Friday, March 25, 2011

Lessons from the Bay of Pigs to the Shores of Tripoli

Despite the historical changes roiling the Middle East, this blogger has been quiet. I've been on vacation in Miami. While I've kept an eye on email, cable news, and Twitter, Miami is a very distracting place and I've been unable to concentrate on the deeper analysis necessary to shed light, not heat on events. (Although I did manage a quick post about Biden's role in the current crises on this blog's sibling.) Anyway, as my friend Ilan Berman observed just before going on a recent vacation, "Whatever, let this play out, I'll be back in a week, it'll still be going on. It's no big deal."

But one thing I saw in Miami was profoundly thought-provoking. Wandering along Calle Ocho, the heart of Little Havana, we came to the memorial for those killed in the Bay of Pigs operation. The Bay of Pigs is THE case study in Presidential fecklessness and poor decision-making. This is certainly worth considering as the US backs into Libya's civil war.

But that is only the first level. The memorial is a reminder that, however I'll-considered, the individuals who gave their lives there believed that they were fighting for freedom and that Cuba was (and is) under a monstrous tyranny - freedom matters. It is also worth remembering that Castro overthrew Batista, a classic LatAm tinpot dictator, not a good guy. Could the US have paid more attention to human rights and freedom in Cuba and less to it's business interests in the decades before Castro's revolution? (It is easy enough to criticize the US's imperfect record in this regard - but few great powers in history have even tried as much as the US, and actually fostering reform is a difficult achievement.)

Castro was of course a darling of the international left, but like so many other 20th century dictators he proved far more evil then the corrupt authoritarian he displaced. (There is an old story of the two old Polish Communists who had been imprisoned together in the1930s. Meeting decades later in NYC they recall who they had sat together in their cells and railed against Marshal Pilsudski as a terrible dictators. Then they nod, saying, "We didn't know anything about dictators then.") This was the point of Jean Kirkpatrick's classic essay, "Dictatorships and Double-Standards" - sometimes supporting our SOB is both the prudent and even moral thing to do.

Finally, even if, somehow the Bay of Pigs could have been successful, it might have had other costs. Latin America has had a long, difficult experience with US intervention. Another American-backed coup might have inspired greater anti-Americanism throughout the region increasing the costs of collaboration between the US and Latin America.

Food for thought as the president attempts to protect US interests as country, after country in the Middle East undergoes turmoil.

Another, of the myriad possibilities is what if Bay of Pigs wasn't defeated quickly, but also wasn't strong enough to overthrow Castro plunging the island into an endless civil war.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Joe's Got no Action

The swirl of world events is incredible. Throughout the Obama administration, VP Biden has been in the center of national security decision-making. He liaised with leaders in Iraq and Egypt at critical junctures. He delivered speeches in Moscow, Beirut and elsewhere. So where is he now?

No court politics here, a review of the Vice President's schedule shows he is in regular meetings with the President and key national security figures - Combatant Commanders, SecDef, and this morning he hosted a meeting with the Secretary of State. But Biden is not taking a public role in explaining administration policy. Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates are, why not?

The VP has NO formal powers (unless specifically delegated by the President.) In upper levels of government, according to the classic Bureaucratic Policies and Foreign Policies a key question is "who has the action?" That is which official in which agency can actually sign off on an initiative. The VP doesn't have it. SecDef and SecState have a formal role in war-fighting and diplomacy. Having the VP out front in place of the President is useful in many situations, but not when forces are actually deployed. It would be Constitutionally and politically problematic to have Biden take a leading role.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Golden Oldies: Lax @ LAX

Since the CounterTerrorismBlog is no longer publishing I am re-posting my old CTBlog posts. This one will be relevant to an upcoming post about terrorism in Los Angeles. The piece was originally posted on June 1, 2007 here.

Lax @ LAX

Waiting for a shuttlebus at LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) a few days ago, I noticed an abandoned bag. It was an odd place to leave a bag for a few minutes. When I alerted the nearest airport employee – a baggage handler – his reaction was indifference. The bag’s owner turned up about 10-15 minutes later.

The bag had recent flight markings, definitely looked like it belonged to someone, and had been left in a less than ideal location for a bomb (outdoor waiting area with only a few people at a time.) So there were plenty of reasons not to regard the bag suspiciously. But I don’t think that the airport employees I alerted had applied an analytical framework and made this determination. It did not appear that they had any particular awareness of what to do or who to contact.

The employee's indifference was surprising. LAX has been the target of at least two terror attacks. When Ahmed Ressam was caught at the US-Canadian border on December 1999 with a trunk full of explosives, he intended to plant them at LAX as one component of al-Qaeda's planned Millenium attacks. On July 4, 2002 an Egyptian immigrant, suspected of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood, shot up the El Al counter at LAX, killing two and wounding four. Presumably the LAX administration would have instituted awareness training and procedures for all airport employees.

Israeli and also British acquaintances react nervously when they encounter abandoned bags in public places. This comes from those countries’ long years of experience with terrorism. Both governments recognized that an aware and prepared citizenry is a nation’s greatest homeland security asset. The investigation into the Fort Dix Six, spurred by an alert Circuit City clerk, is another illustration of that principle. It is worrisome that a major potential target has not seen fit to develop a comprehensive security awareness program and to take advantage of this valuable asset.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Remembering the War to End All Wars

Now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Renewing their dreams of past glories
I see the old men all tired, stiff and worn
Those weary old heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question

And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer the call
But year after year, their numbers get fewer
Someday, no one will march there at all

And the band played Waltzing Matilda - Eric Bogle

Frank Buckles, the last surviving American WWI veteran was laid to rest today at Arlington National Cemetery. With his passing, WWI will fade from our national consciousness – this is profoundly unfortunate.

It is difficult to grasp the scale and horror of World War One. For a long time it loomed large. As late as the 40s and 50s, in fiction (in particular Joseph Kennedy’s Albany series and Robertson Davies Salterton and Deptford trilogies come to mind) as the young men return from the war, the middle-aged men who run things think back to their time in the trenches.

But ultimately, the “Big One” was lost in the history books between the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War Two. It has no clear narrative. World War II had Hitler, an evil genius of monstrous proportions. The Civil War was fundamentally about ending slavery (a monstrously evil practice) and preserving the union. What was World War One about?

At St. John’s I became close to one of the tutors, the late Leo Raditsa. Descended from European nobility, he was a man from another time. At his memorial service someone remarked, “We all know where Leo is now and boy – I hope the angels are ready to study Greek!”

Raditsa told me how in turn of the century Europe there were about 100 intellectuals who knew everything and knew each other (his grandfather was one) and set the tone of intellectual discourse across the continent. I asked if this was a better time then our fragmented present. He shrugged in his inimitable way and remarked, “But they destroyed themselves.”

Turn of the century Europe was a beautiful, sophisticated civilization. The flower of European youth marched into battle with the Iliad in Greek and the Aeneid in Latin in their packs. And they were killed on a massive unprecedented scale.

World War II will always overshadow World War I, and for Americans the Civil War will continue to be central to our understanding of ourselves. But World War One, a profound example of the human capacity for folly and madness, has deep lessons for us and for all time.

None of this is to lessen the heroism of the doughboys. They were called to serve and they did so (and the United States attempted to steer clear of Europe’s madness). But the talent, youth, and virtue of a generation in Europe were squandered and this should be remembered always.

Also, this is a blog about terrorism. But it is worth putting this threat into perspective. Over 8 million were killed in “War to End all Wars” – the terrorists are bad, bad people but relative chumps by comparison. This generation is fortunate in its enemies.

Finally – fix the World War One Memorial it is the least we can do to keep the lessons of history alive.

Costs of Middle East Turmoil

An article in Slate argues that turmoil in the Middle East could lead to spikes in oil prices that could lead to worldwide stagflation. No argument there. The solution:
So a bold new assistance program should be designed for the region, modeled on the Marshall Plan in Western Europe after World War II, or on the support offered to Eastern Europe afterthe collapse of the Berlin Wall. Financing should come from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as well as from the United States, the European Union, China, and the Gulf states. The goal should be to stabilize these countries' economies as they undertake their delicate political transitions.
The Washington Post’s David Ignatius makes a similar argument with a bit more detail:
How to avoid a post-democratic crackup? What's needed is a multilateral version of the Marshall Plan - that is, a framework of loans and other assistance that can steady the Arab countries as they make their transition to democracy and prosperity. America isn't really an option; we don't have the money, and our politicians wouldn't want to give it to foreigners, anyway.

But I'm happy to report that there's an answer to this Middle East puzzle. The institution that was created 20 years ago to oversee Eastern Europe's transition, known as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), is ready to take on this new mission. I talked Tuesday withThomas Mirow, its president, who said his organization is ready to act as a "bank for economic and political transition" in Egypt and neighboring countries.

The Europeans have the expertise. As Mirow notes, the new Arab democracies have the same problems that Eastern European countries did: weak private sectors; feeble small and medium-sized business; and poor infrastructure. The EBRD has the money, too, with about $17 billion in capital and the ability to raise far more from lenders. Mirow foresees providing about $1.4 billion to Egypt over the next several years, and up to twice that amount to neighboring countries. He's already thinking about opening an office in Cairo, so that Arabs will see this "bank for transition" as their own.

White House officials like Mirow's idea for assisting the new democracies of the Middle East. This approach avoids the stigma of assistance from the International Monetary Fund or the basket-case aura of aid from the World Bank. It puts Egypt and its neighbors in the same category as Poland or Bulgaria - countries whose economic and political systems were shattered by authoritarian rulers. Perhaps the European bank could partner with the Inter-American Development Bank, which has expertise in transition from "Peronist," military-led systems.
One hates to be cynical, but…

The Marshall Plan was a unique situation. But besides the Marshall Plan, has the record of international development been terribly good? Are the great economic success stories successful because of aid? True, Japan and Europe benefitted heavily from American aid after WWII. But if those countries hadn’t destroyed themselves in the WWII, they would have been prosperous without American help. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, many Eastern European countries have done well, but overall the record is a mixed-bag. Despite American aid, Russia’s wealth has primarily stemmed from energy exports – not reforming its economy and producing goods and services that are competitive in the world market.

The United States and the international community have sent billions in non-military aid to Pakistan (along with even more military aid). In particular, IMF aid to Pakistan is linked to reforms. But Pakistan resists these reforms because they would impinge on the prerogatives of key elements of Pakistan’s elites. The US, with varying degrees of intensity, has pushed similar reforms on the Egyptians. Is there any reason to believe the European Regional Development Bank will do better?

Another issue is scale. Ignatius mentions the ERDB has $1.4 billion to potentially lend to Egypt. That comes to less than $20 per Egyptian. Can funds on that level make a difference. The Marshall Plan, by comparison, dispensed $13 billion in 1948 dollars (roughly $100 billion in current dollars.)

It comes down to institutions. Eastern Europe looked west and preserved its institutions as much as it was able under the Communists. The Arab world still does not have these institutions. It is wonderful to believe that carefully targeted aid packages, but history does is not encouraging.

This is not to say that nothing can be done. The brutal reality is that aid will probably be dispensed in order to ameliorate the disorder. That may be necessary and useful in giving Egypt a chance to develop the institutions it needs to survive – or at least avoid collapsing into chaos.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Moe on the VP: Chemistry in the West Wing

Richard Moe, who had been Vice President Mondale's chief of staff, had an article in the Huffington Post about the rise of the modern vice presidency. A nice, brief overview from someone who actually knows the topic pretty well. Here is an excerpt:
Importantly, Biden gives every indication of being beyond personal ambition and solely dedicated instead to the president's agenda. Biden's predecessor, Dick Cheney, was beyond electoral ambition but not beyond personal ambition; he established a quasi-independent power center in the vice president's office that had an ideological agenda often at odds with the president's. There has not been a hint of self-promotion or free-lancing on Biden's part. He clearly understands that a vice president's influence does not depend on his visibility; just the opposite. It's no easy thing for a senator of 36 years who prizes his independence and prominence to give it all up for an office, however important, that is totally dependent on one person's discretion to delegate -- or withhold -- power. The trade-off, of course, has been the opportunity to affect policy and events in a way he never could otherwise.

Biden got off to a bit of a rocky start two years ago, but the verbal gaffes of that period have largely disappeared and the penchant for senatorial volubility has been restrained. Although they have very different life stories and personalities, he and the president have obviously developed a good personal chemistry and thus a good working relationship. It's a relationship that depends entirely on mutual trust and in the end both principals are the beneficiaries. But the country is the real beneficiary because it has a vice president whose office and abilities are being maximized for the public good, and because he will have the experience, information and skills to assume the presidency if, God forbid, he has to. Those are the two main criteria for a successful vice president in the modern era, and Biden meets them both. Thirty years ago I thought Mondale did too, but with Obama's help Biden has taken the office several levels beyond. If they keep it up, Joe Biden is on track to become the most consequential vice president in American history.
The line that caught my attention was that Obama and Biden have "good chemistry." What does that mean exactly, not simply that they like each other, although that is important. But politicians tend to be pretty likable, it is a basic characteristic of the profession. Politicians who are described as lacking charisma are still usually at least somewhat likable in person. I remember years ago at Fenway Park my friends were razzing a bullpen denizen. One of them, who is now a successful sportscaster observed, "You know, if he pitched for our college team we'd win a lot more games."

My point is that likability isn't the issue, the personal chemistry is much more than that. Nelson Rockefeller was immensely charming and remained friendly with Ford throughout the administration, yet he had limited influence. Distilling the elements of this chemistry is at the core of my thesis.

A few initial thoughts - first the VP has to actively seek to meet the President's needs. As Neustadt observed, the President as clerk has infinite demands on his time and energy. He does not need someone else giving him something to do. At the same time, the vice president is uniquely positioned to take things off the President's plate. The much derided "funeral duty" is actually an important one. The United States needs to send an appropriate representative, but flying around the world is is a huge drain on the president's time and energy. The same goes for rallying the base. With the President's confidence, these duties can be extended. As Stephen Hess wrote in a memo to Carter about expanding the VP's role:
...resist the temptation to give the vice president any assignments that the president would not assume himself if he had the time.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Modeling Middle East Turmoil

The other day Slate posted a data visualization to help understand “Which Middle Eastern countries are most susceptible to revolution?”

The visualization was neat, because it cleverly brought in four different factors (unemployment, median age, GDP per capita, and oil exporter or not.) But it also did not provide much of an obvious pattern. Libya had, by far the highest unemployment while Tunisia and Egypt (although this seems low) were more towards the middle of the pack. Tunisia has one of the highest median ages, while Egypt and Libya are again in the middle. As for GDP per capita, Libya is a substantially higher then Egypt and Tunisia (although lower then Bahrain). In short, the graphic does not point to an obvious next domino, although it does indicate that almost everyone in the region is a possible candidate.

But knowing that the nations in the Middle East are ripe for turmoil is hardly news, but the critical questions are when, where, and why. To model that problem requires a lot more variables. In one of my own efforts to model terrorist group behavior I cited Tolstoy who stated:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The same goes for troubles nations (and is there any other kind.) Since I work on this sort of thing for my bread and butter, I thought I’d kick in some thoughts on the kinds of variables needed.

Age Factor
The first thing I wanted to know when Sheikh Qaradhawi landed in Egypt was his family’s longevity. Qaradhawi is 84 so statistically he is not likely to be around for too much longer and his energy levels are likely to diminish. But, the same could be said about Khomeini (who Qaradhawi is consciously imitating.) Khomeini returned to Iran at 76 and ran the country for the next decade.

It is tough not to notice that octogenarians headed the two regimes that have fallen, Tunisia and Egypt. Libya’s Qaddhafi, who is only 68, is showing far more fight. Taking a quick scan around the region, the rulers of Morocco, Jordan, and Syria are all young. The rulers of Saudi Arabia are not.

Measuring Institutions
Age is not the killer variable that can explain all. It is related to a number of other issues. I am fascinated by organizations. Imagine a government agency or a business as a giant machine with people as the key parts. How does one evaluate if parts have broken, if the machine will do or is doing what is expected of it. Age relates to this, in that an 80 year-old dictator has been dictator for quite a while and has gotten used to his position. Since authoritarian regimes are often heavily personalized, if the dictator is not regularly engaged, then maybe the lackeys get lazy. Of course, on the other hand in Egypt and Tunisia it appears that strong institutions that had some initiative and standing independent of the president played a key role in forcing them out. Libya on the other hand doesn’t seem to have much in the way of institutions and is dominated by tribes.

Regardless, much of the information about institutions is anecdotal and not systematic. Better metrics are needed to understand organizational effectiveness and priorities. I don’t mean to denigrate anecdotes – but they need to be compiled and coded not adopted haphazardly.

Regime Character
In The Republic Socrates asks if one would rather be the tyrannical head of the house or the tyrant of the city. The other characters agree being the tyrant of a city is preferable, but Socrates disagrees, observing that the head of a household can rely on the city to support him if the household turns against him. The tyrant of the city can turn to no one.

Syria would appear ripe for overthrow, but things have been fairly quiet. Two explanations leap out. First is that by placing itself in the vanguard of the opposition to Israel the Syrian regime has some justification for its citizens sacrifices, whereas Egypt – which has both economic decline and peace with Israel – cannot offer a justification. The other explanation is that Syria is the only Sunni majority country ruled by non-Sunnis. The ruling Alawite clan has to stay on its toes in order to avoid being overthrown. Mubarak may have been able to convince himself that the Egyptian people loved him – Assad would have few such illusions. With this clarity, the secret services would not slack off and the president’s attention would not wander.

In that sense, weak regimes are strong because they need to be flexible and alert to stay in power in the face of ongoing challenges. This may apply to Jordan as well.

This is only a first stab at possible variables for a comprehensive model. Other questions might be how recently the nation suffered through internal violence, the level and nature of the oppression, and – perhaps crucially – if the leaders have somewhere to go if things fall apart. (Qadhafi doesn’t – he has long been an international pariah.)