Apr 12

Eric C’s Response to Michael C

Michael C and I are twins. Thus, the one thing I hate most is saying that Michael C is right and I’m wrong. And yet...

Michael C is right, and I’m partially wrong. (Thus, this isn’t really a rebuttal to Michael C’s post last week.)

Friday morning after America launched missiles at a Syrian air base, I was pretty upset, so I wrote up my post from last week, and I still stand by my initial emotional reaction. But Michael C, at the time and since, kept saying I was over-reacting. A few days later, I’m less shocked but still angry, especially since the airstrikes seem entirely pointless:

- The air base that launched the chemical attacks is still operational.

- We alerted the Russians to exactly what we were going to do, meaning Assad almost assuredly knew what we were going to do. (Contradicting Trump’s previous statements about the element of surprise.)

- The Trump administration waffled on what the next steps would be, with multiple figures in the administration contradicting each other.

- This does nothing to help civilians in Syria, including children, Trump’s stated reason for the attack, and Syria has already re-attacked the same neighborhood.

- And Trump still wants to ban Syrian refugees (again, including children) from the U.S.

In short, we achieved nothing, except we killed a reported four to fifteen Syrian soldiers.

It was predictably unpredictable, as I wrote in my first post and as we’ve written about Trump since the inauguration. The guys over at Vox released an awesome podcast the day after the attacks, where Ezra Klein made the excellent comparison to the financial crisis, describing how rational actors operating under wrong assumptions can lead to disaster. Since both our allies and enemies can’t feel certain of how America will respond to a crisis, the chances of a disaster increases. Trump is making the entire international system incredibly uncertain. (Which must frustrate the hell out of realists, since so much of their underlying system relies on rational actors.)

The raison d’etre for our non-interventionist approach to foreign policy is the unpredictability of war, the chances that conflicts spiral out of control. Who knows what consequences Trump’s actions could have? Who can confidently predict it? That’s the source of my unease. I never would have predicted Trump would have taken these actions. Who knows what Putin, Assad or Rouhani may do in response? Which is exactly why we opposed getting involved in Syria in the first place three years ago.

We have a ton of other thoughts on Trump’s airstrikes on Syria, especially on how the media and politicians reacted to it (If we treat it as a mini-test run of how the media will react when the country goes to war, we failed.) My initial lesson is one we’ve stated again and again on the blog: don’t chase the headlines, and wait for more information to come out. A few days later, this is my main takeaway.

Still, I reserve the right to be outraged. Just because we thought President Trump would do stupid things that would get people killed doesn’t mean we can’t be angry when he does stupid things that get people killed.

Michael C’s Rebuttal

Re-reading my post on Syria from last week, I need to make one thing clear: I don’t support this style of foreign policy.

Trump’s style is unpredictable at best and incoherent at worst. His foreign policy/national security staff is either being filled slowly (at best) or deliberately left mostly empty (at worst). His fawning for the military to solve all problems is either extreme nationalism (at best) or fascistic (at worst). Therefore, we get situations where President Trump uses military strikes to allegedly help babies when President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly targeted civilians (and babies) in this civil war, also a violation of international norms. (And we refuse to let Syrian refugees into our country.)

Trump should have gone to Congress to get approval for a Syria policy. Trump should have a clear strategy. Trump should staff up the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon so he can craft a foreign policy. That would make decisions like this easier. Not easy, but at least easier.

So I don’t support Trump in this attack and think his recklessness will continue, which is why this attack never surprised me.

Apr 12

It seems that everyone from the political left, right and center has had to overreact to the events in Syria from last week, including my co-writer. When it comes to Trump, it seems awfully tempting to veer into wild hyperbole. So before I respond to Eric C, I want you, the reader, to answer this question: How many countries did President Obama drop bombs on (via plane, drone, cruise missile or other) during his administration?

We’ll wait.

You made your guess? No seriously, don’t keep reading until you make a guess.

Eric C guessed 7. I (Michael C) guessed 8. I have a feeling most people--but not our readers--will think it is less.

Well, Eric C was right. In 2016 alone, according to Micah Zenko, the U.S. dropped bombs on at least 7 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan and Somalia. (Those are the countries we have been at war in/with during the Obama administration.)

The sheer number of strikes should make you gasp too. Again, according to Micah Zenko, who we trust and respect, the number was over 26,000 in 2016 alone. 26,000!

So President Trump fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Is that high or low? Given that Obama launched an average of 76 strikes per day in 2016, it is right on course for a contemporary US president. (For instance, we know the military under Trump launched strikes in Mosul last month.)

So before we use these strikes as evidence that Trump is now a warhawk, or impulsive, or somehow “presidential”, let’s understand the context. The introduction above is that context. So let’s debunk the other myths about this missile strike.

Myth 1: This is a huge escalation of the conflict in Syria.

It isn’t, not until troops put boots on the ground, which likely would have happened when the Pentagon presented Trump a plan to defeat ISIS (he signed an Executive Order demanding that, remember?). In our post on the likeliest countries for Trump to go to war, Syria was second. Second! We’ve also put more boots on the ground in Iraq under Obama to fight ISIS, which could lead into a war with/in Syria.

Again, this isn’t to say that these missile strikes don’t make getting involved less likely. It definitely makes it more likely. But we were trending toward intervention after Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric on defeating ISIS. (And yeah, we probably already have special operators on the ground in Syria anyways, but you know what I mean.)

Myth 2: No, it’s a huge escalation because it attacks Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

This is true. We have shifted enemies from “Just ISIS” to “Both ISIS and Assad.” But knowing Trump could reverse himself in a week means we can only read some much into this.

Also, it has to be noted that Obama considered this exact same strategy. And the night before Trump launched the attacks, Hillary Clinton said she would have done the exact same thing. That shows that Trump’s attacks were really a part of a policy that is really in the mainstream of current establishment thinking. And something generals have wanted for years. Really this isn’t a “huge” escalation in the Trump sense, but just a standard escalation by any US president.

Myth 3: This is Trump’s first military action.

How quickly we forget! In January, Trump authorized special operators to attack a compound in Yemen. We know civilians died. We know suspected terrorists died. We know a special operator died. So blood had already been shed by Trump, and if Yemen continues the way it is going, I could see an escalation there as well. In fact, the Trump administration has openly pondered expanding their Yemen operations.

Myth 4: Now we know Trump is reckless.

Wait, we needed evidence that Trump is reckless and foolhardy and flip-flops on everything he says and does? We already knew that. This is what we wrote before the election:

“Donald Trump is a complete liability if he were to take over the office of the President. Since he has no guiding principles in foreign policy, he could do anything, which makes him a complete liability with nuclear weapons and our military.”

Trump went through three campaign chairmen during the election. He breaks political and international norms on a weekly basis. Trump has irritated almost every US ally with the things he said. He even blamed American generals for losing a soldier in Yemen! Did we need him to impulsively attack a country to know he was impulsive?

No, we didn’t. I wrote about it here. And here. And here. This instead just confirms our Bayesian prior, to use the FiveThirtyEight language of it all. We suspected he would use military force flippantly, and he has. This doesn’t make it more or less likely than before, I would say it makes it exactly as likely.

Myth 5: This attack was illegal.

Not really. Under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed after 9/11, as long as a President links a military operation to fighting groups that are allied with Al Qaeda, he can use military force. I’m sure Trump has a lawyer who can make the same connection, even though this attack targeted a government base that “opposes” Al Qaeda. (Need a refresher on the AUMF? RadioLab has you covered here.)

The problem is with the AUMF. It is so short but so broad that a President can use it to go to war with almost any country he wants to. That’s how President Obama got his authorization for 26,000 plus strikes on seven countries.

But who is going to stop Trump? The Republicans? Will they demand he follow the AUMF more closely? They refuse to take a vote on anything that could be politically damaging. They also refuse to oppose Trump on any issue. So as long as he says he was allowed to do this strike on the AUMF, and Republicans don’t expressly oppose him, then this isn’t illegal.

(Should we repeal that AUMF? Of course. Will we? I doubt it.)

We don’t support this strike, but it doesn’t change anything.

Let’s be clear. I really don’t support striking Syria without a larger strategy. Or Congressional approval. And I don’t think this shows that President Trump is consistent or somehow good at foreign policy. Nothing has shown me that to date.

But I don’t want to over-react just because he is Trump.

Apr 10

(This is the first post in a series on Syria. Hopefully, we don’t have to write more after the next two weeks, but if we do here’s all our thoughts.)

A few weeks ago, we wrote a post titled, “Where Will Trump Go to War?”. In it, we wrote this:

2. Syria or Iraq

The logic here is pretty straight-forward. Trump’s former National Security Advisor called ISIS an “existential threat” (it isn’t) and it stuck. So Trump has called for the elimination of ISIS, most recently at his address to Congress...

“...The question is whether this conflict spirals into America’s third major occupation of the region. You cannot eliminate ISIS from the air. And if you have to rely on allies in the region, that may include vile dictatorships like Syria or even Iran, who Trump hates. As Fareed Zakaria reported last weekend, ISIS is on the ropes anyways due to sustained fighting in both Syria and Iraq. But if something goes wrong, especially a terror attack, I could see an easily escalation of military conflict.”

This wasn’t really a prediction, per se. We were just outlining the possible courses of action Trump could take. And yet we completely missed the version of history where Trump turns against Assad. We didn’t even see it coming. There’s a good reason for this:

Trump said as much. Repeatedly.

Trump made it clear--before, during and after the campaign--that he didn’t want to attack Assad. This would include a tweetstorm in 2013 warning Obama not to get involved in Syria. This included praising Assad, saying “he’s much tougher and much smarter than [Hillary] and Obama” during the final debate, as we tweeted earlier this week. And yet, one chemical attack (an attack extremely similar to the infamous chemical attack in 2013 that ignited the debate over intervention in the Syrian Civil War in the first place) caused Trump to completely reverse his position.

This terrifies me (Eric C). We’ve been writing, for months now, about where Trump will go to war, arguing that he could take America to war in multiple countries, based on his rhetoric, temperament and establishment support

In my mind, this attack on Syria represents something much worse: his unpredictability. He launched an attack, without Congressional approval, contradicting everything he said he believed, changing his mind in a matter of days. If Trump can flip the switch on Assad, what’s to stop him from attacking Iran or North Korea, countries that he has repeatedly promised to get tough on? Taking the long view, this attack makes me think it is much, much more likely America could go to war in the next few years, and possibly with multiple counties.

Michael C disagrees. At least, he thinks I may have over-reacted, as he’ll respond tomorrow.

Mar 30

Apparently, authoritarians love Donald Trump. That was the conclusion last year, during the Republican primaries, in this heavily retweeted Vox article. But that wasn’t my take away. Instead, what stuck out to me was how much authoritarians feared Iran.

Yes, Iran.

According to Vox’s poll, over 55% of high and very high “authoritarians” thought Iran poses a “high risk” to Americans. (Of course, they fear terrorism even more, though they shouldn’t.) They feel this way partly because Republican candidates during the campaign competed to argue who would fight Iran the hardest. While Trump never promised to rip up the deal on day one, he did promise to renegotiate it as soon as possible. Ted Cruz’ over-exaggeration in The American Thinker probably captures this best:

“[Iran’s] intention is to murder both of us. We face an enemy that hates us and has been very explicit that they intend to do everything they can to kill Israelis and us. These enemies are driven by a radical theological view that glorifies death and suicide. This deal harkens back to the Munich Deal of 1938, allowing homicidal maniacs to acquire weapons of mass murder.”

This is utter nonsense, and I’m trying to be polite.

Since the Donald Trump administration started, we have only seen more of this rhetoric, putting Iran “on notice” for its ballistic missile test. And worse than rhetoric, The New York Times reported that General Mattis wanted to seize an Iranian ship.

Far from being a tyrannical religious state, Iran is a theocratic-democracy. Far from being a threat, Iran is a regional power with no military capability to hurt the United States (unless we try to invade). Far from being motivated simply by radical ideology, Iran’s grievances with America are political and historic. Most importantly, far from being a disaster, the Iran nuclear deal has been an unqualified success.

If you’ve been following the news since we signed the Iranian Nuclear deal with five other countries, you would have seen a growing, beneficial relationship, not a looming threat.

Good News Story 1: Sanctions were lifted after Iran complied with the nuclear deal.

To sum up in overly-broad terms, Iran dismantled its nuclear facilities that were enriching uranium and transferred the enriched uranium to Russia. America and other countries then lifted sanctions and freed previously frozen assets. Even the most cynical Iran watchers had to admit this moves the Iranian time table for nuclear weapons back years.

Good News Story 2: Iranians elected moderates.

On February 26th, 2016 Iran held a legislative election for seats for their Islamic Consultative Assembly. And while Iran is still far from a leader of democratic freedom--the Economist has a fairly critical take here--moderate politicians gained seats. This means President Rouhani can continue to uphold the terms of the nuclear deal.

Now, comparing the Iranian elections to the recent elections in Saudi Arabia....Wait, Saudi Arabia didn’t hold elections? Of course not. Saudi Arabia has only held 3 elections in its history.

Good News Story 3: Sailor swap avoids military crisis.

Without a nuclear deal and renewed diplomatic relationships, the sailor crisis could have exploded, as we wrote about here. Arms control agreements don’t just limit the number of weapons each side has; they facilitate and convince historic enemies to engage in dialogue. This dialogue will help prevent future conflict. As we’ve written before, the most historic and revolutionary thing a President could do would be to become allies with Iran.

It’s pretty easy to imagine a very lethal scenario where the sailor crisis (or one like it) erupts into a regional war. In that scenario, thousands (or tens of thousands) die. Resolving the sailor incident peacefully was the best outcome.

Good News Story 4: America and Iran exchanged prisoners

Days after ratifying the agreement between the P5+1 countries and Iran, America and Iran exchanged prisoners (seven Iranians released by America; five Americans released by Iran). Secretary John Kerry and Foreign Secretary Javad Zarif had been negotiating on this issue in parallel to the nuclear discussion for months, It also couldn’t have happened without the start of communication by each country’s head of foreign affairs through the nuclear discussions.

Good News Story 5: Iran renewed trading with countries around the globe

Free trade makes war less likely. Much less likely. (Remember, America and Japan stopped trading right before Pearl Harbor.) Since the Iranian deal, Boeing made a $16 billion deal to sell 80 planes to Iran, which means jobs in the US. Other countries have followed suit, exploring deals with Iran or planning to open branches/offices in Tehran. This free trade makes war much less likely.

(Of course, the US still has other sanctions in place so we may not be able to take advantage the way China and the EU will.)

Good News Story 6: A year on, sanctions continue to work

Read this article by Federica Mogherini, the chief EU negotiator in the Iran talks, about how the Iran deal one year on has been a win for both sides. The IAEA has the ability to do inspections it never had before and Iran is experiencing real GDP growth. More importantly, trade has jumped between Iran and the EU, which is sparking greater diplomatic cooperation. In all, the deal has been a win for all sides.

Donald Trump, of course, could upset and reverse all these gains. We have to hope he doesn’t.

Mar 20

The President and the executive branch wield enormous power that has become less and less checked by Congress over the years, giving the sitting President has the power to push America into conflict or avoid it altogether. Bill Clinton guided NATO air strikes in Kosovo. George W. Bush vigorously pursued war in Iraq. Obama avoided war in Syria, but launched air strikes in multiple countries.

Last week, I wrote about some potential countries Donald Trump could go to war with/in, but one country deserves it’s own post: Iran. The election of Donald Trump makes a potential war with Iran much more likely.

The (Yuge!) Potential Costs of a War with Iran

A lot of media coverage discusses “Will we go to war with Iran?”. But that’s framing the issue incorrectly, as we’ve bemoaned in our coverage of a war with Iran. The more important question is “How bad could this be?”, so we’ll start there.

We’ve done a ton of writing about a war with Iran. We wrote a whole paper at the Small Wars Journal based on our series of posts on the subject. And recently repeated our thoughts as Iran hit the news again last month. We bring this up because, even as the drums start to beat for war with Iran, cable news, broadcast news, and print media almost entirely fail/failed to mention that a war means dead American troops, dead Iranian troops and civilians, and possibly dead American civilians. And potentially dead civilians throughout the Middle East.   

One could counter: look at Afghanistan, Panama, Iraq (twice); didn’t we dominate those wars?

Iran is a different, more difficult country to wage war in than our previous two overseas military excursions. Iraq had a military, but Iran’s is vastly superior in almost every category. Afghanistan is large and rugged, but Iran is larger and rugged-er. Iran also has more people and land mass than both those two countries combined, not to mention a more stable political system.

I can’t see the future, and if past wars are any example, no one can. But I can look at the risks, and as a former intelligence officer—I’ll repeat this for emphasis: as a person who used to do this very work for the U.S. Army—the possibilities of a war with Iran are terrifying.

To start, Iran could use its unconventional navy to down aircraft carriers. They have an armada of speed boats armed with torpedoes, designed to overwhelm our large ship’s defenses.

Or Iran’s anti-aircraft weaponry could prove much more effective than anything we have seen, downing many more aircraft than we lost in Iraq. Iran has better anti-aircraft weaponry than either Afghanistan or Iraq possessed. We could eventually defeat these, but airmen could die in the process.

If our troops hit the ground, we’d deal with both conventional and unconventional attacks on multiple highways of death. Iran wouldn’t fight us straight up. Harassing attacks would be the order of the day. They’ll could take the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan as models, improving on techniques that hampered our counter-insurgency efforts and apply them to this conflict. (Many IRGC troops probably practiced these techniques from firsthand experience.) Our helicopters would have to deal with those same anti-aircraft weapons.

Which isn’t to say American air, naval and ground forces wouldn’t “win” a war with Iran. We would. Eventually. But the invasion could shatter casualty records not seen since the Korean war. And then we would have to conduct “stability operations” which at least three wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq) have shown the U.S. military doesn’t do very well. Especially since we’d be overthrowing a democratically elected government, which may come as a surprise to casual viewers of the news. Given that overthrowing a democratically elected leader in Iran started the entire conflict, winning hearts and minds will be much harder than Iraq or Afghanistan.

And that’s the “conventional” side of it. Iran could start flinging missiles around the Middle East. Or launch targeted terror campaigns, either individual assassinations or bombings in retaliation. Or it could have a way to block the Straits of Hormuz of the Persian/Arabian Gulf, which could send the global price of oil skyrocketing, with disastrous effects.

Those are the first order effects. Just the initial things we could see happening. A failed occupation could spawn new generations of terrorists. Or US intervention could send allies scrambling to create new counter-alliances to counter another American invasion of another sovereign country without broad international support. Why would our allies abandon us this time? Because we had a signed international deal that made this whole war unnecessary. (We loathe people invoking Munich, but it is useful to note that Hitler was the one who tore up agreements with his allies.)

Why The Trump Administration Makes War With Iran More Likely

First, Trump has advisors with an expressed anti-Iran leaning. CIA chief Mike Pompeo. Steve Bannon. (Formerly General Flynn in the NSA.) Even General Mattis, a moderate in his administration, is an ardent Iran opponent. Each has advocated for war with Iran at one time or another. If Congress will give Trump his war, these advisers will make it happen. It is unclear how the new National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster, feels, but also unclear how much influence he has. (The analogy here is the George W. Bush administration, which was filled with anti-Iraq voices and we saw what happened there.)

Second, Trump doesn’t understand international diplomacy as opposed to deal making. Trump’s ego thinks he could make a better deal with Iran than Obama did. He can’t. Donald Trump comes from a world where he could pick and choose his deals and partners. Part of his success was making an awful deal, reneging on his promises, then moving on to another sap to make the next deal. The problem is Iran already has a deal with America and tearing it up has consequences. Donald Trump can’t just declare bankruptcy and move on to the next deal, though he believes he can.

Third, the war hawks in Congress have his ear. By this I mean the never-satisfied former neo-cons (and pseudo-realists) who always search for the next dragon to slay. When the Russians went away as enemies at the end of the Cold War, they looked to the “Axis of Evil” to fill the vacuum. Some war hawks in Congress just want to have enemies. For conservatives like Senator Tom Cotton or columnist Charles Krauthammer, Iran fills the void

Fourth, Trump’s campaign had strong backing from pro-Israeli groups. One of the biggest drivers of anti-Iran sentiment is a variety of pro-Israeli think tanks in Washington D.C. from the Heritage Foundation to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. (Which I should really do a post on. The FDD is allegedly about defending all democracies, but mainly publishes papers critical of Iran, which has as much claim to democracy as Israel. And way more than Saudi Arabia, who the FDD hasn’t ever mentioned as a threat to democracy.) This think tank works with SuperPACs to push both the ideology and the money backing pro-Israeli policies, which include a possible war with Iran.

Fifth, Donald Trump has a tendency to say and do rash things. My evidence? The campaign. Want more evidence? His first month in office, including putting Iran “on notice”. In the high stakes world of international diplomacy, this isn’t good. I fully believe if Iran had captured US sailors during the Trump administration, we would have gone to war. When air strikes can be launched in hours without Congressional approval (this isn’t 100% legal, but definitely true), a rash leader could cause huge problems.

Sixth, we’ve already seen the drums for war starting pounding. It took less than a week for him to insult Iran, and the escalation started. Just look at the CNN breakdown of relations between Iran and America since Trump started his administration.

Not one of those six reasons has to do with protecting America or its ally Israel. They are about forces who want to go to war or a personality that isn’t suited to international diplomacy. I just don’t see a world where Donald Trump rationally assesses threats and expectations about a war with Iran (or any country) and that’s what makes it so likely.

The sad part about writing this? It doesn’t have to be this way. The Iranian deal is diplomacy at its finest and it is already working. In an optimistic time, it would be a sign of a better world. But we don’t live in those times, and now we may have to pay a price.

Mar 13

Imagine a world. Like this one. Where everything is going as it has. Sure the media regularly bemoans how awful life is in America, but overall, Americans live their lives, free of violence.

Then in one weekend, this changes. Maybe an Iranian boat crashes into a U.S. warship. (Or Iran seizes another U.S. Navy vessel. Or vice versa.) Or ISIS attacks a Special Operations compound in Iraq. Or North Korea fires a missile at Japan. The next events happen in a blur.

American planes take off and bomb pre-determined targets. Cruise missiles fly from battleships. U.S. paratroopers drop from the sky and marines seize beachheads. Tanks load on trains destined for shipping containers destined for some continent half-way across the globe. The nation fighting the U.S. will likely lose hundreds of thousands of people. America could lose thousands as well.

If the war is poorly thought-out or executed, or Murphy’s law comes to the vagaries of war, the initial casualties aren’t the only problems. With some countries, nuclear weapons could come into play. And the casualties would skyrocket or worse. The global economy could freeze up. As a society, we’ve forgotten that, more often than not, wars are terrible for the economy and, more importantly, terrible for people. We’ve forgotten since we’ve gone for so long without a major interstate war.

We wrote last week that Donald Trump is a war hawk. More importantly, despite some sane voices in his administration (McMaster and Mattis), he’s surrounded by other war hawks (Bannon and Miller). So we at On Violence believe the election of Trump makes another U.S. war or “military intervention”, in euphemism speech, more likely. Today, we’re going to run down our completely unscientific ranking of which countries America is mostly likely to go to war in the next four years and why.

Tomorrow we crown the winner, but I’m sure you know who that is...

2. Syria or Iraq

The logic here is pretty straight-forward. Trump’s former National Security Advisor called ISIS an “existential threat” (it isn’t) and it stuck. So Trump has called for the elimination of ISIS, most recently at his address to Congress.

“As promised, I directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS, a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians and men and women and children of all faiths and all beliefs. We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.”

The question is whether this conflict spirals into America’s third major occupation of the region. You cannot eliminate ISIS from the air. And if you have to rely on allies in the region, that may include vile dictatorships like Syria or even Iran, who Trump hates. As Fareed Zakaria reported last weekend, ISIS is on the ropes anyways due to sustained fighting in both Syria and Iraq. But if something goes wrong, especially a terror attack, I could see an easily escalation of military conflict.

3. Yemen or Somalia

I’m lumping these two countries together because both suffer from failed state or near failed state status, and both have offshoots of extremist terrorist groups (AQAP in Yemen; Al-Shabaab in Somalia). In some ways, you could argue that we’re already at war there, if by war, you mean having troops on the ground fighting and launching drone strikes. JSOC is conducting active operations in both countries and indeed we all know the US lost a special operator in Yemen almost a month ago.

Going to war in one of these countries would probably be a slow escalation process, like Vietnam. We put more special operators on the ground to conduct more missions, using the previous failed missions as an excuse. Then we put more troops to support those troops. Then we need more troops to protect more troops and at some point we end up propping up the government. It’s Afghanistan redux.

4. North Korea

Unlike Yemen or Somalia, I see the North Korean situation igniting like a firecracker. North Korea remains intent on building a defensive/offensive military capability and it doesn’t matter how impoverished its people are in the meantime. Again, if Trump’s impulsiveness wins out, we could see a spark ignite this region.

North Korea also seems intent on taking advantage of U.S. dysfunction and poor relations with mainland China immediately. The amount of times North Korea has been in the news since the inauguration feels high. That said, we should caution that it often seems like war with North Korea is imminent every spring. We wrote about the “war that wasn’t” a few years back, based on On The Media’s excellent coverage of the issue. As we wrote about Iran, a war with North Korea could be awful, even without the nuclear weapons.

(As a side note, North Korea really is the argument for free market capitalism and democracy as opposed to agrarianism/trade protectionism and authoritarianism. It’s pretty clearly the least developed/poorest nation in the world, and it has the least amount of trade with the outside world. This is what happens when you try to control an economy completely through the state and your awful leaders can’t be voted out of office.)

5. Eastern Europe

Everything in Eastern Europe/Ukraine points to an unlikely-to-happen, but still possible conflict or escalation. Trump could believe he needs to stand up to Putin, and draws the line in the sand in Ukraine. Putin wants to continue to expand his sphere of influence and his insistent meddling in European elections causes the EU/NATO to stand up against him as well. So a war breaks out.

The gigantic stockpiles of nuclear weapons on each side make this scenario unlikely. As crazy as each side is, I just can’t see a war starting because of that. (Though I would feel safer if neither side had those weapons, actively armed or at all.)

Wild card: Small East Asian nation

I’m thinking Myanmar, Philippines or Thailand, nations with a small Muslim minority population that could draw in America as an excuse. Violence recently flared up in Myanmar, though that country has become more democratic. For a war hawk, the enticing thing about small East Asian nations (Myanmar or Thailand) is they seem small and easy to conquer, er invade, er conduct military operations in...until you get there. The Philippines is large and unwieldy, but we’ve had troops on the ground there throughout the war on terror.

Wild card: Latin America

In the 1980s, we used to adventure down south for military interventions pretty frequently (Panama, Grenada, some stuff in Nicaragua/Costa Rica, UK in Falklands). Venezuela, a popular villain in right-wing media for years, is a the pretty obvious place the United State could intervene, but even countries like Ecuador have tried to stand up to the US in diplomatic terms. The flare up here could be trade, could be immigration or could be drugs.

Feb 17

Sooner or later, I was going to write a post on my complicated relationship with General Mike Flynn. When I went to the Military Intelligence Captains’ Career Course, Flynn had been on a roll, publishing papers critical of Military Intelligence and the IC in general during the War on Terror. Here’s a vaguely positive quote from a very old post:

“The Army needs an AAR at the highest level. General Flynn, the head intelligence officer in Afghanistan, recently published an article at CNAS titled “Fixing Intel.” It reads like an AAR summary. But why did he have to publish a paper in CNAS?”

In person I was even more pro-Flynn. Then he became a crazy person who took payments from Russia and gave speeches in Russia and went on Russia Today...you get the idea. Then he did his speech at Trump’s Republican National Convention, promising to lock up his political opponent, an idea he must have gotten from all his time in Russia. I was even more dismayed to find that he believes ISIS poses an existential threat to America. (Which is absurd.) And that we are in a generational war with Islam. (We aren’t.)

Fortunately, he got fired before we had to dive into his generally war-hawk views and his potential disastrous run as national security adviser. But we have some more thoughts:

1. The NSA position should be approved by the Senate

Some people have pointed out that the scandal isn’t over Flynn’s firing but his hiring. And we agree. But like always, we want to offer solutions.

Here’s one: the National Security Advisor should be a cabinet level position. This should be a policy priority of Democrats. (We would throw in any permanent members of the National Security Council Principals Committee as well.)

2. Flynn had a super low VORP.

We agree with the consensus: we’re happy Flynn is not National Security Advisor anymore. But why?

Due to a notable lack of statistics, it is hard to conduct an “advanced metrics” analysis of politicians. (The analytics revolution hasn’t hit politics. Yet.) Wouldn’t it be great to know the politicians who out-perform their metrics at any given time on a regular basis? Like including efficiency metrics or associating fund-raising with dollar per political vote?

Though we don’t have the data to do that actual analysis, I still think we, as political pundits, can do this “back of the envelope” style. And my preferred self-made statistic is “Value Over Replacement Politician”, a la sports metrics like VORP or WARP.

I developed this “VORP for Everyone” philosophy back in the military and I use it today as a manager. Basically, if you are a manager, your goal should be to manage a team of all-stars. If you do, you’ll be a rock star. If you have a team of replacement-level people, you’ll struggle to achieve results. And if you have below average people, you’ll set the organization back.

In politics, I don’t just mean VORP as in getting things done/effectiveness, I also mean in making good policy decisions. Joe Biden was probably an average VP in that he didn’t screw up much, but he also didn’t really do anything. John Kerry had a higher VORP than Hillary because he really sealed the deal with Iran and the P5+1 and the Paris Climate Change accord. In the Bush Administration, there were definitely some high performers in terms of accomplishing things, but those actions had disastrous consequences. For example, Vice President Cheney’s “replacement politician” probably wouldn’t have invaded Iraq.

So that brings us to General Flynn. Flynn both had bad ideas (see above about civilizational war) and seemed to be ineffective. So, by being both ineffective and misguided, Flynn had a truly low VORP. In other words, if every reasonable candidate for National Security Adviser is ranked in their performance, you would have 0% (the worst potential candidate ever!) and 100% (the greatest Nat Sec Adviser ever!). Flynn is somewhere between 1% and 10%. The odds are overwhelming we will find a better (and safer) National Security Adviser.

(Though it looks like a solid candidate just turned Trump down.)

3. Trump is most upset at the leaks, so we’re glad Obama didn’t set attack leakers...oh wait, he did.

This entire scandal, the revelations about Flynn talking to Russia, came out through leaks. Clearly, leaks help keep the government honest by exposing wrongdoing. Presidents hate this.

Like President Obama, who aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers.

We’ll be writing updates on Wikileaks, Russia hacking, leaking and more in the months to come, but for now we’ll say this: we support responsible leaks in the public interest, shepherded and edited by responsible journalists. But the tools President Obama left for his successor to prosecute leakers should frighten us.

4. The real national security crisis.

A final point on hypocrisy. We’ll be writing about this for months, if not years, to come, but the Republican party's hypocrisy is becoming unbearable. Flynn opened up his convention speech arguing that Hillary Clinton’s email server put our national security at risk:

FLYNN: Yes; I use -- I use #neverHillary; that's what I use. I have called on Hillary Clinton, I have called on Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race because she, she put our nation's security at extremely high risk with her careless use of a private e-mail server.

And yet donald Trump, this weekend, discussed national security on the patio of Mar-a-lago. The hypocrisy of him and Republicans is astounding. Clearly, Republicans only investigated Hillary’s email server for political reasons. In retrospect, this is another argument against the media’s massive coverage of that issue.

Feb 13

When you consider the war on terror, the rough calculus has always been, “To keep Americans safe, the military does things (“direct action” in military jargon) that result in people being killed.” To keep Americans safe from terrorists abroad, America fires missiles from drones, but those drone strikes sometimes kill civilians (foreigners, obviously). To keep Americans safe from Saddam Hussein, we launched the second Iraq War. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in that war and thousands of Americans, but we “kill them there before they kill us here”, as Senator Tom Cotton has described it. So following this logic, the Navy SEALs on SEAL Team 6 raided a compound in Yemen to find intel to keep Americans safe.

They also killed an eight year-old girl.

So Americans sacrificed the life of an eight year-old girl for our own safety.

Keeping in mind that this real life “trolley carscenario is morally dubious at best and morally bankrupt at worst, this tactic won't help win the "war on terror". We’ll write more about this raid later (and many more like it to come if this mission is a sampling of the future) but it is important to, for now, just point out how stupid it is to kill women and children. But we don’t need a new post to say that, we have a bunch of older ones:

- Killing Civilians Pisses People off: Why Accuracy Matters

- Don’t Burn Korans, Kill Children, or Drop Bomblets That Look Like Candy: An Incomplete List of Counter-Insurgency Do’s and Don’ts

- Let’s Kill Women and Children: The Republicans on War Crimes

Through all these posts, one thing argument shines through: killing women and children almost always makes you look bad. No matter how skilled someone back at the Pentagon or White House is at justifying why eight year-old kids had to die to keep Americans safe, the people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries don’t buy it. Killing children is the worst. This isn't the most original take, but one that can't be repeated enough.

Some other thoughts:

Also, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the U.S. to conduct operations there. This means that, even if you buy the counter-terrorism importance of the U.S. raids, this mission jeopardized that.

Some hot takes, from writers we respect, tried to question how much blame should be put on President Trump for this raid. Well, he halted all immigration from seven nations so he could review vetting procedures of refugees; he could have taken the same step here. Since an American SEAL and many other civilians lost their lives in this raid, we would argue that having a good process to vet potentially risky military operations would be just as wise.

And does anyone think that, had Hillary Clinton become President, Congress wouldn’t be calling for an investigation? Would this not be Hillary’s new Benghazi? So where are the Republicans calling for accountability now? Or was Benghazi more about politics than policy? (Yes.)