Jan 21

Many readers and Twitter followers have asked us, “When are you writing about American Sniper?”

Looking at our work on Lone Survivor, it makes sense. Chris Kyle was as conservative--if not more so--than Marcus Lutrell and filled his book with conservative and anti-ROE ideology. American Sniper, both the book and the movie, are huge hits. And, as multiple media outlets have noticed, Chris Kyle had a tendency to make things up, including shooting looters after Hurricane Katrina, killing two men at a gas station, and punching Jesse Ventura in the face. (This last one cost his family’s estate after he lost a defamation court case.)

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, we didn’t have time to debunk the facts behind the book. We did, though, have barely enough time last week to write up a piece for Slate, titled, “The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”. It also allowed us to finally debunk the sheep, sheepdogs and wolves analogy that we’ve hated for years. (This satisfied another request from our readers, who requested that we debunk this pop philosophy.) Since the American Sniper film uses this analogy, it allowed us to discuss both topics in place.

So, head over to Slate and check it out. Expect more on sheep, sheepdogs and wolves in the next few weeks.

Jan 21

I know what you’re thinking. “Ebola is a disease; how can it be violent?” Fair point. It’s tough to assign agency to a disease. But the Ebola “crisis” in America (and those quotation marks are firmly planted around “crisis”) shows how poorly America--if not the whole world--handles crises.

Unfortunately, America’s focus on Ebola mirrors our focus on terrorism in all the wrong ways. But if America can learn the lessons for either terrorism or Ebola, we have a chance to fundamentally improve our foreign policy.

Lesson #1: Misusing Statistics

This exchange from the cold open on Saturday Night Live a few months ago, mocking the new “Ebola czar”, illustrates how people don’t understand statistics:

Ebola Czar: If anything, we should be more afraid of the flu. It kills way many more people every year.

Reporter: But .01% of people with the flu die from it. And with Ebola it’s 50%.

Ebola Czar: We could all go throwing statistics around.

Reporter: Such as?

Challenge accepted, fake reporter from a sketch comedy show who, strangely enough, actually described how most Americans feel about Ebola.

As of right now, four Americans have tested positive for Ebola in America. All of the cases came from people who went to Africa or cared for a person who’d been in Africa. Only one person died.

How many people will die from the flu? “...according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average annual death toll from influenza between 1976 and 2007 was more than twenty-three thousand,” as James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker. So...we’ll need approximately 46,000 more people to contract Ebola to make it deadlier than the flu.

Oh, and the flu may be deadlier this year than in years past.

Unlike Ebola, the average person can actually do something about the flu: get a flu shot. The more people that get the flu shot, the better America’s overall herd immunity against the disease. (The CDC no longer recommends just the sick and elderly get the flu shot; everyone should.) Which means if we all work together, as a country, we can save ten of thousands lives. (In fairness, early reports indicate this year’s flu vaccine may not be a good match for this year’s flu, but the CDC still recommends getting a flu shot.)

Will we? No, because people don’t understand statistics. Even our comedy shows, instead of parodying America's misguided fear of Ebola, are actually making us more afraid.

Lesson #2: We overhype the threat.

Ebola, it turns out, doesn’t pose much of a threat to cause a global pandemic. It “burns too hot”, meaning the disease replicates faster than the host can communicate it. In other words, it kills its victims too quickly. (It poses especially little danger to Western nations, since we don’t clean our own dead like they do in West Africa.)

And Ebola is unlikely to go airborne, as David Quammen told RadioLab, “To get to that point, would require a number of mutations that are infinitesimally unlikely...it would be like mutations that would allow a giraffe to fly.” (Min 52:00)

(Look for Pt. 2 of this post tomorrow.)

Jan 14

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.

And click here to read the entire “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series.)

Last week, I asked, “Did we consider the opportunity costs of the first Iraq War?” The answer was, “No.”

But I limited myself to only considering the opportunity costs of spending our “war capital”, the vague combination of American morale/enthusiasm for war. When we go to war we also spend real financial capital. War costs money. And that money has opportunity costs of its own.

The worst part of over-hyping of the ISIS threat is that it will lead America into another war without questioning the costs or considering these opportunity costs. According to some estimates, a new Iraq war could cost billions (with a B). (It’s already cost at least a billion dollars.)

How did it get so high? Well, every aircraft carrier costs millions to operate in a war posture. Every deployed soldier costs tens of thousands of dollars. Every contractor costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Every cruise missile costs tens of thousands of dollars. Every plane in the sky requires extra maintenance. This totals out to nearly $300,000 for every hour were at war with ISIS.

And America might spend billions more to defeat ISIS. As I referenced last week, fiscally conservative Republicans suddenly become drunken soldiers at the strip club when it comes to fighting wars. So we need to have a conversation about opportunity costs. Here are my biggest candidates for how America could have spent a billion dollars instead of fighting ISIS.

Finally, a caveat: I only wanted to think about foreign policy spending, because frankly, we’d be here all day if we wrote about ways military spending could be converted into domestic spending. (Vaccinations, infrastructure, and so on.)

Paying Down the Debt

Somehow, when it comes to federal spending, wars and military spending don’t seem to count. Famously, the first war in Iraq was the first time America went to war and lowered taxes instead of raising them. As Eric C wrote in his comment on last Monday’s post, in 2008, whenever Republicans accused Democrats of raising the debt with proposed stimulus programs, all he could think about was constantly increasing defense spending, intelligence spending increases after 9/11, and the ginormous cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, without a dime raised in taxes to cover these costs.

An opportunity cost of the first Iraq war, in monetary terms, was not saving money for stimulus in case the economy crashed. Which happened five years after the first war started.

How much have the post 9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries cost so far? At least $1.5 trillion, according to James Fallows. According to Linda J. Bilmes, the price tag could reach up to $4 to 6 trillion, factoring in associated military costs and veteran's benefits.

But we shouldn’t live in the past. Let’s look to the future. And the very simple calculation every politician should make is whether it is more important for America to pay down its debt (now and in the future) or to fight another war in the Middle East. Maybe the current billion dollar price tag won’t break the bank, but it would help.

Leading the World in the Sustainable Development Goals

Later this year, the U.N. will replace the Millenium Development Goals--that were moderately successful--with the Sustainable Development Goals. The U.S. could really cement its leadership of the world by vowing to spend 1.0% of its GDP on foreign aid and development. (The current global target is 0.7% of GDP.) The U.S. currently spends 0.19% of its GDP on foreign aid. (Despite the perception that the US spends 25 to 30% of the federal budget on foreign aid, it spends about 2%.) We could even do it with business friendly tactics like direct aid, small business loans, and venture capital support. But the U.S. would rather spend a billion dollars on war funding than getting people out of poverty.

Or Leading the World on Climate Change

If you’ve been reading/following any of the Economist’s year ahead coverage, you know that later this year the world’s leaders are meeting in Paris for a summit on climate change. While the U.S. and China have taken a step on the path to confronting climate change by agreeing to terms, the U.S. could do even more by helping developing countries confront climate change. Financially, developing countries face a tougher burden developing green energy; strategically, this is the best way to stop carbon pollution.

Again, this would require hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, and it would require the Senate to ratify a treaty (more on that next week), but it is a real option. And it is possibly much more dangerous than ISIS.

Fighting Ebola

Finally, let’s close with a way we could have really helped people last year. What if I told you that Ebola could have been stopped before it became an epidemic. You would probably say, “Well, yeah, I read about that in the The New York Times, how poor communication led to an epidemic.”

And you’d be right.

Frankly, America has some of the best health care professionals in the world. If we had an extra billion dollars to spend on helping people abroad, I wish we’d spent much more, much sooner in Africa. Perhaps we could have tracked the spread of the disease more effectively, preventing the tragic lack of communication that led to the deaths of tens of thousands. We would have actually saved lives, built up good will, and come across as a nation interested in helping people.

Now that sounds like a smart way to spend money.

Jan 14

(Today's guest post is by Carrie Morgan. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C. or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

A lot has been written about the “civil-military divide” over the last few years. And while there have been a few prominent civilian voices on this subject (e.g. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran, whose book For Love of Country highlights the stories and sacrifices of post-9/11 veterans, and James Fallow, whose article “The Tragedy of the American Military” appears in this month’s issue of The Atlantic), most discussions of the “civ/mil” divide have been dominated by military voices. This makes sense, since the people experiencing the civ/mil divide most viscerally are typically the folks on the “mil” side of that divide. The majority of civilians aren’t even aware that the divide exists.

Of course, that isn’t to say that civilians don’t suffer from the existence of the divide, because we do. Millions of Americans have served in the military, and when their service is done, they leave the military and find a place among the rest of us. Knowing them--our neighbors and coworkers--and understanding their experiences in service to our country helps us understand our world and our place in it. The skills and insights our “citizen soldiers” bring to the civilian world enrich our democracy. When veterans and military folk are disconnected from the civilian community around them, we all lose.

Still, most discussions of the civ/mil divide remain dominated by military voices, and this one-sidedness is a symptom of the very problem these discussions aim to resolve.

Because they themselves have not served, the civilian community is largely ignorant of the challenges faced by military families and the difficulties service members face when transitioning to a life “off-post.” This gap in understanding is exacerbated by the perception by many in the military community that civilians don’t understand their needs or experiences and never, ever will.  

This gap seems especially evident after the release of the declassified report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11. In the days after the CIA report was released, debates over torture’s effectiveness and propriety filled the airwaves and internet. Occasionally a voice from the military community pops up and says something like, “If you have no knowledge of or experience with interrogations or intelligence work, please spare me your opinion of the torture report.” This is a variant on a theme that goes something like this: “If you haven’t served in the military, then I don’t care what you think about the war/national security/the VA/etc.” There’s a Facebook group that calls itself “About Iraq/Afghanistan, If You Haven't Been There,Then Shut Up!” Such attitudes even show up in the political sphere, such as when the campaign manager for Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota lashed out at a conservative critic in October by saying, “Washington, D.C., blogger Jim Hagedorn, who has never served a day in uniform, has zero credibility on national security issues.” Not only is such rhetoric intellectually specious (for the reasons stated in earlier On Violence posts here and here), it’s also obnoxious and utterly unproductive as a form of public discourse. As the wife of an Army vet and a longtime civilian supporter of veterans causes, I can’t help but feel such “if you haven’t served, then” statements as a slap in the face.

I understand where this frustration comes from. However, this “if you haven’t served, then” attitude is completely unhelpful in narrowing the civ/mil divide. In fact, it only makes that chasm wider, deeper, and more difficult to bridge.

At its heart, the civ/mil divide is about understanding and communication—or more accurately, a lack of it. Many civilians don’t know much about the military experience, and many military folk feel that civilians don’t understand them. The only way to cure this lack of understanding and foster empathy among the civilian community is to enable civilians to access military experiences, and the only mechanism for this to occur (short of drafting all 250 million non-veteran American adults into the military) is communication.

We can narrow the civil/military divide. It’s important for veterans, for those currently serving in uniform, and ultimately for our society and democracy as a whole. It won’t be easy, and it will take effort on both the “civ” and “mil” sides of the divide.

Communication is the key.

Will civilians listen? Some won’t, sure, but a lot of them will. While very few of us have donned a uniform, many of us know someone who has. Most of us are not veterans, but we have friends or family who are. Those links, those connections, form a basis for understanding—but only if both sides of the civ/mil divide are willing to communicate.

Veterans and military folks, I’m talking to you.

Don’t shut civilians out. Tell us what you think. Share your experiences and your viewpoints--please--but dialogue is a two-way street. We have to listen to one another. If a civilian friend, neighbor or coworker opines on a subject of national security, don’t dismiss that opinion out of hand simply because the speaker hasn’t served. If you disagree, fine--but instead of simply saying, “You’ve never served, so you don’t know what you’re talking about,” politely explain why. Open exchange will foster the empathy that will heal the chasms between us. That’s the only way this will work. If we can’t keep the channels of communication open, then the civ/mil divide will remain.

And that hurts us all, both “civ” and “mil” alike.

 

Carrie Morgan has written a novel, The Road Back From Broken, about the struggle of a military family affected by post-traumatic stress and war trauma. She lives in Orlando, Florida with her husband, a U.S. Army infantry veteran, and is working on a second novel. You can follow her on Twitter here and at her blog, "Wages of War."

Jan 13

At the end of 2012, Michael C was interviewed by Robert Tollast--who frequently writes on Iraq for the Small Wars Journal--for a piece in The National Interest, "Maliki’s Private Army". In hindsight, it’s kind of eerily predictive of Maliki’s future actions.

Jan 12

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.

And click here to read the entire “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series.)

Whatever it is about the Middle East, it causes staunch, free-market-loving Republicans to forget their economics. Mention Obamacare, government regulation, the minimum wage or any other social issue, and free-market, libertarian-esque Republicans will extol the virtues of economics. Yet as soon as they begin talking about Iraq or Syria, these lessons disappear. Specifically, these Republicans (and all policy makers in Washington, really) refuse to acknowledge the costs associated with foreign policy.

Specifically, the opportunity costs. (Which we’ve been writing about since I went to business school.)

As we reflect on the reemergence of a civil war in Iraq, it seems appropriate to see how well the U.S.--led by the Bush administration--acknowledged the opportunity costs of the first war in Iraq.

Let’s spell this out with a hypothetical example. You own a pizza shop. (In business school, I swear all the business examples involve restaurants, even though most MBAs work in consultancies or investment banks. Curious.) You have ten stores, each doing incredible business. I mean, you’re slinging pizzas to every wahoo on the block. Obviously, you want to expand. You have about a million in cash, and it costs about a million dollars to open a new restaurant. You have narrowed down your options to three different cities.

So what do you do?

If you are in charge of American foreign policy, you open up a restaurant in every single city and go into massive debt.

But wait, that doesn’t make any sense! You don’t have the cash or resources to do that. You would likely fail at every new city--because you can’t devote the time, energy, manpower and resources to each one--and could cost yourself your entire franchise. (This isn’t purely hypothetical. Many restaurants have over-expanded to ill outcome.)

This is what happened in Iraq in 2003. Despite fighting an ongoing war in Afghanistan and a new “war on terror” (which sucked up huge amounts of capital to build a massive new intelligence and domestic security apparatus) President Bush, Vice President Cheney and all their diplomatic, military and intelligence advisers told America that we had the resources (in business terms, capital) to invade another country.

Except we (America) didn’t.

The business metaphor also shows the incredibly poor return on investment of invading Iraq. As Dexter Filkins recently covered, we basically deposed a Sunni despot for a Shia despot, while radicalizing a population of Sunni Muslims. (Though, Dexter Filkins illustrated in this podcast a fantastic ability to cling to “sunk costs”.) In terms of “what did we get for what we spent”, we blew it.

The biggest opportunity cost is spending what you could call “war capital”, the support needed to wage wars. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan spent most of America’s “war capital”, and spent it poorly. It also meant we ignored the war in Afghanistan for far too long, wasting support for that fight. So when it comes to other possible American wars like...

Enforcing President Obama’s redline in Syria? Can’t, because Iraq made Americans afraid of messy civil wars.

Bombing Iran to stop their nuclear weapons program? Can’t, because Iraq made Americans afraid of mission creep.

Intervening in Ukraine? Can’t because Americans don’t want another war (and Russia has nuclear weapons).

Do something more in Libya, Egypt, Yemen or wherever else Charles Krauthammer or Bill Kristol wants? Can’t because Iraq, Iraq, Iraq and Iraq.

Most Americans, who live outside the confines of Washington D.C., understand that we don’t have the military capital to start another war in those places because we spent that capital (poorly) on Iraq. Nevertheless, despite widespread opposition, America started bombing Iraq anew and even put boots on the ground. Are there opportunity costs to that? You betcha, and we’ll discuss that on Thursday.

Jan 09

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: iraq Redux", please click here.)

When ISIS started taking territory in Iraq, America--with an assist from the media--became afraid of two things. The first was that ISIS would start launching Al Qaeda style attacks against the US, which Michael C debunked yesterday. The second was that…

ISIS IS ABOUT TO TAKE BAGHDAD!!!!!!!!!

Unfortunately, ISIS has been about to take Baghdad for over half a year now... 

- 12 June 2014, Al Arabiya, “ISIS Militants Plan to March on Baghdad

- 12 June 2014, The Daily Mail, “ISIS butchers leave 'roads lined with decapitated police and soldiers': Battle for Baghdad looms as thousands answer Iraqi government's call to arms and jihadists bear down on capital

- 15 June 2014, The Telegraph, “Iraq crisis: ISIS battles for Baghdad - June 15 as it happened

- 22 June 2014, Haaretz, “High anxiety in Iraqi capital as it awaits ISIS invasion

- 1 July 2014, Newsweek, “Expected to Take Aim at the 'Baghdad Belt’”

- 29 September 2014, The Daily Mail, “ISIS fighters now 'at the gates of Baghdad': Islamic militants fighting 'just one mile from Iraqi capital' despite days Western airstrikes

- 5 October 2014, The Washington Times, “Islamic State withstands bombing campaign, plots Baghdad invasion

- 11 October 2014, CBS, “ISIS encroaches on ultimate prize in Iraq

- 12 October 2014, Al Arabiya, “ISIS rallies ‘10,000 militants’ at gates of Baghdad

- 14 October 2014, Time, “180,000 People Flee Western Iraq as ISIS Inches Ever Closer to Baghdad

- 17 October 2014, The New York Times, “ISIS Keeps Up Pressure Near Baghdad as Iraqi Troops Hesitate

To be fair, ISIS “threatened” Baghdad mainly in June and October. But this collection is only a partial list. I only started collecting headlines like this after ISIS threatened Baghdad the second time, and I thought, “They haven’t taken Baghdad yet? They’ve been threatening them since June.” More important than that question is this one:

Can ISIS even take Baghdad?

Now, I’m no military expert--that’s Michael C’s area of expertise--but from my layman’s point of view, one thought stands out: Baghdad is majority Shia. True, finding accurate numbers on the actual demographic breakdown is not easy. But according to Newsweek and Joel Wing’s excellent Musings on Iraq--which cites the CIA fact book--Baghdad is 70 to 80% Shia. Secondly, the Shia majority has some very powerful militias ready at their disposal, as America learned the hard way.

In other words, ISIS won’t be waltzing into Baghdad anytime soon.

Jan 07

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.)

As the media responded to the death of American journalist James Foley at the end of last summer, the hype for a new war eventually caused 63% of Americans to support air strikes against ISIS. (Read Zach Beauchamp for great coverage on the over-reaction here.) The culmination, for me, was this article by Retired General James Allen [emphasis mine]:

“If all the actions of the Islamic State, or IS, to date weren’t sufficiently reprehensible, this act and the potential for other similar acts will snap American attention with laser-like focus onto the real danger IS poses to the existence of Iraq, the order of the region and to the homelands of Europe and America.

To make sure his readers understand the severity, he continues, “Make no mistake, the abomination of IS is a clear and present danger to the U.S.” Remarkably, General Allen provides almost no evidence to prove this point.

I’m not picking on just General Allen; no one in the Obama administration, including the President himself, or congressmen advocating for war, ever provided evidence that ISIS posed a threat to the US beyond “Trust us.” A perfect example is this USA Today article with the provocative headline, “Islamic State biggest threat since 9/11, sources say”. Again, beyond “sources”, it didn’t have any evidence.  

Since I can’t debunk every media article, I want to use General Allen’s op-ed as a case study in how to over-hype the threat of terrorists. So what evidence did Gen. Allen bring to bear? Here’s a list after reading and re-reading his op-ed:

- The Islamic State wants to establish a Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

- There are foreign fighters in their ranks.

- They are a well-organized insurgent group.

- They have money and weapons.

- They beheaded one American journalist. (And since more.)

- Al Qaeda used Taliban support in Afghanistan.

- Finally, this vague sentence: “The leadership of the so-called Caliphate has been clear that it will focus on Western and American targets if given the chance...”

So all those factors point to a group that could and is threatening the current state of Iraq. At least they have a significant chance to carve out a chunk of territory for their own. The problem is many of those “facts” don’t lead to ISIS being a threat to America’s homeland, as General Allen claimed.

Take the first and last bullet points; they’re contradictory. If ISIS wants to establish a Caliphate, the worst thing it could do would be to provoke US, UK and European nations into re-invading Iraq. That would set back its plans years, decades or end them all together. (Ask the Taliban how it worked out for them.)

Further, US intelligence agencies really don’t know much about the group. In fact, the US Counter-Terrorism adviser contradicted the Secretary of Defense on whether ISIS posed a threat to the homeland. So its more accurate to say, “Some sources say ISIS isn’t a threat and other sources say they are.” The number of fighters under ISIS control vary wildly from one estimate to another. When the US intel community (and the media) don’t know much about a new terrorist group, they tend to overestimate their strength.

To top it off, this dire and immediate threat to the US finished the year by completely dropping out of the news almost altogether, except for articles about how ISIS ended the year stalled out.

(Oh, and using the evidence that because Al Qaeda was harbored by the Taliban that ISIS will surely harbor international terrorists isn’t evidence.)

Yes, ISIS committed a war crime when it executed a journalist in Iraq. Yes, ISIS is bad for the Middle East and civil wars are bad for the world. However, given that it is against their interests to attack the US, we don’t know how many troops they have in the first place, they don’t have a terrorist arm, it is probably reasonable to conclude they won’t attack the U.S. homeland.

If politicians really want to make the case for action against ISIS, they can, but they shouldn’t hype a terror threat on our homeland.