The global counterterrorism mission imposes substantial political costs to the U.S. Yet policymakers are rushing ahead anyway. Why we should start thinking more about politics, and less about killing bad guys.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to the media from the Pentagon Briefing Room in Washington, DC / Reuters
If you talk to any security or intelligence professional, they'll tell you that the consequences of the Arab Spring -- it turned one this week -- have been devastating to U.S. security interests in the region. Information gathering, operations, intelligence, and general context about the Middle East and North Africa had become so lopsided -- utterly reliant on the security services of the unpopular dictatorships in the region -- that their overthrow more of less crippled U.S. efforts.
Over the last year the U.S. bureaucracy has worked feverishly to reestablish itself in the MENA region. But while it does so it stands on the verge of making a similar mistake in its reliance on drones to achieve policy objectives. The first hints of this imbalance are manifesting themselves all the time in the politics of target countries -- places where U.S. drones fly and fire weapons.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled this week a plan to dramatically expand the use of drones and special operations as the DoD tries to figure out how to operate in a universe of limited resources. It is part of President Obama's shift toward smaller covert actions in place of bigger, overt wars. But this policy shift is not without cost, and those costs are rarely debated in the public or behind closed doors.
As one example, drones carry inherent political costs to the regime that allows them. Among domestic populations, drones are almost always unpopular, as they represent a distant and unaccountable foreign power exercising the right to kill them at will. The resistance to drones is debated heavily in Pakistani circles, but it's difficult to ignore the effects, like a walkout in Parliament.Given the precariousness of President Zardari's administration, the impending military resistance to his rule, and the intrigue over Memogate, it should concern U.S. policymakers deeply that the drone program is further destabilizing an already tenuous situation.
In Yemen, too, the situation continues to deteriorate. There remains society-wide unrest at the horrible rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, and even his replacements and other contenders are finding it hard to placate public anger (which seems to be spreading).While Yemen has never been particularly stable, there is every indication that the drone strikes -- which will continue so long as officials feel threatened -- have only made the instability worse.
The problem with the drones policy isn't that drones themselves are bad, but that they are happening without broader political, social, and even economic policies that could mitigate their pernicious consequences. In Pakistan, the limp U.S. engagement has at the very least not helped the nasty politics of Islamabad (the case of Raymond Davis -- whose case became the source of deep, vicious public anger -- shows that the drones policy almost certainly made Pakistani politics and the government worse off). In Yemen, the limp U.S. political engagement with the Yemeni opposition groups has not only failed to mitigate the negative consequences of shooting missiles into desert villages, it has also crippled the U.S. ability to cope with a post-Saleh future.
In both countries, Pakistan and Yemen, the U.S. faces a future similar to what it faces in the Arab Spring countries: a sudden cut-off of information and cooperation it thinks critical to the global struggle against extremism. Yet that hasn't slowed down the pace of drone warfare -- especially when they come to define U.S. policy in places like the Horn of Africa (another area where U.S. engagement is primarily through drones and special forces instead of through politics).
Already, some countries are reacting against this global assertion to fly airplanes and kill at will. Last December, Algeria denied the U.S. permission to fly drones over its territory to help contain negative spillover effects from the Libyan intervention. Needless to say, that has limited U.S. options in the area because the U.S. never bothered to come up with a policy that doesn't rely on drones. Thus, as there appears to be a growing gap between the CIA and Algeria on how to react to the threat posted by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, there just isn't the political foundation in place to work those differences through.
Future drone technology, which includes making the planes autonomous, are unnerving to many of us who wonder about the substantial costs imposed by the current, human-controlled aircraft.There are no immediate plans for an autonomous lethal drone yet -- all of the automated systems will be for surveillance and resupplying ground troops -- but the rush to robots in warfare is worrying. There just isn't enough thought about what consequences these systems impose on U.S. policy. There needs to be.
New presidents often err by either trying to impose their will on Congress or being too hands-off. Trump is on course to commit both errors on his top two legislative priorities.
Mucking up an interaction with Congress is a rite of passage for every new president—usually on health care, and especially for those with limited experience in Washington.
The twin pitfalls for a new president are the same ones the great Tommy Lasorda described in his approach to baseball: “I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.” A president can try to push his vision aggressively on Congress, risking backlash from members—let’s call that the Bill Clinton approach. Alternatively, he can try to hang back and let Congress act, risking the chance that without presidential leadership, members will come up with something he doesn’t like, or even worse that they can’t pass. We’ll call that the Barack Obama approach.
The MIT economist Peter Temin argues that economic inequality results in two distinct classes. And only one of them has any power.
A lot of factors have contributed to American inequality: slavery, economic policy, technological change, the power of lobbying, globalization, and so on. In their wake, what’s left?
That’s the question at the heart of a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, by Peter Temin, an economist from MIT. Temin argues that, following decades of growing inequality, America is now left with what is more or less a two-class system: One small, predominantly white upper class that wields a disproportionate share of money, power, and political influence and a much larger, minority-heavy (but still mostly white) lower class that is all too frequently subject to the first group’s whims.
In 1985, Neil Postman observed an America imprisoned by its own need for amusement. He was, it turns out, extremely prescient.
Earlier this month, thousands of protesters gathered at Washington’s National Mall to advocate for an assortment of causes: action against global climate change, federal funding for scientific research, an empirical approach to the world and its mysteries. The protesters at the March for Science, as scientists are wont to do, followed what has become one of the formulas for such an event, holding clever signs, wearing cheeky costumes, and attempting, in general, to carnivalize their anger. “Make the Barrier Reef Great Again,” read one sign at the March. “This is my sine,” read another. “I KNEW TO WEAR THIS,” one woman had written on the poncho she wore that soggy Saturday, “BECAUSE SCIENCE PREDICTED THE RAIN.” Three protesters, sporting sensible footwear and matching Tyrannosaurus rex costumes, waved poster boards bearing messages like “Jurassick of this shit.”
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
Recent border battles have once again redrawn the lines of the metro area.
On the Saturday before Election Day last November, Jason Lary, a former insurance executive, crouched on a rough patch of grass at the center of a busy intersection 20 miles outside of Atlanta in DeKalb County. Lary was holding a hammer, and he tapped carefully on the thin wire base of a campaign sign. “My hand is like Fred Flintstone’s right now because I banged my hand in the night,” he said, noting his latest sign-related injury. This hazard, though, was worthwhile: “If you don’t start [the sign] with your hand, it will bend. It takes longer—guys are 10 times faster than I am. But my sign’s still gonna be up.”
This was a non-trivial advantage for Lary, who for the past month had begun most mornings with a kind of ground-game whack-a-mole. He would put up signs under the cover of night, only to have his opponents dislodge them by hand or, when that failed, run over them with their cars. Nevertheless, Lary was feeling good. “My opposition? Worn down,” he told me. “They don’t even have any more signs. And I kept a stash, knowing this time was coming. This is not my first picnic with nonsense.”
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
Cases of brain-infecting amoebae underscore the importance of purifying water before you pour it into your sinuses.
Allergy season is upon us once more, and for many allergy sufferers, that means it’s time to pull two crucial items to the front of the medicine cabinet: 24-hour non-drowsy loratadine, and a neti pot—a teapot-like device used to flush the nasal passages with saline in order to clear allergens and soothe sinus pressure. (It can be seen in action in this very popular gif.) The constant mockery of my loved ones doesn’t prevent me from using a neti pot to ease my congestion. It’s too effective to give up for the sake of pride. But I have also used my neti pot with considerable apprehension since 2011.
That year, a 20-year-old man from Louisiana died of encephalitis caused by Naegleria fowleri, an amoeba commonly found in lakes and rivers in the American South—but which rarely causes infection. More unusual still was the fact that the young man hadn’t had been swimming in freshwater lakes or rivers anytime recently. Then, a few months later, a 51-year-old Louisiana woman also died of encephalitis—primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) to be exact, which is the condition caused when Naegleria fowleri infects the brain. Shortly before she passed away, her doctor learned that while she hadn’t had been swimming in freshwater either, she had recently used a neti pot. Researchers later learned that the other victim had also used a neti pot, and subsequent testing found Naegleria fowleri in both patients’ brain tissue as well as the tap water in their homes. Using a neti pot had allowed the amoeba to reach their brains.
On Wednesday, the administration launched a new office to “assist victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens.” Some rang in with reports of UFOs.
The term “alien” is used in legal contexts to denote those present in the United States who aren’t citizens. But some callers are using a new hotline launched on Wednesday for victims of crimes committed by aliens to report that they’ve been victimized by extraterrestrials.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration launched the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office. The office, which was originally announced in a January executive order on immigration, intends to “assist victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.
“All crime is terrible, but these victims are unique—and too often ignored,” said DHS Secretary John Kelly in announcing the office. “They are casualties of crimes that should never have taken place—because the people who victimized them often times should not have been in the county in the first place.”
The Affordable Care Act was behind the last lapse in federal funding in 2013, and Democrats threaten revenge if Republicans try to jam through their repeal bill before a spending agreement is reached.
Republican leaders returned to Washington after a lengthy Easter recess with two discrete goals for the week: Keep the federal government from shutting down, and maybe, if they had the time and the votes, finally pass their bill to replace the Affordable Care Act.
Congress being Congress, this presented a test significantly more difficult than, say, walking and chewing gum at the same time. And as a deadline for funding the government draws near, one GOP priority is threatening to derail the other.
House Democrats on Thursday warned that they would withhold their support for a short-term extension of government funding if Republicans first tried to rush through legislation decimating Obamacare, while an impatient President Trump accused them of wanting to shut down the government for not agreeing to his demands. The rhetorical volleys injected a new round of drama into a spending showdown that had seemed close to a resolution. But it wasn’t clear that any of the threats would actually be carried out.
For better or for worse, all roads to avoid global calamity run through Beijing.
President Donald Trump is right: North Korea’s nuclear program is on a dangerous trajectory. But there is no quick fix. Nor is there an imminent threat, and it does not help to create the impression that there is one. A show of force, if carefully calibrated, can be helpful. But rhetorical excess, personal provocations directed at North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, and stunts like calling the Senate to a White House briefing don’t help.
Moreover, for all the bellicose posturing from Washington and Pyongyang, the most likely outcome of this latest flare-up of tensions around North Korea is more stalemate, as the Kim regime continues work on its nuclear-weapons program—unless the Trump administration considers some new, non-military, approaches.