IN THE NEWS Today is going to be insanely busy, so posting will be limited. However, before things got too crazy, I had to share this clever video, in which Tony Blair does The Clash. (Joe Strummer, how we miss you.)
IN THE NEWS In the final days of the Stalingrad siege, the Pitomnik airfield—the lifeline to the outside world for the encircled Wehrmacht forces, trapped in Stalingrad—fell under fire. Soviet mortars and howitzers rained an increasing number of shells onto to the tarmac, destroying parked aircraft. Landing or taking off increasingly became a game of Russian roulette (sorry). Before the Germans completely lost control of the airfield, Soviet tanks and infantry occasionally raided the facility, adding to the growing risk.
Several days ago, the US secretary of state, Condoleeza Rica, visited Baghdad. Her plane could not land for 40 minutes because insurgents were firing rockets at the landing strip. Later, Rice wore a helmet and body armor, in case snipers took a shot at her.
I'm not making this comparison to suggest that, like Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-3, Baghdad is about to fall to its besiegers. Iraqi insurgents do not have the combat strength to evict American and Iraqi forces. (Obviously, that's not their strategy.) Regardless of your enemy's strategy, when you can't secure the airport connecting a major city to the outside world, the war effort is definitely going badly.
IN THE NEWS A while back, I joined the mob of bloggers that were posting "worst music video ever" entries. Today, I'll break from the usual seriousness to share this clever "Battle of the bands" video. (It's violent and risque, so you're warned.)
And heck, while I'm at it, why not throw in this Marvel/DC crossover?
No response. Sure, Little Green Footballs is more focused on the Middle East than other regions, but it's hardly the only place where North Korea is getting practically no attention.
Blame Clinton. Senator John McCain's accusation that the Clinton Administration is to blame for this week's DPRK nuclear test is a lightning rod among conservative opinion writers. In some cases, McCain's statement is the only thing that's missing.
North Korea is bad. Some authors, such as Hoagland, focused exclusively on how dangerous and erratic Kim Jong Il is. That's a lot like, in the 1930s, focusing on how bad Hitler was, without really talking about whether the British or French governments could have done something to halt the annexation of Czechoslovakia.
In short, there's not any willingness to admit that the current Administration failed to deter the DPRK from testing a nuclear weapon. There's another important question that these writers are failing to address: What now?
In that sense, it's worth looking at how the defenders of Bush might mirror bad tendencies among the critics of Bush. It's not enough to scream Nyah-nyah! when people you don't like appear to have fallen on their faces. (For example, the ethics allegations directed at Senator Harry Reid are headline news on practically all the sites I polled.) You have to have some constructive alternatives to propose.
In these pages, I've had a lot of critical things to say about the Bush Administration's Iraq policies, and the way the US military has been fighting the counterinsurgency war there. However, I've also tried to delineate strategies that would work better than the ones being pursued today. My goal is not to say, "I don't like so-and-so, and here's why he's an idiot." Instead, it's to say, "Here are the mistakes our government has made, and how we should rectify them."
When Clinton was in office, I often disagreed with his positions. For example, I thought the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was doomed to failure. I also had my doubts about the long-term effects of NAFTA. During the Nineties, the US also seemed to have lost an opportunity to make more aggressive steps to cut dependence on oil imports, a topic that usually only gets addressed during a crisis in the Middle East (or, recently, confrontations with the Venezuelan government.) I would have been glad to discuss these problems while he was in office. If the person for whom I had voted in 2004 were in office (hint: it wasn't Bush), I'd be glad to dissect what went wrong with his Korean policies, if in 2006 the North Koreans had tested a nuclear weapon.
In other words, I'm a bit disgusted with a collection of Bush supporters who, at a key moment in US history after the Cold War, are not willing to even discuss what went wrong. (Except, of course, to try to deflect blame on someone who hasn't been President for more than five years.) It's also a chastening moment, a reminder of what sort of pitfalls bloggers like Atrios and the many opinion writers at Smirking Chimp can find themselves just as easily as the Little Green Footballs.
Five years after Arab terrorists attacked the United States, only 33
FBI agents have even a limited proficiency in Arabic, and none of them
work in the sections of the bureau that coordinate investigations of
international terrorism, according to new FBI statistics.
As Poliblogger notes, what makes this story doubly infuriating is how it came to light. An Egyptian-born agent--one of the few who can speak Arabic, apparently--sued the FBI because he was cut out of terrorism-related cases. If he hadn't sued, it's not clear when someone might have noticed that the FBI is as about as proficient at monitoring or interviewing Arabic-speaking suspects as, oh, they were before the 9/11 attacks. Accountability, anyone?
IN THE NEWS The Navy lawyer in the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case did not receive his promotion, so he's leaving the Navy. In case you don't know how the modern US military handles personnel decisions, the "up or out" policy means that, once you reach clearly-defined landmarks in your career as an officer, you've either earned a promotion, or you don't have the right stuff for staying in the US military.
As you might imagine, these landmarks are very clearly defined, as are the requirements for going to the next career step. Which means, there's some kind of paper trail about the Navy's denial of Swift's promotion. Hmmm...
IN THE NEWS Traditional naval strategy is a lot like traditional doctrine for ground warfare: the focus is on the equivalent enemy force. For navies, that means anti-ship capability, which in modern times has extended to anti-submarine capability. A tertiary concern, though not far behind the other two, is how to eliminate the threat from land-based aircraft.
Ever since Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote his classic treatise on naval strategy, naval professionals have framed their concern in Mahan-esque terms. In a nutshell, navies either sought to control the seas, permitting complete "freedom of action." Fleets could decide where to go and what to do—protect shipping lanes, support amphibious operations, strike at targets within an ever-increasing radius of attack.
Navies that couldn't win control of the seas weren't necessarily out of the game. They could still pursue a sea denial strategy, in which the enemy's navy never had complete freedom of action. Submarines, aircraft, and surface raiders could attack convoys. Ships moving to strike at ground targets might be vulnerable to attack. Amphibious units were at risk of being sunk before they landed. Sea denial might raise the cost of naval operations high enough where the stronger enemy might not succeed at every operation that it needed to ultimately win the war. In that case, sea denial might force the enemy to reconsider the war effort altogether.
While this Mahanesque worldview might make better sense of past conflicts, such as the WWI naval struggle between Great Britain (sea control) and Germany (sea denial), it seems to have little to do with the world today. Given the US Navy's overwhelming superiority in aircraft carriers, attack submarines, land-based air, anti-submarine assets (destroyers, aircraft, and other submarines), cruise missile-armed surface ships, and sea lift capability, it appears capable of going wherever it wants, and doing whatever it wants. Most adversaries, such as Iran during its brief effort to stop oil tankers from safely moving through the Persian Gulf in the 1980s, seem doomed from the start to lose what few naval and air forces they have, to pursue even the most humble sea denial strategies.
The most obvious exception is China, whose recent naval expansion could seriously complicate US efforts to defend Taiwan in a crisis. China's larger, more modern submarines and frigates certainly raise the risk that the US Navy might actually lose ships in defense of Taiwan—without even factoring the Chinese air force into the equation.
The Chinese sea denial threat is not the only one, however. A conflict with Russia is far less likely, so the concern has less to do with the capabilities of the Russian navy than the political status quo between Russia and the United States. While military planners have to take into account what might happen if international relations were to take drastic, unexpected turns, the Russian navy seems like a very distant threat right now.
There is a far more imminent threat to the US Navy, however, that just increased dramatically in the last few days. Even if the North Koreans fail to develop a short-range or medium-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, they could "deliver" a nuclear weapon in more mundane ways. A nuclear weapon hidden on a boat, or smuggled into South Korea by land, threatens not only targets on the ground, but targets at sea. A nuclear detonation close to an American carrier battle group might spell a catastrophic loss—exactly the kind of "sea denial" scenario that Mahan described.
How could the United States and its allies respond? The logic of this situation inevitably leads to a blockade of North Korean ports. Nothing could exit without being searched—or, perhaps, exit at all. Either way, the US Navy would station what it deems its most valuable assets, the carrier battle groups, far away from where North Korean shipping would be searched or sunk. The "littoral navy," therefore, would be the most important component of the blockade.
Even if North Korea were not thinking in these terms—and it would be amazing if they weren't—Iran certainly is. Faced with a similar risk of a nuke on a boat, the problem of blockading Iranian ports would be even more challenging. The Persian Gulf is more constrained, and more potential targets—oil tankers, other countries, American warships—would be a lot closer at hand. There are a lot more ships moving in and out of Gulf ports, and the sustaining the cooperation of every country along that narrow waterway would be much harder.
Certainly, there's a chance that neither the Iranian nor the North Korean regime would be crazy enough to detonate a nuclear weapon close enough to its own territory that it would suffer some of the damage inflicted. As generations of nuclear strategists can tell you, that's the essence of brinksmanship: convincing the other side that you're just crazy enough to use nuclear weapons, knowing the likely consequences to yourself. Kim Jong Il has successfully built that kind of erratic, dangerous persona. Here's where the DPRK's inability to create a large nuclear weapon isn't necessarily a problem. A smaller bomb would still give naval planners fits, while lowering the risk that North Korean population centers would suffer the shockwaves and radiation from the blast. In other words, a smaller nuclear bomb might make the "nuke on a boat" threat more credible, not less.
We've definitely entered a new era of international relations with the North Korean nuclear test. The Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, while frightening, raised the risk of war between those two countries reaching catastrophic proportions. The ripple effects of the North Korean test—for example, a potential nuclear arms race among North Korea, China, and Japan, with consequences for the nuclear calculations of India, Russia, and the United States—are more far-reaching. We're back to Mahan's problem of sea denial—but not with the tools Mahan had envisioned to solve it.
IN THE NEWS The defense experts quoted in this New York Times
article believe that a North Korean nuclear arsenal is supposed to
compensate for the deficiencies of the DPRK's army. If that analysis is
correct, it will be even harder to stop North Korea from taking further
steps in its nuclear program, especially given the public confrontation
Kim Jong Il has manufactured with the rest of the world. In a way, you
have to want this analysis to be wrong--particularly since it could
just as easily be applied to Iran.
IN THE NEWS Fred Kaplan provides this excellent summary of the events leading up to the North Korean nuclear test. In a different article, he lays out four possible outcomes. I'll add a fifth likely consequence: other countries, primarily from the European Union, try to take the lead on non-proliferation, where the United States has failed to effectively deter North Korea and Iran. If the Bush Administration doesn't change its strategy for dealing with nuclear aspirants like North Korea, we'll see a growing division between the US government and its allies on this question.
IN THE NEWS Suppose you have a neighbor whom everyone on your block has good reason to believe is dangerous. He drinks heavily, then gets into nearly-incomprehensible shouting matches with his neighbors over imagined slights. He talks in vague terms about how he's going to get the respect he deserves. You've become a particular target for this person, ever since the day you called the police when you heard him smashing every breakable object in his house. You now get threatening messages pushed into your mailbox, written anonymously, but obviously from him.
The police are supposed to be keeping an eye on your neighbor. Unfortunately, that didn't stop him from trying to shoot you when you were unloading the groceries from your car earlier today. When the police showed up, they shrugged, saying there was little they could have done to prevent the incident. Now, the situation really gets ugly: they can't find the gun he used, and no one else was a witness. The confrontation with you neighbor will have to escalate. You don't exactly feel safe--particularly since, before today, you haven't seen one patrol car go by his house, or one police officer stop by to check up on things.
You call the police department to complain about their lax approach to this threat. If the desk sergeant on the other end of the line were to say, "Gosh, you have to give us the benefit of the doubt on police matters," I can bet what your reaction might be.
Unfortunately, that's exactly the line that Tony Snow, White House press secretary, took during today's questions about North Korea. Snow went even further, claiming that any question of whether the Bush Administration could have done a better job at deterring the North Koreans was "silly."
Let's compare this incident to how another President handled a clear foreign policy failure. John F. Kennedy had to face the music on the Bay of Pigs invasion. Not only did the Cuban army crush the small force of anti-Castro exiles, at a time when Cold War tensions about Communist penetration into the Western hemisphere was at an all-time high, but the public would soon learn that the Kennedy Administration had lied about the US government's backing of this misconceived operation.
Kennedy's first response was a speech to the American Association of Newspaper Editors (click here for the audio, and here for a transcript). Barely three months in office, the new president hardly tucked his tail between his legs. He did, however, admit that the US government could and would endure failures during the Cold War:
We intend to profit from this lesson. We intend to re-examine and reorient our forces of all kinds-cur tactics and our institutions here in this community. We intend to intensify our efforts for a struggle in many ways more difficult than war, where disappointment will often accompany us.
The next day, during a press conference, Kennedy was more forthright into taking responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. "There's an old saying,'" Kennedy said, "that
victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan. . . . I am the
responsible officer of the government and that is quite obvious."
It wasn't a perfect admission of failure, and it was a while before Americans heard the complete, ugly story about the Bay of Pigs. It was, however, a critical moment, when Kennedy took responsibility from that point forward. (Later, some of the top officials behind the secret planning and support for the Bay of Pigs operation, such as CIA Director Allen Dulles, lost their jobs because of this fiasco.)
Rather than lambasting him for his failure, many Americans--including some likely critics--respected Kennedy for taking immediate responsibility. His willingness to be accountable made it easier to give him the benefit of the doubt in future foreign policy crises, such as the Berlin confrontation and the Cuban Missile Crisis. However frightening or uncertain events looked at the moment, someone nominally in charge accepted that he was really in charge.
Kim Jong Il is just as reprehensible as Stalin or Khrushchev. The presidents who oppose him have to be just as willing to be held accountable as their predecessors. As Kennedy showed, American presidents receive the benefit of the doubt after they have appeared to accept the mantle of responsibility.