The double whammy

The double legacyof Bush Republicanism ain hastening American decline.

Paul Krugman, discussing commodity prices, posts a nice chart of recent trends in the world economy. Developing countries are recovering much better than rich ones.

Krugman modestly forgets to point out that he had something to do with this. He and Joseph Stiglitz may be treated as weird bearded hippies in Washington; but beards, Nobel Prizes, and sound analysis seem to go down better in Asia. They are listened to with respect, ever since Krugman defended Malaysia’s capital controls during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Stiglitz subsequently blamed the whole thing on the misguided sectarian pressure on developing countries from the IMF and the World Bank to open up their financial markets and allow the miracles of Wall Street financial innovation to work their magic. Somehow this always happened to work out better for the bankers than Third Worlders in the street.

The trenchant criticisms of Krugman, Stiglitz and Sachs have provided vital intellectual cover to burnt-fingered Third World finance ministers in pushing back successfully against this pillar of the Washington consensus. So successfully that the policy plank has been quietly dropped by the World Bank and IMF – which has even been pushing the Russian government to reintroduce capital controls.

Capital controls may well have prevented the banking crisis in the very financially interdependent rich countries from propagating to the rest of the world. Typical developing countries only faced a trade slump: nasty while it lasted, but no permanent damage, unlike a banking crisis, which leaves the victims enfeebled by debt overhangs and broken credit channels for years.

Krugman’s chart also bears thinking about in geopolitical terms. Continue reading “The double whammy”

“The kill team”

The WaPo has a chilling story from Afghanistan about a platoon that decided to engage in a little bit of recreational murder and trophy-hunting.

It seems as if one platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan decided that a war zone was a good place to engage in a little bit of recreational murder. As far as the story shows, this wasn’t panic or revenge; they weren’t especially scared or angry. They just decided to kill some Afghans and keep some trophies, including a skull.

The fact that this sort of thing happens in war is always a good argument against going to war, but the fact that it it happened once – at least – in Afghanistan doesn’t seem to me to tell us much we didn’t already know about this particular war.

It does appear that the Army was pretty damned un-interested in following up when one soldier told his father what was going on and the father tried to stir up an investigation. The case broke because the same unit was being investigated for – wait for it – hashish use.

Now we get to see whether Wingnuttia makes the accused heroes, like Lt. Calley, or whether the fact that they were drug users as well as – allegedly – murderers puts them in the “bad guy” category.

In a sensible world, the recruiting files of all the men involved would be pulled, and searched for hints of trouble that the recruiters should have picked up. I’m not sure we live in that world.

George F. Will Cuts and Runs

George Will is going to call for a ground troop pullout from Afghanistan. Is he right?

According to Politico, George Will’s next column will call for a withdrawal of US ground troops from Afghanistan:

“[F]orces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters,” Will writes in the column, scheduled for publication later this week.

So now it’s time for the real questions:

1) What do we know about this strategy’s ability to interdict Al Qaeda units? It sounds great and high-tech and sexy. Note: not just special forces units, but POTENT special forces units (as opposed to Limbaugh special forces units?). It relies on “intelligence”: do we have any human intelligence in Afghanistan? (Insert joke here: you know what I mean). But does it really mean anything?

2) In the pre-9/11 period, we would have loved to have done that, but could not get access to doing it. At times, Pakistan would allow flyovers, but the ISI is so infiltrated by Al-Qaeda sympathizers that it was pointless: Bin Laden would always be alerted. So that seems to imply a large presence in the participatory democracy of Uzbekistan. How confident are we of maintaining that presence?

3) And if the answers to these questions are 1) we don’t know; and 2) we don’t know, are we prepared to say, “yes, this will increase the chance of Al Qaeda reconstitution and the terrorism that would come with that, but that is a better deal than getting caught in quagmire”? The Republicans, who can reliably be counted to put party over country, will accuse Obama of selling out no matter what he does. So at least at some level the politics have to be considered.

Foreign Policy is not Pretty: India-Pakistan Edition

Pakistan diverted American counter-terrorism assistance to buy weapons to use against India. The Bush Administration knew about it, and did nothing. And that might have been the right course.

Headlines today in the Times of India and the Deccan Chronicle with a disturbing, and to me initially outrageous story:

The Pentagon has confirmed one of South Asia’s worst kept secrets – that Pakistan has used billions of dollars of US aid to buy a mind-boggling array of conventional American weaponary to use against India.

The aid was meant for Pakistan to fight the war on terror. India has repeatedly pointed out that much of the military hardware on Pakistan’s shopping list was not suited to anti-terror operations. Now, Pentagon reports have revealed that even the money poured into Islamabad’s coffers by the Bush administration fter 9/11 specifically to fight al Qaida and the Taliban, was used to develop offensive capabilities against India.

The Pentagon reports detail the brazen diversion of funds given to Pakistan between 2002 and 2009 and the Pervez Musharraf government — often described by George W Bush as America’s “strong” ally in the “war against terror” – to acquire arms ranging from anti-tank missiles to F 16s. The arsenal was meant to blunt India’s edge in conventional weaponry

So let me get this straight. Pakistan busily supports the Taliban for several years, winks at Al-Qaeda presence in its northwest frontier provinces, and sponsors terrorism in Kashmir and Bombay. In return for this, we let them spend counterrorism funds to prepare for war against democratic India, which we are trying to develop better relations with. Who are these morons?

And then I thought about it a little more.

Pakistan isn’t going to fight a conventional war against India. It lost horribly the last time it tried, and if anything, the correlation of forces has tilted toward India since then. Islamabad has a nuclear deterrent, and in any event, it can bleed New Delhi much more effectively and cheaply by sponsoring terrorists.

“Counterrorism” im Pakistan is a predominantly a political effort, not a military one. That means we need allies within Pakistan. One potential ally is the military: the generals might become a countervailing force against Pakistani intelligence, which has tight links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda and operates outside the military chain of command.

So, the thinking might go, this military hardware is a way of buying allies in Pakistan: that weaponry thus is counter-terrorism hardware. Let the generals and admirals have their toys; they’ll realize that it makes sense to work with the US, and they can try to undermine the ISI within Pakistan.

That might work. That might not work. But nothing else has. And it’s not crazy or unreasonable. It’s just really, really ugly. Get me some Pepto-Bismol.

Deaf, dumb and blind spooks

Buried in this story is a paragraph that made me blink:

The CIA recently reported that a small fraction of its overall workforce — about 13 percent — is fluent in a second language. Among officers of the agency’s National Clandestine Service, to which most foreign-deployed officers are assigned, the figure is about 30 percent.

Wait…this is a college-educated workforce, right – thirteen percent? Thirteen?

And – thirty percent? …not “the language of the country they’re working on”, any second language, including French and Spanish, which must be a large fraction. I guess if the Aussies or Canadians or Texans are up to something we’ll be on top of it in a flash, unless they’re counting Strine as foreign. And anyway, if people are plotting against us in Urdu or some damn hard language, it’ll just serve them right if we ignore them, let ’em wait their turn for the translator if they’re going to be difficult and stuffy like that.

UPDATE: A reader talks me down some: this problem may be part language skill deficiency and part administrivia/data resolution issues. If there are lots of people with effective command of useful languages out among the cubicles and the consulate basements who aren’t fluent enough for a pay bonus, can the system find them to do actual work? …or are their practical skills invisible to managers except by accident? Why is the pay system so lumpy and stingy with incentives?

Regarding this language issue 13% may not be real accurate. The standards for language proficiency and the testing process can produce some really skewed results. At DHS/ICE prior to my retirement in 2004 we used the DOS testing group. Applying the standards and following testing my colleague, born and educated through High School in Odessa, was not considered fluent in Russian and was not eligible for the incentive pay for language. Similarly some other colleagues who are native speakers of Spanish but illiterate in Spanish also failed to be certified. Based on this I never took the test as a speaker of French,German and Romanian even though we only speak primarily Romanian with a smattering of German at home. Its my opinion that some folks I worked with, myself included, couldn’t pass in English based on what I have heard.

What to do with the CIA

I think Amy Zegart goes beyond the evidence about the current value of the CIA, even though I would not favor abolishing it per se. I would favor making it prove the value of its functions in the context of national security resource allocation, and let certain functions wither away if they cannot be demonstrated to be valuable. I would also create multiple competing centers within the intelligence community, opening up the system to innovation.

Amy Zegart’s black and white arguments for preserving the CIA strike me as anachronistic and as begging the question of whether the CIA does its unique missions well.

In general I don’t think much is achieved by reorganization, and “abolishing the CIA” would prompt a political bloodbath, and so I would not be particularly in favor of abolishing the CIA. There are definitely some unique capabilities within CIA that should be saved.

I offer the following with some caution, because as is commonly suggested, the CIA’s successes may still be secret while its failures often become common knowledge. But I’m not sure anyone at CIA or elsewhere really understands its proper role in the “intelligence community” where the old “Director of Central Intelligence” role of the CIA director as head of the intelligence community has been taken over by the Director of National Intelligence. That is why this terrain needs to be reviewed in a classified fashion by a body responsible primarily to the president that is offline from current operations. (I would have it report through White House Counsel Greg Craig rather than through former CIA deputy director John Brennan who is now the White House Intelligence chief, through the DNI, or even through the NSC.).

Responses to Amy’s arguments in turn at the Jump:

Continue reading “What to do with the CIA”

Don’t Kill the CIA

It was only a matter of time before the torture debate turned on the CIA. Matthew Yglesias has done it, suggesting that we “consider” abolishing the agency. This would be a great idea if it weren’t completely wrong.

It was only a matter of time before the torture debate turned on the CIA. Matthew Yglesias has done it, suggesting that we “consider” abolishing the agency. This would be a great idea if it weren’t completely wrong. Let me suggest just a few reasons why:

Continue reading “Don’t Kill the CIA”

Resist Neatness in Dividing up the World

Bureaucratic efficiency is not always a good thing. The National Security Advisor’s push to align regional dividing lines throughout the national security agencies is probably a mistake. Jim Jones should take pointers from McGeorge Bundy’s time as National Security Advisor.

Over at, Laura Rozen reports that National Security Advisor Jim Jones wants to conform the regional boundaries of State Department bureaus and NSC senior directorships to the boundaries of the military commands.

This proposal makes a certain amount of sense on the surface, and would certainly make decision-making more efficient.

But there is danger in having geographic “seams” aligned across the entire government: all departments will have the same blind spots and trouble integrating across them.

I think its worth having some people routinely having to go to two sets of meetings to cover overlaps, so that the government as a whole has more integrated coverage of the world.

Rozen also suggests that Jones’s hierarchical approach is clashing with Obama’s tendency to seek out expertise from various levels. If this read on Obama is accurate, it’s a return to John F. Kennedy’s style, and Jones would be wise to emulate McGeorge Bundy in accommodating it. If Jones hasn’t already done so, he should read Ivo Daalder and Mac Destler, In the Shadow of the Oval Office (Simon and Schuster, 2009).

Who Cares What the CIA Thinks?

Instead of complaining about the release of the torture memos, the CIA ought to work on being a decent intelligence service.

That’s not a rhetorical question: despite the phrasing, it is a real one.

Joe Klein reports that in light of the release of the torture memos,

there are real concerns in the intelligence community–and a potential rebellion in the clandestine service, according to one veteran spook I spoke with. The White House was aware of these concerns and I think Obama has taken some steps, in his statement on the release, to ameliorate the problems, but he and Leon Panetta may be facing a serious morale problem and a slew of retirements at a moment when the need for undercover work is extremely urgent, especially in the Iraqi and Af/Pak theaters.

But this assumes that the current CIA has actually been an enormous asset to US national security. And that is anything but sure.

As Tim Weiner has conclusively demonstrated, the CIA has anything but a stellar record over the last, oh, six decades. On virtually every major strategic shift of the postwar era, the CIA has been caught completely flat-footed.

And little wonder: the Agency is simply not very good at what it does. Edward Shirley, a pseudonymous former case officer, reported in the Atlantic Monthly in 1998 that no one on the Iran desk spoke Farsi. No one seemed to notice that there was a problem with agent Aldrich Ames.

Maybe the best thing that could happen is that the CIA would be completely cleaned out, and replaced with a bunch of naive rookies. It might be better than a bunch of naive veterans.

Maybe I’m wrong; maybe the CIA has been quite successful. But it is time that someone provides some evidence for it.

Calling General Scowcroft

On defense policy, it’s time for Brent Scowcroft to slap down the nutcases.

72 hours into Robert Gates’ proposed and long-overdue restructuring of the US military, Brian Beutler sums up the disquieting scene:

1. Very few politicians have spoken up in support of it.

2. Many of the people speaking out against it are portraying it inaccurately as a “soft-on-defense” spending cut.

3. This meme has found a fairly strong foothold in the media, which has

4. Given me quite a bit of work to do this week.

The power of the military brass on Capitol Hill puts AIPAC to shame.

So–to use a military metaphor–maybe it’s time to call in some reinforcements.

That would be Brent Scowcroft, George HW Bush’s National Security Advisor, and Gates’ mentor. Scowcroft famously broke with the neocons over Iraq. In comparison, this is child’s play. I find it hard to believe he doesn’t agree with his protege on this one as well. Time to speak up.

Maybe this guy could be of some assistance, too. The brass hates him, too: time for some payback.