Sunday, June 22, 2008

Winning the War on al Qaeda

On 11 September 2001 al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and severely damaged the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. This was the most successful attack on any state of the Union since the British burned Washington to the ground in the War of 1812. Although al Qaeda is a tiny organization with a vanishingly small fraction of America's power, nearly seven years later al Qaeda is alive and well, and America is severely weakened. The traditional strengths of the US military, firepower and maneuver, have failed us. The dirty war, featuring torture, secret prisons and Guantanamo has failed as well. To win this war, we need to change course. We need to understand al Qaeda and Islam and we need to apply America's power at the critical points, where victory can be achieved.

Understand al Qaeda

9/11 was not only a tactical success, killing almost 3,000, but a strategic success as well. It successfully goaded America into over-reacting, thereby losing vital support and becoming bogged down in the wrong places.

al Qaeda's strategy is to goad America into overspending ourselves into bankruptcy [Scheuer 2008]. This is succeeding. U.S. government debt ballooned $3.5 trillion to a total of about $9 trillion and counting.

The lack of major attacks on America since 9/11 means little. First, such attacks are rare, so a few years without one means nothing. Second, America is doing what al Qaeda wants - especially getting bogged down in Iraq - so there is no strategic need for attacks since such attacks are often intended to provoke an over-reaction [ U.S. Military Field Manual, page 294].

al Qaeda does a lot of recruiting on the internet using web sites to organize and communicate.

Applying Smart Power to Win

Focus on al Qaeda. Bush has responded to 9/11 by widening the war to include terror and Iraq. The result has been failure on all fronts (1). Congress should declare war on al Qaeda and ensure this war gets first choice of all resources.

Pay our bills. If we continue to rack up debt we will go bankrupt and al Qaeda will win.

Cut off the supply of men. Killing al Qaeda members doesn't do much if they can be quickly and easily replaced. To win, the world's billion plus Muslims must regard America as the good guy and al Qaeda as the bad guy. It's easy to paint al Qaeda as awful, they are. However, America looks about as bad to many Muslims. To correct this we must:

  • Stop attacking countries that haven't attacked us. We lose allies and waste resources.
  • Stop torturing people. Makes us no better than them, with predictable results.
  • Get American soldiers out of Muslim lands (2). Nobody likes foreign soldiers running around the country, particularly soldiers who don't speak your language, don't respect your culture and/or shoot up the place. Withdraw will also eliminate most of the suicide bomber threat as suicide attacks are characteristic of peoples occupied by armies of a different religion.
  • Stop bad-mouthing Islam. In a high-quality Gallop poll of Muslim attitudes towards America, the number one complaint was a lack of respect for Islam [Esposito and Mogahed]. It's difficult to get people on your side when you insult them constantly. Every time a right-wing pundit trash-talks Islam we suffer a defeat. It would help if they understood that.
  • Live up to our highest ideals (3). Our Constitution is our best weapon in the PR war, but we've been trashing it not using it. This war can't be won by fighting dirty.

America could also neutralize the recruiting web sites. This can't be done by bringing them down, others will simply pop up. It can be done by flooding them with American patriots. A few months ago Wired magazine featured an article about a woman who learned Arabic and started interacting on the al Qaeda-related web sites. She poses as a radical, gains their confidence, and turns them in. If we had 10,000 like her, al Qaeda's web access would be neutralized. The government could supply English-Arabic translation software, identify al Qaeda recruiting sites, provide lessons learned and tips, and the President could ask us to do it. We would respond.

Cut off the supply of money. al Qaeda is funded by a combination of drug and oil money. Eliminating drug profits can be accomplished relatively easily using the civil court system. Reducing the oil money will be hard, as we are so dependent on it. Conservation is the only immediate way to reduce oil use and prices, and price will get that done. Most of al Qaeda's money appears to come from members of the Saudi royal family and we could at least stop propping up their dictatorship. In the medium term, plug-in hybrid cars could shift about 2/3 of our auto transportation energy to electricity which can be supplied by solar, wind, coal, etc. In the long term, only Space Solar Power can supply vast quantities of energy without severe environmental problems. Nuclear power should be avoided as it provides great targets to al Qaeda and the fuel and waste are critical materials for dirty bombs.

Most of all, this war cannot be won by going shopping, as Bush famously told us after 9/11. Prepare for a lot of work, taxes, and, most of all, don't expect to win without learning a lot about Islam. Don't expect to win without making a deep connection between America and the Muslim world. Don't expect to win without becoming personally involved.

There are over a billion Muslims, and, as General David Petraeus (4) says, you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency, you must turn them. It only took 19 hijackers and a half million dollars to bring down the World Trade Center. Without the support of the vast majority of the Muslim world, it will be impossible to defend this country.

Get to work.


(1) We have failed to neutralize bin Laden. Failed to destroy al Qaeda. Terrorist attacks world wide are way up. Iraq has improved lately, but is now effectively an ally of Iran. U.S. officials sneak in and out unannounced with heavy security. The Iranian President came on a scheduled visit, was greeted with flowers and a red carpet. Drove from the airport (U.S. officials have to fly in helicopters). And traveled around with minimal or no security. More telling, Iran has extended it's electric grid into southern Iraq [Engel 2008]. This is a massive failure.

(2) Obviously, withdraw will take awhile and must be accomplished very carefully. However, it must be our strategic objective. Anything else guarantees a steady supply of dedicated manpower for al Qaeda and similar organizations.

(3) [Esposito and Mogahed], in a high quality poll, found that even Islamic radicals admired American freedom and democracy.

(4) General David Petraeus is an expert on counter-insurgency warfare and has been the most successful U.S. general in Iraq. He is responsible for the recent reductions in Iraqi violence -- by applying the principles found in the [ U.S. Army - Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual].

[Engel 2008] Richard Engel, War Journal

Esposito and Mogahed] John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think

[Scheuer 2008] Michael Scheuer, Marching Towards Hell

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Obama's Actual Tax Plans

McCain and others have claimed Obama plans to raise everyone's taxes. This is false. There is also a dirty little not-so-secrete about McCain's tax plans you might like to know. First, what are Obama's actual tax plans and what might they mean to you?
  • If you make less than $75,000/year you will probably pay less tax because Obama plans to lower taxes for these taxpayers.
  • If you make between $75,000-250,000 and have stocks in 401K and IRA plans, your taxes will probably stay the same.
  • If you make more than $250,000 your taxes will probably go up as Obama opposes extending the Bush tax cuts for these taxpayers.
  • If you have stock outside of tax-deferred retirement plans, your taxes might go up if you sell for a profit (realize capital gains) (1). However, stocks in 401K and IRA programs will not be affected because they are treated as ordinary income, not capital gains

    Of course, not all plans come to fruition so who knows what will actually happen.

    One thing that is very likely, though, is that the next Congress will have a Democratic majority. To extend the Bush tax cuts will require an act of Congress. Even if McCain wins the presidency, it's extremely unlikely he will convince Congress to extend the Bush tax cuts. Thus, regardless of who wins the White House, if you make more than $250,000/year your taxes will almost certainly go up.

    Finally, Obama is committed to pay-as-you-go budgeting, meaning that he doesn't intend to borrow money every year to run the government (2). This will reduce taxes in the long run because when you borrow money you must pay back what you borrowed plus interest. Since all government income is from taxes, sooner or later taxes will be required to pay the loan off, including extra for the interest. This is why the Bush years increased our taxes in the long run. The Republicans certainly cut taxes for now, especially for Paris Hilton, but they failed to reduce expenditures and borrowed the difference (3). This saves taxes now, but requires us all to pay even more taxes later.

    Obama's fiscal policies are middle-of-the-road, boring and sensible. Probably what we need.

    (1) Obama may, or may not, try to increase capital gains tax. He favors an increase because it's unfair for billionaire Warren Buffet, who makes his money on capital gains and dividends, to pay a much lower tax rate (15%) than his secretary (probably 28%). However, there is some evidence that increasing capital gains taxes can, in some cases, actually decrease revenue because people make fewer trades if the tax is higher. Unlike some, Obama seems to understand that the purpose of taxes is to raise money to pay for the government.

    (2) Because the government is borrowing so much money each year it will take even the most dedicated reformer years to end massive government borrowing.

    (3) Total federal government debt today is about $9 trillion, meaning sooner or later we will need $9 trillion in taxes to pay it off and in the meantime we need about $400 billion in taxes every year to pay the interest.