National Security

The Enemy Within

Why aren't we holding the military's leaders responsible for the suicide epidemic?

The U.S. military is confronting an epidemic of suicides, which, in the Army alone, are currently averaging more than one a day. To deal with this scourge, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that he wants military leaders to "kick ass" and that he will hold them accountable for whether they succeed in helping desperate troops.

But while the commissioned officers and the noncommissioned officers currently leading men and women in combat and support units should make every effort to help their troops, they are not responsible for this sad state of affairs. Rather, the people who should be accountable are the civilian and military leaders who sent these men and women repeatedly into combat zones without sufficient time at home between combat deployments and lowered the standards for new enlistees in order to meet their recruitment goals.

The all-volunteer force (AVF) came into being -- over the opposition of the military chiefs, who were concerned that the volunteers would be mercenaries -- because so many elites, including many current and past U.S. political leaders, avoided service during the Vietnam War era. Those who had other priorities during the war in Vietnam included presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, and Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff told President Ronald Reagan in 1981 -- when he was deciding whether to fulfill his campaign promise to abolish Selective Service registration -- the AVF is a peacetime force. War requires mobilization -- that is, the activation of Selective Service. Doing so would allow the military to give the troops at least two years in between one-year deployments and prevent the military from having to lower its standards to get people to "volunteer" for wars that appeared to have no end in sight. Moreover, given that over 20 million men are in the Selective Service System, the armed forces could ensure that they drafted only men who met their standards.

Unfortunately, successors in the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- including the chairmen who presided over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gen. Richard Myers, Gen. Peter Pace, and Adm. Mike Mullen -- failed to speak up publicly or privately about what 12- or 15-month deployments with less than a year at home in between were doing to thousands of military people and their families. As far as can be ascertained from their testimony to Congress, nor did military leaders point out to their civilian superiors how the granting of more than 100,000 moral waivers by the Army and Marine Corps to meet recruitment quotas was affecting the quality of the force and unit cohesion. For example, Pvt. Steven Green, who was allowed to enlist in the Army even though he had not graduated from high school and had three misdemeanor convictions, persuaded two of his colleagues in 2006 to help him rape a young girl in Iraq and then kill her and her family.

The military chiefs were aided and abetted in this dereliction of duty by their civilian superiors, particularly Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, and President Bush. By the time Rumsfeld left office in 2006, there were almost 200,000 troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Soon after Gates took over from Rumsfeld, he extended troops' tours in Iraq from 12 to 15 months to carry out the surge and then sent many of these troops back into Iraq and Afghanistan with less than a year at home. In addition, neither Rumsfeld nor Gates prevented the services from using moral waivers to meet recruitment quotas, which allowed people with criminal convictions, including felonies, into the Army and Marine Corps. At the height of the war, in 2007, the Army and Marine Corps together issued waivers to 861 recruits with felony convictions. Nor did Rumsfeld or Gates ensure that all the men and women in the units had all the necessary individual or unit training before being deployed to combat zones -- something we only became aware of when the families of the young soldiers informed the media. In 2007, Mark Thompson of Time magazine covered the story of a group of soldiers who were deployed to Iraq after a "cut-rate, 10-day course on weapon use, first aid and Iraqi culture" rather than the typical four weeks of intense combat training.

Ultimately, the responsibility for this moral outrage stops with Bush. As commander in chief, he should not have allowed his civilian and military leaders to send members of the armed forces back to combat zones without sufficient time at home, or to send unprepared people into battle. But Bush knew that if he raised the specter of activating Selective Service before invading Iraq, the American people and their elected representatives would have asked a lot more questions about whether the mindless, needless, senseless invasion and occupation would be a cakewalk, as he and his acolytes claimed, and that U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators.

The failure to activate the Selective Service System when the United States invaded Iraq also had strategic consequences that linger today. Even after stretching the force too thin, the United States still did not have enough troops to achieve its objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously. The Bush administration, in the words of Mullen, did what it had to in Iraq and what it could in Afghanistan. Consequently, the war in Afghanistan, which should have been over years ago, continues today.

Although not every suicide can be attributed to the stress of combat, it is no accident that the Army, which has borne the overwhelming portion of combat, has the most suicides and has seen the greatest increase. In 2004, the suicide rate for the Army was 9.7 cases per 100,000 soldiers. In July 2012, that rate had more than tripled to 29.1 cases per 100,000; in that month alone, 38 soldiers, or more than one a day, killed themselves. And in the first eight months of 2012, suicide rates among active-duty troops averaged 33 per month.

Yes, Secretary Panetta should hold today's military leaders accountable for helping desperate troops avoid suicide. But we must all remember why they are desperate. It is because of the actions of previous leaders in the Pentagon and the White House. How about kicking them in the butt?

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The Sanctions Conundrum

Some say the sanctions against Tehran are working. But wasn't the Iranian economy already a basket case?

To the surprise of many economists, sanctions seem to be having a serious impact on the Iranian economy. With the unofficial exchange rate of the Iranian rial down by more than two-thirds since the beginning of the year, inflation approaching 30 percent, and demonstrators appearing again on the streets, the crunch is apparently awakening opposition within the ruling elite to the lame duck president (and perhaps his nuclear ambitions.)

But it doesn't quite follow that the sanctions are succeeding. The Iranian economy was a mess before the sanctions began to bite, which makes it difficult to untangle their effects from the impact of ongoing mismanagement. Moreover, success requires a negotiated end to Iran's nuclear ambitions, and it's unclear whether sanctions will weaken the regime's resolve or serve as a rallying point for anti-Western paranoia. Last but not least, it's important to remember that trade and investment sanctions are, by their very nature, scattershot weapons. They will be felt less by Iran's military-ecclesiastical complex than by ordinary people.

Social scientists have generally been skeptical about the value of international economic sanctions. And for good reason: Their track record is mixed, at best. The classic analysis, made by 1997 by Gary Hufbauer and colleagues at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, concluded that sanctions were successful roughly one-third of the time, with better odds if the goals were modest -- i.e. if the goal was practical policy change rather than regime change. But that figure was considered too conservative by Robert Pape, a political scientist now at the University of Chicago, who reviewed the Hufbauer findings and decided that only four percent of the cases had been successful.

Note, moreover, that "success" is a term of art, with ideology, politics and economic interest muddying the waters in most cases. Take the example of U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Though in place for more than half a century, they have obviously not toppled the Castro government. Nor, with hindsight, did they ever have much chance of felling Castro, since Cuba never lost its ties with Europe, Canada, and most of Latin America. Indeed, sanctions may have entrenched hardliners by making it easy to blame Cuba's economic woes on outsiders.

Sanctions have a way of making both the left and right uneasy. The Left object because sanctions are often directed against anti-Western popular governments, and are likely to produce a lot of collateral damage. The Right doesn't like sanctions because trade and investment are thought to be liberalizing influences in the long run, and because they often hurt Western exporters. That's why Richard Nixon opened the door to China -- or at least how conservatives rationalized the policy reversal after the fact.

That said, what do we know about the impact of sanctions on Iran? In many ways, the country seems the ideal target. More than 80 percent of its exports consist of oil. And while petroleum is an anonymous commodity that is typically shipped on supertankers registered under shadowy flags of convenience (Panama, Liberia, and even Tuvalu), the West does have the means to disrupt the trade. Supertankers need insurance to operate, and, in the wake of the European Union's decision to enforce sanctions, the only insurers willing to cover tankers transporting oil from Iran seem to be an Iranian company with modest financial credibility and, for the moment, government-backed insurers in Asia.

Probably more important, as a practical matter purchasers must use electronic means to transfer the tens of millions of dollars needed to buy a single tanker's-worth of oil. And with the European Union on board, they can no longer use the dominant Brussels-based SWIFT bank consortium to facilitate those transfers.

Good, but not perfect. Iran did manage to sell 1.2 million barrels per day in August, mostly to Asian countries tempted by the price discounts and easy credit offered by Tehran. That's up from 940,000 daily barrels in July, the month the European Union's embargo went into effect -- though way down from the 2.5-3.0 million barrels that Iran has the physical capacity to export after accounting for domestic use. What's still unclear is whether Iran can build on that 1.2 million barrel figure. There's never been a shortage of customers for the oil in Asia (and Latin America), provided it's sufficiently discounted. The big question is whether Iran can patch together robust mechanisms that bypass both SWIFT and Western insurers.

All this, it is important to remember, is taking place in the context of an Iranian economy that has been underperforming for decades. GDP per capita (in terms of purchasing power) exceeds $13,000, and it has grown at an average rate exceeding four percent for two decades. But those seemingly ample numbers mask a host of problems.

Oil revenues have (at least until a few months ago) sustained a decent standard of living, and poverty is down sharply since the era of the Shah. However, the Islamic Republic has not been able to diversify its exports or to build an efficient industrial base. Nor has it been able to employ the flood of youth entering the job market: Double-digit unemployment seems to be a permanent fact of Iranian life.

Privatization of state-owned enterprises, begun in earnest after the 2009 elections, might have led to competition among large businesses, and perhaps an industrial sector efficient enough to hold its own against imports. But market efficiency didn't mesh with President Mahmoud Amadinejad's plans to reward his allies in the Republican Guard with sufficient shares to control most of the privatized businesses. Socialism has merely been replaced by a form of state capitalism in which the groups with real power -- the mullahs and the military -- have a big stake in preserving business as usual.

The economy is also suffering from the inefficient means chosen by the mullahs to redistribute income to the bottom half of the population: loosely targeted food and fuel subsidies that keep domestic prices far below world prices and encourage profligate consumption. As a result, Iran is burning one-third of its oil production on its own. Sweeping reforms, imposed by the Ahmadinejad government in 2010, that raise fuel prices (while holding the poor harmless) should increase productive efficiency in the long run. But for now, they have only given the urban middle class more to be angry about, and added to inflationary pressures already building thanks to jolting declines in the exchange value of the currency.

That suggests some interesting comparisons with Cuba. Both the Cuban and Iranian economies are badly mismanaged. And the autocratic governments of both claim that the problems are the work of foreign enemies, offering them a way to build popular support for not-very-popular regimes. But there are two big differences: The Iranian administration has far more to lose than Cuba by hanging tough, and far less to lose by negotiating change.

Much, then, turns on the way the politics play out within Iran -- and on the pressure the United States and the European Union are prepared to direct against energy-short Asian governments that are always in the market for cheaper oil. For better or worse, it's also a striking opportunity to test whether global financial integration is making it easier to enforce sanctions. 

Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images