Threat Inflation

According to this calculator, one 1989 dollar is the equivalent of nearly two dollars in 2012 money ($1.82, to be precise). What had an intrinsic worth then seems to be even more nowadays. But what are you getting for your money?

That’s a really unsubtle preamble to a simple concept: that of threat inflation since the end of the Cold War (man, the Cold War has apparently been on my mind a lot lately). We talk about the threats posed by violent extremist organizations (VEOs) and non-state actors and rogue states and the possibility of state-on-state violence arising once again. But except for wars of choice, the latter two have certainly not materialized, and the more effective parts of our counterterror and counter-VEO strategies have involved a light footprint. A base in Djibouti, an airstrip in Saudi, and you’ve got the makings of a regional proactive defense (the merits of the “SOF-n’-drones approach” are, of course, debatable, but that is a separate issue).

While small, covert actions might point towards a way forward, the simple truth is that these threats in no way pose anything like the existential one represented by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

If you were to make a ranking with relative numbers for budgetary purposes with say, a notional ranking of the hierarchy of threats faced by the United States and the dollar amounts needed to counter them, a Cold War version might have looked something like this (obviously this is really, really crude, but bear with me):

  1. Soviet Union: $50 billion
  2. Soviet Union: $40 billion
  3. Soviet Union: $35 billion
  4. Soviet Union: $30 billion
  5. Soviet Union: $25 billion
  6. Third-world nations: $2 billion
  7. Nuclear proliferation: $1.5 billion
  8. Terrorism/non-state actors: $500 million

By 1992, the top five lines were all wiped out. Or at least, the entry in the threat column was. The sensible thing to do might have been to just lose that funding entirely, much like the how the current DoD hiring freeze is preventing new blood from circulating throughout the Pentagon (when someone retires now, more often than not that billet is lost entirely, rather than being re-filled). No threat = no money necessary to counter it.

To put it another way, what was a $2 billion threat during the Cold War was probably also more or less a $2 billion threat afterwards (in relative terms).

But rather than just wipe out the top five items, budgeted dollars and all, what we get instead is an upwards shift of the bottom-tier threats. What was #6 becomes #1 and so forth – including all the funding commensurate with such a position as a dire threat to the nation.

But of course, neither terrorism nor Iran nor cyberwarfare pose an existential threat to the United States. And that’s really an impediment to policymakers these days. I will grant, that out of all the banal clichés used to describe our modern threat environment, that “complexity” is in fact the case, and is in fact a difficult problem to surmount. The sheer number of threats might have increased – what was once a two-item list of 1) the Soviet Union and 2) everything else has now dramatically expanded – but the relative threat they pose is far, far lower.

DNI Clapper’s opening statement to Congress introducing this year’s Intelligence Community Worldwide Threat Report included the line: “I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.” Sure, the sheer number looks a little daunting. But that hardly signals the imminent end of the Republic.

Like last year’s report, the 2014 edition singles out cyber as the most critical threat to US national security, and specifically mentions the financial and health care sectors as vulnerable, as well as industrial SCADA, 3D printing, and “smart objects” as potential targets. Which, as they’re new, must be feared.

What are we defending ourselves again? Our life and liberty seem increasingly assured in the face of terrorism (even the Boston bombings have not done injury to the American psyche at large), and our longstanding freedom from invasion remains unchallenged. But what is the business of US national security becoming? Unless the defense establishment of the United States of America wants to embrace a role as digital security guard for Big Finance, or as the ultimate arbiter of just what Americans – that wellspring of ingenuity and innovation – can use a computer to manufacture from the comfort of their home, it seems that grasping for something to defend the nation against has reached increasingly dubious conclusions.

We’ve defined threats in order to match budgets and huge dollar flows, and it’s fairly clear that we’re boxing with shadows and posturing against dreams.  Patrick Porter recently wrote something to this effect for War on the Rocks (his article deals more with the “small world” of globalization and its unintended consequences, but there is a degree of overlap). As usual, Porter’s entire piece is worth reading, but especially:

In the name of taming the dangerous “Global Village,” governments resort to anticipatory war, extraordinary rendition, torture, continual drone strikes and mass surveillance. Instead of containing threats in pursuit of affordable security, the US-led coalition sought to eradicate them in pursuit of absolute security. It set out to destroy rogue regimes, fix broken states, to wipe out terrorism itself. Some now argue that the American President should have an internet “kill switch,” creating a cyber as well as nuclear monarch. The stakes are high.

A closer look shows that the belief in a small world misconceives the security environment. Consider terrorism, supposedly borderless. On 9/11, Al Qaeda attacked under open skies. Yet Bin Laden’s pilots hit America not from Afghanistan, but from forward operating bases such as flight schools in Arizona and meeting houses in Berlin, bases that America quickly shut down. Its training camps and sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the US-led coalition destroyed. The unspectacular steps of intensified police work, tighter border controls, international collaboration, the strengthening of the Nunn-Lugar program for locking down “loose” nuclear material, and strengthened airport security widened the space between Al Qaeda and America. For the budding nuclear terrorist, America the “far enemy” has effectively become more distant.

Porter’s piece concludes that this trend “makes us all less powerful, but more secure, than we think.” And if this is the case: what are we all so afraid of?

What’s Scots for “Nuclear Weapons?”

No Cross of St. Andrew here

This is the year. 2014 will mark the historic referendum in which Scotland, yet again, votes whether or not to secede from the United Kingdom and go it alone. Having read Halting State, Charlie Stross‘ fantastic novel set in the nation of Scotland in 2018, there’s a whole realm of aesthetic and imagination and possibility associated with the prospects of an independent Edinburgh. Others are just as interested: Tyler Cowen makes one of the economic arguments against Scottish independence, and Tom Ricks asks all the questions, But part of my interest lies in more prosaic matters: namely, where do the nukes go?

Scotland’s defense policy would likely align much more closely with those of Norway and Denmark than with its southern neighbor. Between North Sea oil and Arctic issues, Holyrood’s posture and attention would be directed entirely upwards. And of all the realms in which nuclear weapons might not have such great utility (especially not as large submarine-borne countervalue weapons), the Arctic is probably #1. If NATO plays it cool and avoids major engagements, then a single brigade might just cut it. But otherwise that might be wishful thinking.

The Firth of Clyde is of major importance to the Royal Navy. But the shipbuilding contracts there are likely to depart along with UK forces. These could be repurposed by Scotland for new construction to augment its few unarmed fishery protection vessels (this, of course, depends on what Edinburgh is able to successfully wrest away from London). But more importantly, the Clyde is the heart of the British nuclear deterrent.

Right now, the UK’s four Vanguard-class Trident SSBNs are based at HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane in the Clyde, with additional support coming from RNAD Coulport. And this is no abberration; Scotland has been critical to the UK deterrent from its inception. In 1963, when the Royal Navy was looking into acquiring Polaris from the United States, it drew up a short list of ten candidate sites for basing nuclear submarines. Of the ten, six were in Scotland. But what about the others? Would they play host to an atomic arsenal in the 21st century?

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Andrew Marshall on Learning Lessons

There seems to be a tendency for organizations to learn and to institutionalize, in one way or another, lessons from the past. The difficulty is that so often the lessons learned from the past are in fact unwarranted generalizations from some particular episode in the past, very often of a particularly pleasant or unpleasant sort. Moreover, there is a tendency to simplify decisionmaking by eliminating alternatives, alleging they are impossible or infeasible.

From “Problems of Estimating Military Power,” August 1966.

How does the rampant lunacy of reshaping the Middle East by force fit into this?

The Perils of Incrementalism

Where many wanted universal health care, the United States instead got a half-hearted attempt at health reform in the Affordable Care Act. Instead of any significant reduction in scope of the F-35 program, 550 other aircraft will be scrapped, 25,000 personnel RIFed, and a whopping four F-35s cut from the total order. Instead of wholesale change, we tinker around the edges with a broken system.

This is just the latest in a long string of “government failures” and the inadequacy of a 20th-century bureaucracy to cope with the challenges and tasks for a 21st-century nation. Federal Acquisition Regulations, the inability of Congress to do much of anything except let programs and infrastructure collapse (much less show up to work or let anyone else do so), the debacle – these are truly examples of areas in need of much greater reform than additions and edits (and areas in which only the federal government has the scale and the purchasing power to effect change on a national scale). The “system,” such as it stands, is crying out for a full-on rewrite, for bold thinking, vision, and more than anything, action.

I often find Matt Yglesias insufferable, but he’s on point here:

For conservatives, the myriad problems consumers had using the federally run exchanges was just another reason to abandon the goal of universal health insurance. The website issues have been viewed optimistically—almost gleefully—since if the site is sufficiently terrible, it may be impossible for a critical mass of people to sign up and the program will have to be substantially scaled back. Conversely, progressives had been hoping to build a system that didn’t just meet some bare standard of functionality but actually persuaded people that a larger state role was a good idea. After all, the user experience of private health insurance is hardly the greatest thing in the world. Building a great was supposed to be part of a campaign to persuade people that government should be involved in areas that are more contentious than garbage pickup.

This is, of course, the culmination of a decades-long quest to not just shrink the federal government to a size where it could be drowned in a bathtub. For the modern Republican Party, proves that their attempts to render the government dysfunctional have rendered the government dysfunctional. Pure “government terraforming.”

Bigger solutions sometimes are better solutions, and small plans do little to change an essentially broken system. What we have now is the result: a loss in faith that the government can do anything for anyone. Even among a younger, less rabidly anti-government generation, misguided dreams of a technological utopia separate from the clumsy hand of paternal governance abound. Who has faith in the US government to mail a social security check or help a city buy a single car for their subway?

The argument has often been among those who would seek to destroy domestic national governance that where federalism makes sense is in providing for the common defense and representing the collective states in foreign affairs. But now, of course, the government can’t even be trusted to do that. From a new Pew poll:

The most striking poll result is the share of Americans who believe that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” For the first time since Pew began asking in 1964, more than half of respondents say they agree with that statement, a staggeringly high 52 percent. That number has historically ranged between about 20 and 40 percent.
These poll numbers reflect American public attitudes that are widely and strongly enough held that they could indirectly steer the White House, thus affecting U.S. foreign policy and perhaps the world itself. Obama already ran into this problem, for example, with his plan this fall to launch limited strikes against Syria as punishment for its use of chemical weapons against civilians. Overwhelming public opposition and overwhelming Congressional opposition fed into one another, ultimately killing the plan. Even though the strikes would have been modest compared to almost every other U.S. military action of the last 10 years, they were opposed far more vociferously, and that mattered.

This isn’t to say that the President should have advocated for a full-scale invasion of Syria. But it does reflect that the government isn’t trusted by a majority of its own population to do much of anything abroad or at home.

And so it’s hard to not conclude that at least for now, the Do-Nothing Party is winning.


In the wake of absolutely historic, devastating flooding of New York and its infrastructure in particular, it’s worth revisiting a piece from the New York Times: “Hurricanes on the Hudson.” A report released by the Army Corps of Engineers, it explores the potential impacts of a Category 4 hurricane on the city of New York.

When researchers with the National Weather Service, working with the Army Corps, applied the [“SLOSH”] model to New York City they discovered, to their great surprise, that the slope of the sea bed and the shape of the New York Bight, where the coasts of New York and New Jersey meet, could amplify a surge to a depth far greater than if the same surge had occurred elsewhere…

To reinforce its observations, the corps doctored photographs to show flood waters submerging the doors to the South Ferry subway station and the World Trade Center, and the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel

For anyone familiar with city landmarks, the report makes good, if macabre, reading. The peak storm surge at the Lincoln Tunnel would top 28 feet. Kennedy Airport would be submerged. Even a category 1 hurricane would flood the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the PATH tunnels at Exchange Place and Hoboken Station in New Jersey, and launch water into the city’s subways through vents at 14th Street in Manhattan and at Montague and Joralemon Streets in Brooklyn, and many other points. [emphasis mine]

And now I direct you to a recap of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

Tunnels under the East River were all flooded and pumping had begun at some of them. Mr. Lhota said that flooding was “literally up to the ceiling” at the South Street subway station in Lower Manhattan. Long Island Railroad remained closed due to flooding on the tracks. Two Metro-North lines north of 59th Street continued to be without power, and Mr. Lhota estimated that there were at least 100 trees downed on the tracks. Staten Island ferry and railway service were also still suspended. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie said there was “major damage on each and every one of New Jersey’s rail lines.” New Jersey Transit and PATH service remained suspended.

By now you’ve also all seen the video of South Ferry-Whitehall station, and the photos of Ground Zero and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel:

But back to that report: it was released by the ACE in 1995. By the time the perfectly thinkable happened, predictions of it were nothing new. We have the technology and the ingenuity to anticipate catastrophe. We’ve been red-teaming for years (perhaps not taken seriously enough), and our brightest minds have also met with commercial success in thinking the (formerly) unthinkable. But all the creativity and brilliance and conclusions are meaningless unless they result in action. The Corps of Engineers got it right in 1995; New York did some to prepare, but could have and perhaps should have done more.

Obviously there was no way for the MTA to prevent this from happening. Hurricanes happen, floods happen, and by all accounts Joe Lhota has done a masterful job preparing for and now recovering from the storm (I shudder at the thought of WMATA here in DC struggling to cope with a disaster of similar scope. That disaster has also been anticipated). But there are ways to mitigate it. In this case, solutions range from the macro – i.e., constructing New York’s own version of the Thames flood barrier – to the micro, e.g., waterproofing switches and as much of the sensitive equipment in the East River tubes as possible. Of course, these cost vast amounts of money and most of the time they’ll not be necessary or used – until they’re both.

The problem here is again, for all our planning, building resilience into a system and planning for the worst are completely at odds with an efficient system. Resilience, after all, is the opposite of efficiency. All too often, we find ourselves proscribing solutions – and frequent good solutions at that – only to take no action for fear of the cost or the political will necessary or the “what’s-the-point” strain of defeatism. As Adam Serwer wrote today, there’s no benefit in disaster prevention – politicians’ time to shine is in disaster relief. But somehow we’ve got to overcome our total lack of foresight and find a way to adequately prepare for future catastrophic events.

That goes double for non-natural disasters. The danger in preparing for outlandish ideas is that preventing them would require too much in the way of singular assets dedicated to a niche capability. The constant array of new security theater measures that always seem to be deployed in a wake of a new air travel-based attack vector are proof alone of a) our adversaries’ own ingenuity, and b) the futility of locking the barn door after the horse is out. But if a threat is too remote to have a dedicated counter-team, then we can at least mitigate its potential impacts. Passive measures – building hardening qualities into landscape design, redundant lines and connections (applicable to any sort of network), a general mindset of resilience – these are what we’re missing. New York will rebuild and move on, the subways will be repaired, and the Great American Metropolis will sort itself out as it always does. But we can do it faster, and we can do it better.

Now De-“Classified”

It wasn’t really “classified.” Just FOUO. But now it isn’t even that, so I’m pleased to present (even though I’m probably late to the game here) excerpts the NSA’s “Unofficial Vocabulary.”

DAY LADY: A mildly pejorative term used by workers on evening or overnight shifts to describe a person of either sex who works only “normal business hours”; often characterized by a compulsive concern for wearing a necktie or avoiding jeans.

DESK RATS: that’s OK, you know who you are.


HAMMERED: describes text with a significant number or garbles, misprints, or omissions that render it unreadable or call into question its validity.


KORLING: acronym for “Korean linguist,” an occupational speciality. It would look less like a Scottish sport or Canadian beer if spelled with a hyphen.


U STREET U: nickname for the Agency training school overflow building located on U Street in the District of Columbia during the 1950s. In itself, this is a diminutive for the slightly disparaging nickname “U Street University.”

The whole document is available right here.

Earning It

Prolonged American deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan have crippled the country’s ability to quickly respond to emerging threats and situations elsewhere in the world. Sheer logistics aside, the same stubborn logic that has maintained an American presence in Afghanistan would also preclude its redeployment on the grounds that American troops are vital to winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan War.

But what happens when that might mean missing a genuine opportunity? The regime of Muammar Gaddafi, longtime sworn enemy of the United States, is in the midst of a particularly brutal crackdown against what appears to be a genuine democracy movement in that country. He has vowed to die a martyr, and what were peaceful protests have spread into legitimate civil war throughout the country.

The arguments against intervention in Libya are many, and are valid concerns. American officials – Robert Gates most prominent among them – have been offering constant reminders that establishing a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace would be more complex and dangerous than is casually thought, and the next steps – the exit strategy – have yet to be fleshed out. (The question of international law seems somewhat less damning as Patrick Porter suggests – the Arab League and Libyans themselves have called for such a step to be taken.) But unlike the Bush-era misadventures in Central Asia, commentators are actually thinking about those issues now. Such a commitment as the United States might undertake in Libya requires careful thought. But it requires more than just talk, too.

Who would such an intervention be supporting, exactly? What if the rebels lose the civil war? Will the presence of ground troops be established? These are all questions that need answering. But here’s the other crucial difference between the catastrophic error in Iraq, the open-ended disaster in Afghanistan, and this situation – Libyans are asking for it. Libyan officials who have dissolved ties with the Gaddafi government – including Justice Minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil, Interior Minister Abdul Fatah Younis, and the Ambassadors to France, India, Poland, Sweden, the EU, the UN, the Arab League, and the United States – are echoing calls for a no-fly zone. The governments of Britain, France, Portugal, and the Arab League have all recognized the National Transitional Council as the legitimate governing body of Libya.

Who’s more deserving of American military backing: an Afghan government that enjoys the support of neither its people nor the United States, in a country filled with people just waiting for American troops to leave, or those revolutionaries trying to overthrow Gaddafi in their quest for democracy? Even if the United States were to adhere to the coldest realpolitik calculation, in this case the devil we know is diabolical indeed. Gaddafi is responsible for the Lockerbie bombings, for attempting an enrichment program, and is guilty of the most horrific crimes imaginable against his people. It would be difficult to find an even worse devil. And even in that case, isn’t it time to pick the one that actually matters: democratic or US-friendly? By not articulating – or proving through its own actions – just which one is the driving force behind American foreign policy, the United States continues to look weak, ineffectual, indecisive, and hypocritical to the rest of the world. And it’s that kind of ‘soft power’ that it can ill-afford to lose.

Then again, the most justified intervention would probably be in Cote d’Ivoire to remove Laurent Gbagbo. That country, after all, has already held free and fair elections that ousted Gbagbo from the presidency. But Gbagbo has refused to step down, precipitating a civil war. It’s apparent that things have gotten out-of-control bad when refugees are fleeing into Liberia.

Limited resources require prioritization. And it would appear as if America is focusing all its time and energy, its  blood and treasure, on precisely the wrong theaters. Even when Afghans aren’t actively hostile to the American presence in their country, they’re not enthusiastic about it either. The waiting game is on. Whether the United States pulls out of Afghanistan in six months or six years, the situation there won’t change. Only the cost will.

Those who aren’t asking for help don’t need or want it. Those crying out for it surely do.


So, wow. Two-thirds of the month of February have gone by already with nary a peep from this corner. I would like to change that; consider this a step in that direction.

Sometimes I feel like my ridiculous schedule and utter demotivation to write are all a nefarious plot on the part of [BIG BOX RETAILER] to work us so hard that we don’t have time to look for other jobs. At other moments I realize they couldn’t possibly be that coordinated, such as when they schedule me to close (until 10:30PM) the night before a mandatory 6AM meeting. Then it seems like they want me to quit.

But hey, at least I have a job, I suppose. Which is more than so many both here and across the world – especially across the world. I can’t help but wonder if in addition to our usual complacency, though, the reason America hasn’t exploded into similar unrest (don’t even get me started on the Rick Scott Walker asshole miasma that passes for normal politics in this country) is because of that huge gap between unemployment and underemployment. Even if they’re jobs without a future, is there some sort of voice in our heads that insists we’re lucky just to have even that, regardless of a stunted upwards mobility?

Because I keep coming back to Paul Mason’s twenty explanations for the Middle East uprisings, and one in particular:

At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future.

For all their other horrible, horrible faults, the recently deposed dictators of the Middle East were at least pretty good at educating their younger citizens. Of course, the stagnant economies provided no outlet for those credentials, thus no jobs, thus [eventual] rioting. One can try to explain it as simply an overly universal education problem, but then the observer comes upon the United States and it all goes to hell. Because, here, it doesn’t matter what your degree is in or how many you have or even whether you’re actually talented. Despite our tiered educational system, of the Ivies, the liberal arts colleges, the state school – it matters less where you went than who you met while you were there. The world is split into McJobs and MegaJobs, and the latter is a rapidly dwindling crapshoot.

For all my ranting, I’ve tried to keep a relatively sunny outlook, but the days only seem to get darker. Any “recovery” in the economy is so imperceptible as to be non-existent, and there are few real signs of actual progress on any large scale. Do we have a future? Are we the Mason sociological type, even in the United States?

With mass layoffs producing better profitability, furloughs mandated on an even grander scale, and Watson beating humanity, it’s pretty clear that something like half the workforce is in fact entirely dispensable. Which then begs the question; there are no jobs in Egypt; none in France; none in the United States: so where are these jobs going to come from? Sometimes, they simply don’t exist – but this time there’s nothing to replace them.

Eventually, Americans will realize that. And then just maybe we’ll get off our asses and take to the streets. I don’t even know what that would accomplish, but at least we’d prove to ourselves that we’re paying attention, and that the system is broken.

So that’s where I’ve been recently. As for other events in the Middle East, I like some and not others. Capsule commentary:

  • Tunisa: great! Started it all. Looks good from what little I can tell.
  • Egypt: if the military can stay classy, good things will come. Probably. Maybe.
  • Bahrain: the King is such an asshole.
  • Yemen: I’m less up-to-date, but the United States looks particularly bad here and in Bahrain.
  • Libya: we already knew Gaddafi was an asshole.
  • Others: good luck, godspeed, and try to avoid getting shot.

And perhaps the best commentary I’ve seen on recent events:

A War About Nothing

Seinfeld has already sparked books about nihilism, philosophy, bible study, and sociology, and a website on economics. And now, the ongoing narco-war violence in Mexico:

The Mexican narco-war may be the first real 21st-century war—a war that is, in the end, about nothing. Yes, there are regional and clan identities involved—loyalties of a sort to Tamaulipas, to Michoacan, to Sinaloa—but they are too fluid, too subject to betrayal, for the war to be defined as tribal. Yes, the Mexicans are torturing and killing one another over money and the smuggling routes that provide it, but much of the savagery, as noted, is over the smaller profits of the domestic market, the street corner, the sprawling colonia—savagery perpetrated for little real reward, and mainly for its own sake. Mexico’s war has no single propelling cause, no single objective, and certainly no grand ideology. It is a conflict of a post-political era. It belongs to an age of aggressive hyper-materialism. The drug lords are of course not alone in this. There are “legitimate” corporations all over the world whose only credo is greed and whose only iconic value is “the brand.”

In short, ‘why they fight‘ might be irrelevant. It might not even have a real answer, or a real reason – it is “a war of the digital age, fought as much on YouTube and mobile phones as it is in city streets and backroom torture chambers.” Even if it is a ‘narco-war’, drugs almost seem a byproduct, rather than a means or an end. They might just be another symptom. How do you even begin to combat such a phenomenon? Are there underlying root causes to be addressed?

Or is this just yet another sign of impending systemic breakdown? I’m leaning towards that. It’s sort of a ‘what’s the goddamn point?’ approach, which seems to explain more each day. Better stock up on your Toyota Hiluxes and your Gerber “hedge trimmer” machetes now.