consensus for the US remain committed around the world. ‘Empire’ seems to be a knack or a habit Americans have grown into. We like being a globally present superpower but are increasingly unable to afford it and unwilling to pay the taxes for it.

The question then is what do we do now? Cut entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) to make room for defense? Do we raise taxes enormously for all these things? Are do we retrench from our global posture so we spend less money?

Finally, there is a model for retrenchment. Britain slowly retreated from its empire in the 1950s and 60s. In some places it went very badly – South Asia and southern Africa especially. But this slowly brought British commitments back into line with British resources. The alternative for the US is to change nothing and risk an imperial crack-up – something like the USSR in 1989 or Austro-Hungary in 1914. That is my worry.”

Here are two good recent articles from the Wall Street Journal by Leslie Gelb and Max Boot on whether or not we can drawdown from Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) post-bin Laden. I lean toward Gelb, but I think Boot makes some good points. Particularly, Boot notes that a US presence in Afghanistan made it possible to get OBL, because US forces were proximate. But Boot still sidesteps the debt issue. Both Beinart and the US JSC chairman call the debt the biggest threat to US national security. I am inclined to agree…