Friday, May 31, 2013

Failing to Transition from a War Time Narrative to a Police Narrative Threatens our Security

My mom and I are excited.  24 is coming back.  More importantly, Jack Bauer is coming back.  As much as this feeds my desire for riveting television (don’t worry Homeland, there’s enough love to go around), part of me suspects this second coming of the ultimate counterterrorism show is all the more welcome for the reminder it provides of a time simpler than this one.  Surely history looks better in retrospect (just look at George W. Bush’s current approval ratings), but perhaps it is safe to say that foreign and national security policy were more clear cut when our terror narrative was us versus them.  American freedom is resented by radical Islamists who are plotting to hurt us… right?  Unfortunately, the recent Boston Marathon bombings confirmed what we knew all along.  There is no simple narrative and we certainly aren’t passive victims.

A certain amount of fatigue has set in, with studies showing that the American public accepts living with a base level of terrorist threat.  Though we have been told Al Qaeda is significantly weakened, we also know that we will be fighting myriad terrorists groups for years to come.  Political and philosophical debates will therefore continue; since 9/11 we have struggled with balancing security and civil liberties, with nationality proving to be a particularly tricky subject.  Terrorism can be homegrown, and as we have seen, some of the counterterror techniques we deem admissible for foreign offenders, find us objecting when applied to the holders of blue passports.  Boston was particularly sad in that the terrorists were not outsiders, and in the case of the younger bomber, not even overly radicalized.  To say that today’s terror and counterterror pictures are complex is not helpful nor even that insightful, but then here we are, our policies fragmented and our narrative even more so.

Despite the nontraditional format, the War on Terror began with a narrative of traditional war.  We had an enemy that was contained to a certain area of the world, with a leader that could be named.  We would hunt him and his disciples relentlessly using our military.  This storyline however, has outlived its reality.  With Osama Bin Laden eliminated and Al Qaeda’s main branch significantly weakened, we are left not with a war but with an ongoing police challenge. 

Meanwhile, the US is trying to apply the war narrative to our new task of fighting a much more fragmented enemy in various locations.  Indeed, the Pentagon recently claimed that the threat of terrorism, including Al Qaeda, would continue for decades.  Given this ongoing threat, the US would have the right to intervene anywhere it deemed necessary.  War time assumptions like this one will challenge our resources as well as our security.  Instead, the US must begin to embrace a new narrative, and in turn consistent, surgical, and strategic tactics that will allow for ongoing counterterrorism efforts without exacerbating the threat as time goes on.  If nothing else, our counterterror policy should be first to do no harm.  Latching on to our wartime narrative as we expand our counterterror efforts to new foes and new locations will only make things worse.

Instead, a police narrative (and therefore policies) would emphasize the role of law enforcement agencies at home and abroad.  Coordinated intelligence gathering, evidence, and investigation would lead to arrests and criminal prosecutions.  This would require the cooperation of foreign governments, which could aid in the struggle against terror.  Either way, international law allows action to be taken if a government is uncooperative.  Meanwhile, the use of drones is a perfect example of what it looks like to apply wartime tactics to our new police challenge.  Drone warfare has allowed for progress on the counterterror front by eliminating key personalities.  At the same time, the frequency and latitude with which the US conducts targeted killings are proving to do more harm than good.  It should also be noted that civil liberties would be more likely to suffer under a wartime mentality and would predispose the US to foreign interventions.

Gone are the days of the narrative that made terrorism easy to understand (even if incomprehensible) and television easy to write.  We must ensure that our short term choices do not lead to long term failure.  We can be safe and principled both now and later, but this requires strategy, oversight, and even courage, traits that have been missing from Washington as of late.  The US can improve by abandoning its wartime narrative, thus bringing its more controversial and fragmented policies in line with the country’s values to ensure that we are becoming smarter, safer and more consistent.  The story we have to tell as a nation is more complex than the outset of the War on Terror, but in this way it is also more real.  We cannot remain “at war” with the world and expect to see the threat of terrorism lessen.  Still, as my mom says, it will be nice to have Jack Bauer around again, just for old time’s sake.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Syria Wants to Know Who We Are

One of the largest critiques of American foreign policy is its rampant hypocrisy.  We intervene to save some, stand idle while others perish.  Sometimes our national security interests are all too apparent, sometimes they are all but invisible.  The good news is that we might be learning.  The palpable pause the Administration is taking in responding to Syria might just mean that events like arming the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, the War in Iraq, and the Arab Spring are causing us to consider the long term effects of our short term decisions.  Yet, as I soaked up various perspectives on Syria this week, I found myself looking for consistency in our justifications as much as principles. 

The conflict in Syria presents us with questions that echo to the very core of how we see the world.  Do we intervene?  Should we intervene? What are our reasons?  And perhaps most importantly, are those reasons good enough? 

Realists, Humanitarians, or Both?

It is possible to arrive at the same conclusion using different reasoning, as this week’s crop of op-eds has so aptly proven.  There seem to be two parallel tracks of arguments occurring simultaneously.  Either our course of action (inaction is included in this) in Syria is guided by humanitarian imperatives or it is guided by our own national interests.  The problem is that either line of reasoning can be used to justify either course of action.  If we are motivated to stop the slaughter of innocent civilians by their government then we must intervene if only to stop the killing.  Alternatively, since we value civilian life above all else, we simply cannot intervene to stop the current violence for fear of making it worse.  If our own national security interests top our priority list, then we must intervene to stabilize the situation, hasten the demise of Assad, and guide the new leadership.  Alternatively, for the sake of our own interests, we cannot intervene in the current fight for fear of arming future terrorists or be seen as meddling in Middle Eastern affairs.  Which is it and why?  If we embrace our realist calculations and decide not to intervene, can we ignore the humanitarian impact?  If we decide to say a crime is a crime and intervene to stop the violence, can we continue to stretch ourselves thin after an era of optional intervention?  Whatever the powers that be decide, I hope they ask themselves two questions: does our course of action make sense strategically and can we sleep at night standing by this decision?  In this way, US foreign policy can begin down the path of consistency. 

Nation Building

Syria also asks us to consider our role in foreign revolutions more broadly.  Syria’s sectarian divides are no secret, and allegiance to rebel groups is made all the more complicated by certain ties to Al-Qaeda.  Once again we are faced with an identity crisis.  Are we a proactive role model keen to influence and guide nascent leaders in the way of nation building?  Or are we a nation of realists, libertarians, or at the very least broke and tired citizens weary of telling anyone else what they should do with their own state?  The questions posed here are black and white to be sure, and grey options do exist.  We can do more in the way of foreign aid, assisting civilians still in Syria and refugees overwhelming neighboring countries such as Jordan, but this would be skirting the issue.  If we cannot clearly articulate what happens next and why, then we are destined to continue to amble through these defining moments which can only lead to tragedy in the short term and weakened security in the long term. 


Many have lamented the fact that Israel’s unilateral actions in Syria have made calculations more complicated for the US.  However, Israel’s actions are largely outside the scope of the conflict.  Yes, the recent Israeli attacks are seen as benefiting the rebels, but this is a side effect.  Israel saw the transfer of “advanced weapons” from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah as unacceptable, so they prevented it.  Some have decried this decision as unnecessary at best and hypocritically entitled at worst.  As of now however, Israel’s actions do not affect the calculations the US must make as the conflict in Syria progresses.  Israel made a decision based on clearly defined national security interests.  Our motives should be equally transparent, be they humanitarian or state-centered.  With any luck, increased transparency will force us to consider the future repercussions of our actions.

On a personal note, I have a hard time thinking that there is something the international community could do to stop useless slaughter and it either can’t or won’t.  This would constitute a structural failure of the international system and should be cause for reflection and amendment.  Some die, others don’t, is not a good enough policy.  That said, what the Administration decides to do next will have a lasting effect on the world’s impression of American foreign policy.  The decision needs to be an honest reflection of our values or interests, whatever they may be.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

No More Hurting People

I have been toying with what I would like to say about Boston.  Facebook and network news have already covered the horror of it all.  There are no suspects or motives to discuss as of yet, which one newscaster described as "a nod to coordinated professionalism."  Also well-covered is the resilience of emergency response teams as well as civilian camaraderie, a notable reminder of American and human spirit.  Therefore, in order to contribute to the conversation, I would like to comment on a feeling I've heard discussed only briefly, namely the creeping feeling of familiar tragedy.

If I could be so presumptuous as to describe the national sentiment, it would be that in addition to our sadness, there is a sense of melancholy and fatigue that comes from routine.  We will never be used to terrorist attacks, but perhaps we are not so wide-eyed as we were twelve years ago.  That many runners reported knowing a terrorist attack had occurred after hearing both blasts, is a testament to the world we live in.

Other countries know this feeling well.  Names like Baghdad, Beirut, and Tel Aviv have been tossed around in the last 24 hours as analogies are drawn to cities that experience terrorist bombings.

Muddying the already tragic waters, is the communal understanding that there is no clear way forward.  That we don't know who is responsible makes a targeted response impossible for now.  However, even if a group  is deemed responsible, what happens next?  To rid the international and national soil of the weeds of hate we have to pull up the roots.  But the pursuit of this goal has cost us on many levels and may only be sowing more seeds of future hatred.  On a more logistical level, is it really possible to secure a large-scale public event?  How much privacy and freedom of movement should we give up in the name of security, if any?

I, for one, am tired of watching my country reel from tragedy every few months, in one American town or another.  This fatigue does not condone any and all actions America chooses to take, nor does it deny the tragedy of loss of life in other places.  Indeed, many have pointed out that the U.S. is far from innocent when it comes to perpetrating violence against civilians.  Trading acts of injustice may be a demonstration of cause and effect, but it is not inevitable.  Committing acts of senseless violence against civilians is still a choice, one that is void of justification.

However this story ends, there is only one way out.  No more hurting people.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Citizen of the State

I've been experiencing that phenomenon where as soon as you learn something new, you see it everywhere.  Such has been the case with libertarianism.  I've recently been through (or rather begun) a crash course in this political ideology which is mostly diametrically opposed to mine.  Yet, unlike some neoconservative arguments, a lot of what my libertarian gurus have to say makes sense.

Gasp.  This has caused some ideological soul-searching on my part.  The timing is not coincidental, it never is.  The ten year anniversary of the start of the Iraq war has made us squeamish.  Obama is beginning his second term, and we're all noticing he's rather drone happy.  The Republicans are trying some re-branding.  We're looking at Syria and not sure what to say.  Iran is... still out there, and well, Israel remains our BFF.  Meanwhile, it's getting harder for us to verbalize our stake in the affairs of others, and we're running out of money to run out of.  This perfect storm of current events has me thinking about America's role in the world.  How can we stay safe?  How can we benefit ourselves?  How can we benefit others?  This last question is optional or irrelevant according to non-interventionists.  I, however, maintain that immense resources, capability, and relative wealth should be put to good use when necessary.  Humanitarian efforts should not be a byproduct of the reigning political ideology of the time but a fundamental human endeavor.  Just saying.

But I get it.  If government would just shrink to communal/regional entities we could keep our tax money.  We could let people do as they please as long as it doesn't harm others, and we could let the free market perform as it should.  Left to our own devices, we as citizens and consumers would be free to create what we need and come together as individuals to solve our own problems, locally.  Assuming everyone really does come together to look after one another (and this is a big assumption considering I don't currently know any of my neighbors), this sounds very nice.  Free individuals addressing problems they deem worthy of collective solutions can be effective and even loving.  The reverse is also true, and this scares me.  What happens when everyone retreats to their own gun-laden farms and everyone fends for themselves.  Are we really only as good as survival of the fittest?  I'm not the first nor the last to respond this way to the libertarian premise.  I should hope that should the federal government dissolve into the Washington granite in which it's housed, that private, innovate solutions would spring up to the benefit of all.  Still, I'm unconvinced.

I'm curious however, isn't government an expression of its people?  That eventually in our absolute liberty, we would decide to establish a few rules, maybe elect a leader or two.  Maybe we would want to engage with other countries, and so we'd send some representatives.  Aren't we just on an endpoint of a free society that has built up over the years?  Has it gotten beyond us; is that what we're asking?  I suppose the test is if popular will conflicts with legislation.  We see that with issues such as drugs and gay marriage.  But issues such as these are raised in public debate and eventually corrected.  The civil rights movement enjoyed a quicker pace thanks to government.  The much stickier issue is how to influence the policies that aren't up to the public.  What about foreign and security policy?  What's the popular will tell us about that?

Libertarian or not, liberal or not, I think now is a great time to have a sober look in the mirror.  If our national security strategy is costing us too much blood and too much treasure, that's a problem.  We need to be okay with entertaining debate that's previously been taboo.  We love our military members, but it's okay to question military involvement in places we can't connect to our national interests (not to mention thinking seriously about defense budget cuts). We think Israel is pretty great, but we can suggest policies they don't like if we think it will help.  We can ask our president to please write down his drone policy somewhere.  We've gotten ahead of ourselves.  I think that's the conclusion we come to when looking at our global reach.

I'm not about to shake my liberal ways just yet.  I don't object to a society who establishes rules and agrees to sacrifice for one another, even if mandated.  I do however, think we can do a better job at being the most reasoned, the most strategic, and the most charitable state in the room, and not just the most powerful.  My political leanings are under review to be sure, but as of now I don't object to the job of the state, just its performance.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Gatekeepers

Please check out my latest post on WIIS-Up:

This post was especially important to me, as I could combine some creative, idealistic thinking about the conflict with a reflection on Israeli internal security.  Both topics fascinate me to no end and warrant greater understanding despite their longevity.

You are welcome to comment on the post, or begin a discussion on the new WIIS-Up Facebook page:  Please visit and Like this page if you are interested in hearing more!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

21st Century Statecraft

I don't often watch TV news.  Today, however, I caught clips of the Senate confirmation hearings starring Chuck Hagel in the role of the nominee for Secretary of Defense.  A couple hours later I watched a live webcast of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's farewell address.  The two events served very different purposes, and yet both addressed a very similar topic; one that is causing politicians and citizens alike to fight, worry, and even do a little math.  The topic is that of America's role in the world today and in the future.  Not only do we all disagree on what that role should be, we worry given sequestration and debt whether we will even have the resources to implement a cohesive doctrine.

Hagel was grilled on specifics (notably his position on the surge in Iraq), but Republican objections are more broadly about Hagel's view of war, allies, and enemies.  Dissenters worry that he is too much of a dove for what should be a golden hawk pedestal.  The debate pressed the issue of how America should express its military might in halting the actions of enemies (Iran, Syria, etc.) and supporting the interests of its allies (Israel).  Many believe Hagel does not show adequate commitment to our allies, strength to our enemies, and willingness to use force.  Others, including myself, would be more than comfortable with a Secretary of Defense who is reluctant to engage in needless war and sees nuance between being a friend and being a yes-man.

Meanwhile, Secretary Clinton spoke on the subject of American leadership in the world.  She remains steadfast in the belief that America is the "indispensable nation" but while we will continue to lead, we must do so in different ways.  Clinton spoke of the various levers of power.  She urged us to get creative and make sure that we are pulling the right levers given the change occurring in the world.  After ensuring basic security, addressing the realities (and potential) of climate politics, economic injustices, the rights of women and girls, making a case for our values (as we did so well in the Cold War), and insisting on adherence to a common set of rules are all leading points on America's global agenda.  Our work is cut out for us.  We will have to use a combination of hard and soft power (read "smart power") to address the many challenges of tomorrow.  It can, however, be done and done in a way that promotes our interests and those of our allies, both old and new.

Whispers of decline, claims of heresy, and accusations of incompetence abound.  To those yelling in Congress about how we can't afford to revisit the role of the military, that we mustn't encourage regional actors to take leading roles in foreign conflicts, and that we must never engage with our enemies or critique our friends, I say that as the times change so should we.  We're not going anywhere; we can relax about that.  We, as ever, have the potential to be the world's leading force for peace and progress.  If I were to extrapolate and think of one point that Hagel and Clinton would both like to communicate, it's that as we grow older we should allow ourselves the confidence and the latitude to grow a little wiser too.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Tale of Two Mandates

Check out my latest post reflecting on a moment in time in both Israeli and American politics: