Monday, July 28, 2008

A Gaffe That Draws Blood

I have to concede, I am really quite pleased that John McCain started running his mouth about the Anbar Awakening. Before he did, the Conventional Wisdom on the Surge was so firmly established as to appear immovable. Everybody knows, the Surge worked. The fact that there is very little evidence to support that assertion really never came up. And if anyone tried to bring it up, they were scoffed at (as Obama was in the USA Today editorial above). Now that McCain has brought to the fore the fact that the Anbar Awakening, one of the most critical elements of our recent success in Iraq, was unrelated to the Surge, we can start to revisit the Conventional Wisdom.

What I think we'll find is that the real root cause for the turnaround in violence in Iraq had less to do with the additional 20,000 troops than with a change in tactics of which the Anbar Awakening was one element. The dramatic rise of David Petraeus marked the military's final grudging acceptance of the need to engage in actual counterinsurgency operations. After several disastrous years fighting the insurgency, it dawned on the Pentagon that their only real successes came where officers like Petraeus and H.R. McMaster eschewed the major operations that were up to that point the mainstay of the Iraq occupation and adopted classic counterinsurgency tactics. Hell, Petraeus wrote the book on the topic. Petraeus's ascension and this shift in tactics is what made the Anbar Awakening and the later success of the Surge possible.

This is a fairly important distinction, for a couple of reasons. First, is its obvious political impact. McCain has staked much on the fact that he supported the Surge when few others did, and the apparent success of the Surge is supposed to justify any number of prior errors of judgment with respect to Iraq (note how the USA Today article asks Obama to admit he was wrong about the surge, but it doesn't ask McCain to admit he was wrong about invading). If the Surge was not the answer, what does McCain have left to hang his hat on? Even if McCain did back counterinsurgency tactics, and it's not clear he did, that wouldn't be a terribly unique position. This humble blogger criticized the major ops approach to fighting the insurgency as far back as 2003, called for the implementation of counterinsurgency tactics in early 2004, and praised the military's movement in that direction in late 2005. Where was McCain all that time? I could have used his help back then.

Aside from the 2008 election, this debate has other long-term implications. Crediting the Surge for all that has gone right serves the right-wing's ever-popular Green Lantern Theory of Foreign Policy. According to the Green Lantern Theory ("GLT") any military failure is caused by a lack of willpower, and any military objective is achievable given a sufficient reserve of willpower. A corollary to the GLT is that any domestic criticism of either the decision to engage in a military conflict or the conduct of such conflict is a direct attack on the one resource necessary to win such a conflict (willpower) and thereby equivalent to treason. Proponents of the GLT have long scorned concepts such as nationbuilding, the exercise military restraint, respect for local culture, winning of hearts and minds, and, indeed, just about every other element of a traditional counterinsurgency operation. Not only are such things considered to be pointless, but they might weaken our resolve and are therefore deemed harmful to the cause.

Pinning all success in Iraq to the Surge is a perfect narrative fit for the GLT. Just when everyone else wanted to discuss withdrawal, George W. Bush rode the rescue with bulging reserves of willpower and not only refused to withdraw, he upped the ante as a tangible demonstration of his generous endowment of resolve. And lo, victory was achieved. If this is the narrative that comes out of the Iraq war, we will all live to regret it. The United States and Iraq alike paid a painful and bloody price to learn the lessons that the GLT proponents hope to obscure in a haze of Surge-o-philia.

In truth what we learned this time around are a lot of the lessons we should have learned from Vietnam. Indeed, Robert McNamara basically did learn those lessons. It is no coincidence that so did David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster. Petraeus wrote a doctoral thesis at Princeton titled "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam." McMaster also wrote a doctoral thesis on the mistakes of the American military in Vietnam. The lessons were there to be learned, but few among conservative policymakers and the Pentagon brass did, enamored of the GLT as they are. Will we walk away from Iraq with the public and policymakers learning all the same wrong lessons so that the next time around we will, at terrible cost, have to rediscover the right ones all over again? I surely hope not. And I hope that McCain's gaffe will open the door to a more robust public dialogue on this topic.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Too Big to Be Privatized

There has been buzz for the past several days that the federal government would move to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and now appears the rumors have proven correct. This follows not so long after the bailout of Bear Stearns. I don't know enough about the banking market to say whether the government has made the right moves with respect to these bailouts, but it strikes me as odd that any private entity should be considered "too big to fail". It seems there two potential routes around this: either ensure that no single firm in a given market obtains enough market share to make its collapse catastrophic, or simply put the critical functions under public control. The former option is problematic in that a) it would require a far more robust (and I mean FAR more) and aggressive type of antitrust regulation than we currently have, and b) it is easy to imagine that, even with a larger number of firms, intense competition might lead the firms to adopt similar approaches such that numerous firms would teeter on the edge of collapse at the same time, and a bailout would be required anyway. The latter option is problematic for the obvious reason that markets are generally more efficient than government management. But this system where private companies are free to reap really impressive profits (as the investment banks have), but the public ultimately bears the downside risk seems untenable.

This problem has always been at the foundation of my opposition to any sort of privatization of social security. In fact, it's worse for social security than for the banking system, because with social security you've got two levels risk to deal with--the institutional and individual. Because even if whatever private institutions we hand the system over to don't fail, if a significant number of individuals managed their risk poorly and get cleaned out, I find it inconceivable that the government wouldn't step in to rescue them. That is, after all, the entire point of the program. It's social security. And once that happens, of course we'd expect everyone else to try to shoot the moon with their investments, because what's the downside? This is the sort of risk we don't want to be distributed. It only works when the risk is pooled. Look for similar problems with some sort of hybridized public/private health insurance. Once we've made a social decision that some service is necessary, for whatever reason (economic stability, national security, moral obligation), handing it over to private entities will necessarily create serious problems with risk management and moral hazard.

I'm not necessarily arguing that, for example, our entire banking system or health care system should be government run. But I do think that in terms of structuring the mix of government and private management of such critical functions we need to try to identify key breaking points and either put them under direct government control or develop some clever system to ensure that private entities approach these functions with the right set of incentives.

Update (7/14): Sebastian Mallaby appears to have a similar take on the issue to mine.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Public Service Announcement

It's been quite some time since I've done a public service announcement, but I just randomly happened upon this, and people ought to know. I haven't really heard anything about it, but I figure you can't go too far wrong with Joss Whedon and Nathan Fillion. Here's the story. The first act is out on Tuesday.

Policy Outcomes

It may not always be immediately obvious what the consequences of screwing up telecom policy will be, but here's an illustration. To be honest, I'm not sure that broadband penetration is a terribly meaningful statistic at this point. There are some outliers in difficult to reach locations who still have no access to broadband, but as a general matter, broadband in some form or another is available to those who want it, at least in those in the countries towards the top of these charts. The more meaningful statistic is the average throughput. Japan, Korea, and France have all passed the threshold where IPTV is practical. In fact, just based on those bandwidth numbers I ran a search for IPTV in France and came up with this. Broadband in the United States, by contrast, is five times slower than Korea or France, and ten times slower than Japan. The real kicker is that we pay more for that privilege than consumers in those other countries. We must be paying extra for our wonderful customer service... The other key point is that around the time of the boom, the United States was the clear global leader in Internet and broadband service. Japan and Korea, in particular, were late to the game and got to where they are now almost entirely as a result of aggressive regulatory policy. Our steady decline is similarly tied to our moronic telecom policies. Rambling on about the power of the free market (as an alternative to regulation) doesn't get you too far when you're dealing with non-competitive markets, and at some point that starts to show.