Shadow Government

White House spin on Libya a bit too triumphalist and dismissive of previous coalitions

Josh Rogin has a fascinating interview with White House national security communicator Ben Rhodes elsewhere on this site. To my eyes, it reads like the Obama Administration is continuing its unseemly end-zone dance of celebration over the toppling of Qaddafi. I understand their desire to get maximum credit while avoiding a "mission accomplished" photo-op that will come back to haunt them, and so far sympathetic reporters are obliging by reporting the braggadocio without editorializing about it much. But this interview dances close to the line of generating some "audio ops" that they may regret.

First, I am not sure that Rhodes has threaded the needle in terms of both taking credit for the things the administration did, without which this regime change would not have happened, and convincingly eschewing responsibility for whatever bad things happen from this point out. Rhodes tries to persuade the interviewer that there are only upsides to Obama's approach when in reality there are pros and cons. One of the cons is that the administration bears more responsibility for what happens next than it is willing to admit, while having less leverage over what happens next than it is willing to admit. In the long run, it may be the case that the pros will outweigh the cons in Libya, but there is a substantial amount of territory to cover between now and then and it is premature to declare this the model for all future operations. (By the way, I wish Rogin had asked Rhodes the obvious follow-up question: does this mean that the Obama Administration endorses the Doug Feith plan of light-footprint regime change in Iraq using Iraqi expats and rejects the conventional critique which holds that the Iraq operation unraveled because there were insufficient troops in the coalition invasion force and they did not establish sufficient order in the aftermath?)

Second, Rhodes continues a longstanding Democrat slur against the several dozen allies who fought, bled, and died at the American side in Afghanistan and Iraq:

Secondly, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the U.S. wasn't bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions.

If I were a parent or loved one of any of the hundreds of allied soldiers who died -- according to iCasualties.org, some 179 UK troops alone in Iraq and 379 UK troops in Afghanistan -- the crack about "meaningful international contributions" would greatly anger me. In any case, it seems in exceptionally bad taste. I have never understood why Bush critics have gotten away with denigrating the contributions of allies in those two wars. Now that the critics are in office and directly responsible for maintaining good relations with our allies, I wish they would find more opportunities to praise the sacrifices that the allies made and make fewer derogatory comments about those coalition efforts.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

On cyberwarfare, do we need PLA transparency or accountability?

With exquisite timing, the Pentagon released its annual China military report on Wednesday just as Chinese state television broadcast a documentary trumpeting the PLA's cyberwarfare capabilities. For those following security issues in Asia, there was nothing particularly new in the Pentagon report. It noted the challenges posed by China's new doctrine of maritime power projection, plans for multiple aircraft carriers, the new J-20 stealth fighter, and PLA interest in cyberwarfare (exclamation point helpfully provided by CCTV). Nor was there any real news in the delay of the report, which is also an annual event because of the tedious but necessary bureaucratic process of ensuring the contents are credibly presented.

The fact that the PLA is aggressively pursuing cyberwarfare is also not news, though CCTV's bravado about it did catch some analysts by surprise (visitors to Beijing should make a point of watching CCTV-7, the PLA channel, which provides a steady stream of military propaganda, uniformed game shows, and gorgeous singing colonels in jackboots). Many of us in the national security or Asia fields receive repeat "visits" from Chinese-based hackers. Sometimes these come in the form of crashing Google accounts or targeted "phishing" attacks -- seemingly from other colleagues' email addresses with attached reports on "PLA modernization" or the "Hu-Obama Summit" that contain malware. I have also enjoyed démarches from Chinese officials expressing concern about travel plans to Dharamsala (seat of the exile Tibetan government) or Taiwan. My stern but courteous callers were generally better informed about my itinerary than my own travel agent and made little effort to conceal their knowledge. A Chinese academic friend confided to me a few years back that one of his former students is working with 20,000 other tech-savvy youth for the Ministry of State Security -- and that was just the unit in charge of domestic surveillance. It is hard to maintain operational security when the operation is that massive and the PLA propaganda machine is openly encouraging a culture of aggressive defense of China's "core interests."

The administration refrain is that we must have more military-to-military transparency with the PLA. This may be necessary, but it is hardly sufficient and it carries some negative consequences. For one thing, the administration seems fixated on sustaining mil-to-mil dialogue with Beijing to the point that it is distorting decision-making on arms sales to Taiwan (this because the PLA will routinely cut off military-to-military dialogue in retaliation for the sales). The other problem with a focus on mil-to-mil transparency is that it exacerbates the larger problem of PLA autonomy within the Chinese system. Yes, the Central Military Commission (CMC) ensures that the "Party controls the gun" and the chair and vice chair are Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, respectively. But every other member of the CMC is uniformed military, and Hu and Xi have no independent sources of oversight or expertise on the operational practices of the PLA (particularly the PLA Navy). By pushing for more mil-mil dialogue with the PLA, we risk reinforcing PLA autonomy and further weakening civilian control. Instead, we should put the priority on working collectively with other states to insist that China's leaders be held accountable for the actions of the PLA and that the PLA be held accountable to the leadership. This burden will have to be carried by the president and other leaders since the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is too weak to make a difference on its own.

The China military report and the CCTV cyberattack documentary should also cause U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to begin making the case for reversing the administration's planned cuts in defense spending. Mil-to-mil dialogue is no substitute for necessary recapitalization of our air and naval forces in the Pacific.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images