Dempsey's Paradox

The world is getting less violent. So why do we feel so threatened?

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has leveraged his authority to tackle some tough questions. Much like his predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen (and the former vice chairman, Gen. James Cartwright), Dempsey has not shied away from controversial topics, ranging from what the Israeli military could do to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program (delay "probably for a couple of years") to the growing scourge of sexual assaults in the military (which "deeply scar our profession"). You might question some of what Dempsey says (I have), but he deserves credit for raising the public profile of critical issues to a degree that is rare among his civilian counterparts.

One of his favorite and oft-repeated issues is the security paradox, which he expanded on in a public speech in October:

We live in an era where we're at an evolutionary low in violence.… State-on-state conflict is far less likely than it has been in the past. The problem is that other kinds of conflict, other kinds of violence, are exponentially more likely as technology spreads, as the information age allows organizations and individuals, middleweight nations, if you will, to have capabilities that heretofore were the purview of major nation-states. So it's a paradox … -- large conflict is less likely … but the chance of violence and those using violence for ideological and other purposes is exponentially greater.

It is worth unpacking this observation, because it presumably underpins his remarkable claim that the world is more dangerous than at any point since (at least) 1952. As Dempsey declared in April, "I believe I'm chairman at a time that seems less dangerous, but it's actually more dangerous." However, recent data about armed conflict trends to paint a very different picture and has important implications for the proper role of the U.S. military in preventing, mitigating, or responding to such violence.

The marked decline in human violence was made prominent by Harvard University professor Steven Pinker, whom Dempsey has quoted directly. In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker draws on a seemingly inexhaustible survey of research to demonstrate that "violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence." This trend applies to interpersonal violence, criminal violence, pogroms, and war. (The one form of violence that has increased substantially is self-inflicted. According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates increased almost 50 percent for men and 33 percent for women between 1950 and 2000. Framed another way, for every one person who is killed by another person, two more kill themselves -- for a total of 1 million global suicides each year.)

The drastic drop in violence seems counterintuitive given the unrelenting news coverage that promotes and sensationalizes terrorism, ethnic violence, and deadly riots around the world. As Pinker notes, "We tend to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which we can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age." The statistical evidence that Pinker summarizes, however, shows that people have never been less at risk of dying at the hands of another person than today.

Dempsey is also correct that the number of armed conflicts -- and particularly state-on-state conflict -- has trended toward a historical low after reaching a zenith in 1992. Armed conflict is defined by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program as a "contested incompatibility which concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths [per year]." In 1992, there were 53 ongoing armed conflicts around the world. By 2010, this number had fallen to 31, though it increased to 37 in 2011. Moreover, for the past 67 years, the great powers have not fought wars directly against one another, in the "longest period of major power peace in centuries," according to the Human Security Report Project.

When armed conflicts do erupt, they are far less bloody than in the past. Among all state-based armed conflicts, the number of battle deaths has fallen dramatically. After peaking at 596,086 deaths in 1950, there were 153,485 in 1975 and 92,485 in 2000. To put it another way, in the 1950s there were 65,000 deaths per conflict/per year; now there are less than 2,000.

Dempsey also claims that the information age and the spread of technology increases the likelihood of organizations or individuals using violence. There is just one (big) problem with this argument. If his logic is correct, the world should have witnessed a growth of all forms of conflict as lethal technologies and modern communications expanded over the centuries, but in fact the opposite has happened. The number of ways to kill a person is innumerable, and over time such innovations have been adapted and improved upon to create increasingly lethal weapons. At the same time, thanks to railroads, the telegraph, transoceanic cables, telephones, airplanes, and the Internet, communication is now near instantaneous. Why would this trend reverse itself now?

Perhaps most importantly, the vast majority of all deaths have nothing to do with armed conflict. The latest Global Burden of Armed Violence report offered this snapshot from 2004 to 2009: "At least 526,000 people are killed each year as a result of lethal violence. This includes an estimated 55,000 direct conflict deaths, 396,000 intentional homicides, 54,000 so-called 'unintentional' homicides, and 21,000 killings during legal interventions." The latter category consists of deaths of civilians by law enforcement and state security forces in routine policing. In short, just over 10 percent of all deaths are the result of armed conflicts, political violence, and terrorism.

Given that levels of violence have fallen across virtually all categories (with the notable exception of suicides) and 90 percent of all lethal violence is not related to armed conflicts, this raises a larger question: What is the role of the U.S. military in preventing violence? The U.S.-led alliance system, based on its unmatched conventional military assets and reliable second-strike nuclear weapons capabilities, have likely deterred some interstate wars, though deterrence is inherently difficult to prove. Through theater security cooperation plans, regional combatant commands claim that their military-to-military engagement and soft-power activities "shape" the regional order -- though I've never seen data to support this widely-held claim.

There are targeted countries where U.S. military, intelligence, and capacity-building efforts played some role in marked declines in violence. For example, between 1991 and 2010, the homicide rate in Colombia fell from 83 per 100,000 people to 33.4. Over the same period, the United States spent upwards of $10 billion in Colombia on military, police, judicial, and development assistance. Although correlation is not causation, the massive influx of funds into the security sector likely played a role. On the other hand, there are many more instances in which civilian policymakers deployed the U.S. military into conflicts and exacerbated (at least in the short term) political instability and armed violence within those regions (see the U.S. intervention in Iraq).

Not only have humans never been less at risk from dying at the hands of another human, but we know more and more about what early risk factors make individuals more likely to use violence and which preventive efforts are most effective at reducing criminal violence -- by far the leading of all non-self-inflicted deaths. It boils down to four major prevention strategies: developmental (interventions in early development when criminal potential is identified), situational (reducing opportunities to commit crime and increasing the risks of criminal activities), community (fostering positive social conditions and institutions), and criminal justice. If policymakers were interested in protecting people from "the chance of violence," as Dempsey terms it, they might want to divert their time and resources away from aircraft carriers and into these preventive programs.

At the end of the day, despite Dempsey's security paradox warnings, the U.S. military plays a minimal role in preventing, responding to, and addressing the vast majority of lethal violence in the world. Yet the United States remains structured, funded, and predisposed to seek military, rather than developmental or diplomatic solutions to many foreign-policy challenges, including reducing the likelihood and severity of all forms of lethal violence. In an April 2009 exchange about how to deepen cooperation between the Pentagon and the State Department, Gen. David Petraeus acknowledged: "Sir, again when it comes to the conflict prevention, that one I have to put my thinking cap on and figure out."

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National Security

'A Period of Persistent Conflict'

Why the United States will never have another peacetime president.

In January 2007, with no public debate, congressional hearings, or news coverage, the United States intervened militarily in another country: Somalia.

On December 24, 2006, supported by U.S. tactical intelligence, military training, and "less than a dozen" special operations forces on the ground, Ethiopia had invaded Somalia with the goal of unseating the ruling Council of Islamic Courts (CIC). As the Ethiopian ground offensive quickly overwhelmed CIC defenses surrounding the capital of Mogadishu, Somali militants and al-Qaeda affiliates fled south. Some were tracked by U.S. Predator drones and cell phone intercepts.

Two weeks later, a U.S. Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunship flying out of eastern Ethiopia fired at a convoy of suspected militants near the village of Ras Kamboni in southern Somalia. The targets were senior al Qaeda operatives allegedly involved in the East African U.S. embassy bombings in August 1998. However, Ethiopian troops and U.S. special operations forces that arrived after the attack confirmed that the targets were not in the convoy, although ten other suspected Somali militants were killed. As an American official later acknowledged, "Frankly, I don't think we know who we killed."

After news broke of the U.S. military involvement in Somalia, Sen. Robert Byrd had the following exchange with Gen. Peter Pace, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a Armed Services Committee hearing:

BYRD: Under what authority were the airstrikes in Somalia executed?

PACE: Under the authority of the president of the United States, sir.

BYRD: What authority did he have? What did he base his authority on?

PACE: There was an order that was published a couple of years ago that received the proper authorities from the secretary of defense and the president to be able to track al Qaeda and other terrorist networks worldwide, sir.

BYRD: Do you think that authority was sufficient?

PACE: I do, sir, from both -- I do, sir.

This incident of congressional oversight over a president's war-making powers is revealing in its brevity and rarity. Since September 11, 2001, the president has been able to threaten or use military force to achieve a range of foreign policy objectives with few checks and balances or sustained media coverage -- to an extent unprecedented in U.S. history. Anything short of deploying large numbers of U.S. ground troops is tolerated, and any executive branch justification for using lethal force is broadly accepted, including the notion that such military operations can continue in perpetuity.

Though both of the presidential candidates claim to want a peaceful world (Mitt Romney used some version of "peace" 12 times in the final presidential debate), it is unlikely that the United States will ever have a peacetime president again.

The primary reason for this stems from how policymakers in Washington perceive the world -- a perception that bridges partisan divisions. According to most officials, the international security environment is best characterized by limitless, complex, and imminent threats facing the United States. Those threats require the military to be perpetually on a wartime footing and the president to frequently authorize the use of lethal force. As a Pentagon strategy document first noted in 2010, the United States has entered "a period of persistent conflict."

In an excellent op-ed on Sunday, Greg Jaffe pointed out that threat inflation is a chronic habit shared by news media, think tanks, and policymakers, who have made the following observations in the past year:

  • General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed: "In my personal military judgment, formed over thirty-eight years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now." Considering the vastly more threatening times that the United States faced since Dempsey was born in 1952, his diagnosis of the world is either flawed or suffers from hindsight bias, defined as "the inclination to see events that have already occurred as being more predictable than they were before they took place."
  • Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has constantly repeated his threat smorgasbord of specific and generalized threats that emanate from innumerable states and nonstate actors (i.e., everyone). Although he admitted, "I don't consider myself to be schooled in the art of knowing what the hell cyber systems [do] and how it all works," three weeks ago Panetta warned (again) of an impending "cyber Pearl Harbor," which computer experts have predicted since at least 1991. This is a remarkable claim given that no American has ever died from a cyberattack, while the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,345 American troops and another 57 U.S. civilians.
  • Senator Lindsey Graham referred to Iran as "an existential threat" on the floor of the Senate. Again, if he actually believes that the existence of the United States is threatened by a country with a defense budget that amounts to less than 3 percent of the Pentagon's and no nuclear weapons or deployable military capabilities, then endorsing unilateral preventive attacks would be justified. And, indeed, if diplomacy fails, Graham has called for unilateral and preventive attacks, both against the suspected nuclear weapons sites and to "neuter the regime's ability to wage war against us and our allies." 

In response to this world of grave uncertainty and looming threats, the United States has invested heavily in offensive military capabilities that the president leverages with speed, secrecy, and minimal oversight.

Drones: On September 11, 2001, the U.S. military had fewer than 200 drones (less than a handful were armed). Today, there are approximately 7,500, a few hundred of which are equipped to fire several types of missiles. The workhorses of the U.S. drone strike campaigns are the Predator and Reaper systems. In 2007, there were 18 Predator and Reaper Combat Air Patrols (CAPs), in which a few drones maintain one continuous orbit over a specific territory. Today, there are 60 CAPs, with plans for 65 by May 2014. As I noted last week, America's use of drones to conduct targeted killings in non-battlefield settings has now entered its eleventh year, with plans to continue them for at least another decade.

Special Operations Forces (SOF): Since September 11, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has more than doubled in size and budget from some 30,000 troops and $2.2 billion in 2001 to 67,000 and $10.5 billion today. Overseas deployments have quadrupled and have involved more than 100 countries. Presently, 85 percent of the estimated 11,500 SOF troops deployed overseas are stationed in the Middle East with the bulk in Afghanistan, where they are projected to have an enlarged role up to and beyond the stated withdrawal deadline of 2014. Senior defense officials envision that SOF will constitute between one-third and one-half of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, pending an agreement with Kabul. Adm. William McRaven, commander of SOCOM, noted that this could include "3,000 folks deployed outside of Afghanistan."

The temptation for presidents to employ Navy SEALs and Army Delta Teams indefinitely is real, given that the media and policymakers portray SOF as possessing superhuman and infallible skills. However, as my colleague Max Boot noted in an exceptional overview of what SOF are actually intended to achieve, their uses in kinetic raids are rarely connected to any larger strategy: "From Pakistan to Yemen, there is a tendency to use JSOC, often in cooperation with the CIA, to play ‘whack-a-mole' against terrorist organizations." Gen. Pace echoed this concern in May: "I worry about speed making it too easy to employ force. I worry about speed making it too easy to take the easy answer -- let's go whack them with special operations -- as opposed to perhaps a more laborious answer for perhaps a better long-term solution."

Cyberattacks: Since 2006, according to the National Military Strategy for Cyberspace Operations, it has been U.S. policy that the "[Pentagon] will conduct kinetic missions to preserve freedom of action and strategic advantage in cyberspace" that "can be either offensive or defensive and used in conjunction with other mission areas." There is little clarity over many aspects of U.S. offensive cyber capabilities, including what they are, who authorizes them, and what are the rules of engagement (assuming one can attribute the source of an initial attack and identify a proportional target). A senior U.S. official recently declared: "Those are always classified things. It's not helpful to the United States to give a road map to the enemy to know when something is an attack on the nation and when it is not." Of course, "things" cannot have any deterrent effect on potential adversaries if they are secret, nor are they always classified -- see the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review for U.S. nuclear doctrine.

Both Presidents Bush and Obama have reportedly authorized offensive cyberattacks against Iran that had "kinetic-like" effects. In The Inheritance, David Sanger first offered clues about activities covered in a spring 2008 presidential finding that authorized covert action including "efforts to interfere with the power supply to nuclear facilities -- something that can sometimes be accomplished by tampering with computer code, and getting power sources to blow up." This past June, Sanger further revealed that Obama significantly accelerated offensive cyberattacks -- codenamed Olympic Games -- against computers that run Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities.

(In a startling anecdote about the lack of congressional oversight over such covert cyber operations, Representative Dan Lungren wondered aloud at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in July: "Would it bother you to know that the detail that was described in the New York Times, if true, is a level of detail not presented to members of Congress, such as the chairman of the Cybersecurity Subcommittee on Homeland Security, that is, happens to be me.")

Supporting the increased use of drones, special operations, cyberattacks, and other covert military programs has been the tremendous growth in the size and cost of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). In 1998, the intelligence budget was $26.7 billion (based on an accidental leak from that year). In 2012, the IC will spend $75.4 billion for all of its national and military intelligence programs, the scope of which is astonishing. As Dana Priest and William Arkin reported in 2010: "1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States." This sprawling U.S. intelligence apparatus is estimated to require 210,000 governmental employees and 30,000 private contractors.

Congressional oversight of presidential war-making powers has further dwindled. There are a few libertarian leaning congressional members who raise the War Powers Resolution during hearings with administration officials, although only when the serving president is of the other political party. Sen. Byrd attempted to rally fellow legislators by waving his pocket Constitution and reminding them, "Congress is not a rubberstamp or a presidential lapdog -- obedient and unquestioning. Oversight, oversight, oversight is among our most important responsibilities." Sen. James Webb, who is stepping down in January, cosponsored a bill in May that would require the White House to formally request congressional approval before using the military in humanitarian operations (it would require a vote within 48 hours). Webb noted: "Year by year, skirmish by skirmish, the role of the Congress in determining where the U.S. military would operate, and when the awesome power of our weapon systems would be unleashed, has diminished." Predictably, the bill went nowhere.

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