Sunday, April 18, 2010

Afghanistan -- A chance

Last fall I opined that the Afghani conflict against the insurgent Taliban was an internal civil conflict that was not and should not be the concern of the U.S. Military (Afghanistan: Never America's War). In an interview with The Sunday Times of London, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar confirms my assertion, while also creating an opening for peace in that troubled region, and a chance for American troops to return home.
At a meeting held at night deep inside Taliban-controlled territory, the Taliban leaders told this newspaper that their military campaign had only three objectives: the return of sharia (Islamic law), the expulsion of foreigners and the restoration of security.
Obama himself articulated three objectives for America's military campaign in Afghanistan in his December 2009 speech to the cadets at West Point, when he announced a military buildup in that country:
To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan.  We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven.  We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.  And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future. 
It is important to note that al Qaeda--the terrorist movement that remains the justification behind American military adventures in Afghanistan--is not a movement borne of the Taliban but is as foreign to Afghan soil as Americans, being the inspiration and creation of Osama bin Laden, born in Saudi Arabia to parents of Yemeni descent.  Bin Laden is the sole connection between Afghanistan and al Qaeda, as the Afghan guerilla war against the invading Soviet army gave bin Laden his first opportunity to engage in jihad.
Son of a wealthy construction magnate, bin Ladin had taken to the religious sermons of Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian and disciple of Sayyid Qutb. While he participated in few actual battles in Afghanistan, bin Laden became known for his generous funding of the jihad against the Soviets.

However, bin Laden's ambitions extended beyond the boarders of Afghanistan, and he began to develop a complex international organization. He set up a financial support network known as the "Golden Chain," comprised mainly of financiers from Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states. Using this immense new fund, bin Laden and Azzam created a "Bureau of Services," which helped channel recruits for the jihad into Afghanistan. With Saudi Arabia and the United States pouring in billions of dollars worth of secret assistance to rebels in Afghanistan, the jihad against the Soviets was constantly gaining momentum.
The link between Afghanistan and Al Qaeda went dormant in 1989, after the Soviets pulled out of that country, and bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia:
When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in early 1989, bin Laden and Azzam decided that their new organization should not dissolve. They established what they called a base (al Qaeda) as a potential general headquarters for future jihad. However, bin Laden, now the clear emir of al Qaeda, and Azzam differed on where the organization's future objectives should lie. Azzam favored continued fighting in Afghanistan until there was a true Islamist government, while bin Laden wanted to prepare al Qaeda to fight anywhere in the world. When Azzam was killed in 1989, bin Laden assumed full charge of al Qaeda.
This aspect of al Qaeda history takes on new importance in light of the Taliban's potential peace overtures, for the very simple reason that Obama and Mullah Omar might actually agree on two of three military objectives: removal of foreigners, and securing Afghanistan and its borders. Both sides want a secure Afghani government, and while Obama focuses on denying al Qaeda safe haven within Afghanistan, the political reality is that, if al Qaeda is expelled from Afghanistan, the rationale for a continued American presence evaporates; expell al Qaeda and all foreign forces will be happy to return home.

If the Taliban's statements are sincere and credible, the only real sticking point between Obama and the Taliban should be the matter of making Sharia Law Afghan Law.  If the Taliban's statements are sincere and credible, the only major obstacle to negotiating that point is the US policy prohibiting direct talks with the Taliban.  Taliban sincerity is and should always be presumed problematic, but the Taliban statements to The Sunday Times are certainly in keeping with their articulated three objectives:
Looking back on five years in government until they were ousted after the attacks in America on September 11, 2001, the Taliban leaders said their movement had become too closely involved in politics.
Abdul Rashid said: “We didn’t have the capability to govern the country and we were surprised by how things went. We lacked people with either experience or technical expertise in government.
“Now all we’re doing is driving the invader out. We will leave politics to civil society and return to our madrasahs [religious schools].”
The Taliban’s position emerged as an American official said colleagues in Washington were discussing whether President Barack Obama could reverse a long-standing US policy and permit direct American talks with the Taliban.
Mullah Omar's interview also highlights another area of agreement with the United States: The Karzai government is corrupt and of questionable electoral legitimacy.
The Taliban objectives specified on their website had already shifted, Nato officials said, from the overthrow of the “puppet government” to the more moderate goal of establishing a government wanted by the Afghan people.
This objective fits rather nicely with another highlight of Obama's West Point speech:
This effort must be based on performance.  The days of providing a blank check are over.  President Karzai's inauguration speech sent the right message about moving in a new direction.  And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance.  We'll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people.  We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable.  And we will also focus our assistance in areas -- such as agriculture -- that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.
This much, therefore, is certain: in this moment, at least, the Taliban are saying the right words to move towards a real process of negotiations and ultimate peace. It is also certain that Obama's surge is costing the United States a minimum of $30 Billion, and it is also certain that over 1,000 American servicemen have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and it is therefore certain that more American troops will perish in Afghanistan if a pathway to peace is not found.

Whether Mullah Omar's words open that pathway is the great unanswered question.  The possibility his interview is nothing more than a posture calculated to slow and stymie the troop surge within Afghanistan is real and cannot be dismissed.  Yet the question should be answered--the lives of American soldiers and the tax dollars of American citizens demand it.

Answering that question will require direct talks with the Taliban, if only because neither the United States nor the Taliban has demonstrated any great confidence in the legitimacy of the Karzai government, rendering Karzai and his administration completely compromised as a negotiations partner for either side.  Mullah Omar is suggesting the time for those direct talks is now; if he is sincere, then he is right.  For Obama, the question reduces to one of how to engage the Taliban directly without compromising troop deployments vital to the surge or otherwise ceding vital initiatives to the Taliban.

If Mullah Omar is on the level, and Obama can seize this moment of diplomatic opportunity, then his surge in Afghanistan will have succeeded beyond all expectations. Proper respect for the Americans who fell in Afghanistan-and the Americans who will yet fall in Afghanistan--demands that Obama explore every diplomatic avendue to engage the Taliban and pursue peace rather than continued war.  Mullah Omar has given Obama a chance; pray God Obama finds the courage and the vision to pursue it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Obama's Nuclear Posture Review: Nothing new--and that's the problem

Barack Obama announced on Monday, 5 April 2010, a substantial revamping of US nuclear strategy, presumably to "substantially narrow the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons."

There's just one problem: Judging by the excerpts of the "new" strategy published by the New York Times, there is very little that is substantively "new" about the strategy.  The United States has been trending towards a more limited strategic mission for nuclear weapons for decades.

The Department of Defense' Nuclear Posture Review from 1995 summarized the role of nuclear weapons in US military strategy thus:
The U.S. National Security Strategy states: "We will retain strategic nuclear forces sufficient to deter any future hostile foreign leadership with access to strategic nuclear forces from acting against our vital interests and to convince it that seeking a nuclear advantage would be futile. Therefore we will continue to maintain nuclear forces of sufficient size and capability to hold at risk a broad range of assets valued by such political and military leaders." Recent international upheavals have not changed the calculation that nuclear weapons remain an essential part of American military power. Concepts of deterrence and survivability must adapt to the new international environment, yet continue to be central to the U.S. nuclear posture. Thus, the United States will continue to threaten retaliation, including nuclear retaliation, and to deter aggression against the United States, U.S. forces, and U.S. allies.
Alliance relationships are an important element of U.S. security. Through forward basing and power projection capabilities, overseas U.S. military presence -- including nuclear capabilities -- helped promote regional stability, avert crises, and deter war. In recent years, there has been a dramatic reduction in both the overall size of the U.S. military presence abroad and in the nuclear capabilities deployed overseas. Yet maintaining U.S. nuclear commitments with NATO, and retaining the ability to deploy nuclear capabilities to meet various regional contingencies, continues to be an important means for deterring aggression, protecting and promoting U.S. interests, reassuring allies and friends, and preventing proliferation. Although nuclear capabilities are now a far smaller part of the routine U.S. international presence, they remain an important element in the array of military capabilities that the United States can bring to bear, either independently or in concert with allies to deter war, or should deterrence fail, to defeat aggression. Thus, the United States continues to extend deterrence to U.S. allies and friends.
Obama's "new" pledge to the world is this:
The United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks. To that end, the United States is now prepared to strengthen its long-standing 'negative security assurance' by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations. This revised assurance is intended to underscore the security benefits of adhering to and fully complying with the NPT and persuade non-nuclear weapons states party to the Treaty to work with the United States and other interested parties to adopt effective measures to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.
How does this alter substantially the deterrent role of nuclear weapons outlined in 2005's Joint Publication 3-12: Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations?  Looking at that document (which though officially "cancelled"--meaning removed from the public domain, was never officially renounced as a guiding strategic document for the US military), it doesn't:
Deterrence. US nuclear forces deter potential adversaries by providing the President the means to respond appropriately to an attack on the US, its friends or allies. US nuclear forces must be capable of, and be seen to be capable of, destroying those critical war-making and war-supporting assets and capabilities that a potential adversary leadership values most and that it would rely on to achieve its own objectives in a post-war world. Thus, US nuclear forces deter potential adversary use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and dissuade against a potential adversary’s development of an overwhelming conventional threat.
Thus, even after Obama's "new" strategy is implemented, the role of US nuclear weapons is still to dissuade other nations from acquiring or using nuclear weapons.  Note the fine parsing of Obama's wording: only states who are a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance are promised immunity from nuclear strike.  That wording puts not only the non-signatory nations such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh on the wrong side of Obama's promise, but also signatory states such as Iran, who quite arguably is already in flagrant violation of the Treaty. Russia and China remain nuclear states and, thus, even in Obama's "new" strategy, are vulnerable to nuclear attack.

The one shift that is substantial is a refining of the language regarding weapons of mass destruction.  JP3-12 hedged by referring to that broad category of weapons, which includes biological and chemical weapons in addition to nuclear weapons.  Obama's strategy limits nuclear weapons use to response against nuclear weapons; biological and chemical attacks and/or threats will be dealt with conventionally:
In making this strengthened assurance, the United States affirms that any state eligible for the assurance that uses chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies and partners would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response - and that any individuals responsible for the attack, whether national leaders or military commanders, would be held fully accountable.
Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and US capacities to counter that threat.
However, even that is not a new policy.  "Prompt Global Strike" has been a strategic initiative of the United States since 2006, and envisions fitting conventional explosives onto ballistic missiles:
U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. James Cartwright has said he needs a prompt global strike capability to hold fleeting targets at risk. He would like a conventional weapon that could arrive on target within one hour of an order to launch, a capability currently offered only by nuclear-armed missiles. A conventional alternative would make U.S. threats more credible against targets such as a terrorist leader staying briefly at a safe house or a North Korean nuclear missile being readied on a launch pad, defense analysts say.
Obama's "new" strategy is to refrain from using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states--restating long-standing US nuclear doctine--and to pledge "devastating conventional military response" against non-nuclear threats or attacks--restating "Prompt Global Strike" from the Bush administration.  In short, Obama's "new" strategic doctrine is the same as the "old" strategic doctrine.

That is what is most troubling about Obama's announcement of the doctrine, because by making his announcement he breached one of the longest-standing principles of nuclear deterrence: ambiguity.  As JP3-12 states explicitly:
The US does not make positive statements defining the circumstances under which it would use nuclear weapons. Maintaining US ambiguity about when it would use nuclear weapons helps create doubt in the minds of potential adversaries, deterring them from taking hostile action. This calculated ambiguity helps reinforce deterrence. If the US clearly defined conditions under which it would use nuclear weapons, others might infer another set of circumstances in which the US would not use nuclear weapons. This perception would increase the chances that hostile leaders might not be deterred from taking actions they perceive as falling below that threshold.
Obama's new policy is to formally publish what was previously unpublished: the terms and conditions of a US nuclear strike--which is a strategically absurd thing to do.  The danger of the new policy is not that the United States is less armed, but that a threshold of bad behavior is being set which avoids the extreme response of nuclear attack, when deterrence is the only real strategic value of nuclear weapons.  To quote Robert McNamara in his 1967 "Mutual Deterrence" speech:
No sane citizen, political leader or nation wants thermonuclear war. But merely not wanting it is not enough. We must understand the differences among actions which increase its risks, those which reduce them and those which, while costly, have little influence one way or another. But there is a great difficulty in the way of constructive and profitable debate over the issues, and that is the exceptional complexity of nuclear strategy. Unless these complexities are well understood rational discussion and decision-making are impossible.
Obama's overplaying of a minor clarification in US nuclear weapons policy does not present as an action which will reduce the risk of nuclear war or US nuclear strike.  By carving out a set of permissible bad behaviors, he creates the potential risk that a malefactor on the world stage--be it a nation such as Iran or a trans-national entity such as Al Qaeda--will back the US into a corner where only a nuclear strike will remain a viable option.

Obama would do well to remember the goal of deterrence is the elimination of all bad behavior by all parties.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Businesses, not jobs; self-employment not employment

In March of 2010, the US economy added approximately 162,000 jobs--the largest expansion of payrolls in three years.

By most measures, this bit of economic data would be cause for celebration, but the details of those jobs does much to dampen the celebration of the moment.A significant proportion of those jobs were government jobs brought on by the decennial census (and which will disappear again after just a few months as a result), and while total private-sector payroll growth was 123,000 jobs, the overall unemployment rate remained at 9.7%.  The economic impact of these jobs may be fairly summarized thusly:
The economy is growing again, but at a pace unlikely to quickly replace the 8.4 million jobs erased in the recession that began in late 2007. More than 11 million people are drawing unemployment insurance benefits.
Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council, acknowledged that employment in this country still "has a long way to go."  When Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appeared on the Today show, he  informed host Matt Lauer that unemployment "is still terribly high and is going to stay unacceptably high for a long time."  Even though the jobs outlook in this country improved, the palpable effect of that improvement is practically nil. 

New York TImes columnist Thomas Friedman offers up an interesting bit of economic history that may explain why the March jobs figure fails to be all that encouraging:
Here’s my fun fact for the day, provided courtesy of Robert Litan, who directs research at the Kauffman Foundation, which specializes in promoting innovation in America: “Between 1980 and 2005, virtually all net new jobs created in the U.S. were created by firms that were 5 years old or less,” said Litan. “That is about 40 million jobs. That means the established firms created no new net jobs during that period.
Friedman's restatement is equally thought provoking:
Message: If we want to bring down unemployment in a sustainable way, neither rescuing General Motors nor funding more road construction will do it. We need to create a big bushel of new companies — fast.
Consider for a moment some historical figures on employment, courtesy of the US Census:
  • In 2002, companies with 500 or more employees had a total of 56,034,362 employees. Total number of paid employees in companies of all sizes was 112,400,654.
  • In 2004, companies with 500 or more employees had a total of 56,477,472 employees.  Total number of paid employees in companies of all sizes was 115,074,924.
  • In 2002, there were 17,646,062 firms that had no paid employees.
  • In 2004, there were 19,523,741 firms that had no paid employees.
  • From 1988 to 2003, there was only one year, 2001, when companies with 500 or more employees supported more than 50% of all paid employees for that year.  In all other years companies with 500 or more employees accounted for less than half of all paid employees for that year.  
These results may be summarized thus:  small companies (and, extending Litan, new companies) create and sustain the bulk of all jobs in this country.  If President Obama is indeed "preoccupied" with creating jobs, he is focused on the wrong target.  Friedman has the sense of it: America will find jobs by creating new businesses.  Business growth drives jobs growth--that is the logical extrapolation of Litan's data.

Moreover, Americans as a whole are focused on the wrong target.  Instead of seeking out a new job at a new employer, Americans should seek to create new businesses instead.  If the primary engine of economic activity in this country is the small business--is the new business--then the solution to this nation's somnolent economy will be found not through employment but through self-employment.

The worker-as-business owner would be, in essence, a return to the fundamentals of capitalism as articulated by Adam Smith in his treatise Wealth of Nations.  Smith's conceptualization of labor begins with the worker functioning as an independent entity:
In that original state of things, which precedes both the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock, the whole produce of labour belongs to the labourer.
This situation begins to change with the introduction of private property, which separates other resources from the resource of labor:
As soon as land becomes private property, the landlord demands a share of almost all the produce which the labourer can either raise, or collect from it. His rent makes the first deduction from the produce of the labour which is employed upon land.
It seldom happens that the person who tills the ground has wherewithal to maintain himself till he reaps the harvest. His maintenance is generally advanced to him from the stock of a master, the farmer who employs him, and who would have no interest to employ him, unless he was to share in the produce of his labour, or unless his stock was to be replaced to him with a profit. This profit makes a second deduction from the produce of the labour which is employed upon land.
It is important to note from the nature of Smith's language that he formulated his economic theories in an era before mass industrialization, and attributes to the individual worker the initial ownership and dominion over the fruits of his labor.  Switching to Karl Marx's epic Das Kapital, we find a considerably different view of labor:
THE change of value that occurs in the case of money intended to be converted into capital, cannot take place in the money itself, since in its function of means of purchase and of payment, it does no more than realise the price of the commodity it buys or pays for; and, as hard cash, it is value petrified, never varying. Just as little can it originate in the second act of circulation, the re-sale of the commodity, which does no more than transform the article from its bodily form back again into its money-form. The change must, therefore, take place in the commodity bought by the first act, M—C, but not in its value, for equivalents are exchanged, and the commodity is paid for at its full value. We are, therefore, forced to the conclusion that the change originates in the use-value, as such of the commodity, i.e., in its consumption. In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend, Moneybags, must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and, consequently, a creation of value. The possessor of money does find on the market such a special commodity in capacity for labour or labour-power.
By labour-power or capacity for labour is to be understood the aggregate of these mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description.
But in order that our owner of money may be able to find labour-power offered for sale as a commodity, various conditions must first be fulfilled. The exchange of commodities of itself implies no other relations of dependence than those which result from its own nature. On this assumption, labour-power can appear upon the market as a commodity only if, and so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labour-power it is, offers it for sale, or sells it, as a commodity. In order that he may be able to do this, he must have it at his disposal, must be the untrammelled owner of his capacity for labour, i.e., of his person. He and the owner of money meet in the market, and deal with each other as on the basis of equal rights, with this difference alone, that one is buyer, the other seller; both, therefore, equal in the eyes of the law. The continuance of this relation demands that the owner of the labour-power should sell it only for a definite period, for if he were to sell it rump and stump, once for all, he would be selling himself, converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity. He must constantly look upon his labour-power as his own property, his own commodity, and this he can only do by placing it at the disposal of the buyer temporarily, for a definite period of time. By this means alone can he avoid renouncing his rights of ownership over it.
In the modern era, Marx's view of labor and, thus, of jobs, certainly seems more attuned to the reality.  Certainly workers at Ford, Caterpillar or even Microsoft do not appear to have any initial claim on the fruits of their labors.  These workers, if one follows Marx, are a commodity, something bought and ultimately sold along with the raw materials that go into any manufacturing process.

A governmental focus on jobs plays into this thinking: jobs are created by providing incentives for companies to hire more workers--to purchase more labor.  Yet, looking back to Litan's job creation comment, companies appear not to want to purchase more labor; over time, companies if anything strive to purchase less labor.

Might Marx have been wrong?  Might labor be something besides a commodity to be bought and sold?  Friedman certainly gives one cause to think so:
But you cannot say this often enough: Good-paying jobs don’t come from bailouts. They come from start-ups. And where do start-ups come from? They come from smart, creative, inspired risk-takers.
What Friedman points out, what Smith has right, and what Marx has wrong, is the realization that the benefit of labor is the creation of value, and, as a direct consequence, can never be regarded as a commodity to be bought and sold merely.  All labor must be in its essence a creative undertaking.  "Good" jobs, therefore--jobs with significant pay and stature--come from new ventures seeking new ways to produce, or sell, or distrubute (or all of the above).  Good jobs come from new companies, not established ones.  Good jobs, then, are the result of individuals seeking new ways to impart value upon human effort. Good jobs are reflect Adam Smith and not Karl Marx.

Thus, for all the governmental focus on spurring the creation of jobs, such efforts are doomed to failure--certainly the application to date of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has failed to produce the upturn in employment forecast by Presidential economic advisors Christine Romer and Jared Bernstein.  These efforts fail because they do not address the fundamental aspect of value creation that defines the "good job".

Echoing Friedman, and recalling Adam Smith, it is not enough to merely speak of jobs.  A thriving economy must speak of and dwell upon business.  Each person must, in thought if not in reality, become an enterprise unto himself.  Government policy must encourage such thoughts and encourage individuals to translate such thoughts into action, to create new businesses and new engines of value creation.  Instead of 162,000 new jobs, America's goal should be 162,000 new businesses.

Now that would be cause for celebration indeed.