Tag: foreign policy

At West Point, Obama Seeks to Reassure Foreign Policy Elite

Foreign policy in the United States is an elite sport. Unless there is a big Iraq- or 9/11-style disaster, the public mostly ignores foreign policy, because it can. The United States is extremely safe, but it runs an expansive, ambitious grand strategy that keeps elites busy and the public largely uninvolved. President Obama will give a speech tomorrow at West Point defending his foreign policy and answering elites who have begun to grow bored with it.

The president seems to view foreign policy mostly through a domestic political lens. While he opposed an Afghanistan surge, he ordered one anyway, likely for fear of the domestic political implications of defying the generals’ request for more time and more troops. Ideologically, Obama fancies himself a realist in the mold of Reinhold Niebuhr, although no actually-existing realists think his policies resemble realism. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama found himself particularly captivated by an essay from Robert Kagan—a neoconservative Romney adviser—that urged Americans to wade ever more deeply into world politics. If there were any doubt that the two political parties agree on U.S. foreign policy, Obama’s accord with Kagan should have demolished it.

But the president has begun to irritate both the right and left halves of the foreign policy establishment by declining to intervene more forcefully in Syria and in Eastern Europe. Obama will likely play to nationalist themes in his speech tomorrow, reassuring the foreign policy elite that he endorses their project and explaining to Americans that their special place and special responsibilities in the world necessitate a costly, globe-girdling grand strategy. News reports indicate the administration is contemplating sending anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian opposition, and that the president will criticize Russian behavior in Ukraine during an upcoming trip to Europe. In addition, the foreign policy establishment has breathed a collective sigh of relief with the announcement that the president will keep nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond his previously-announced 2014 withdrawal date.

Regular Americans should view the speech for what it is: a cynical sop to the insular clique of Beltway elites who view themselves as the vicars of liberalism on earth, and the rightful possessors of hundreds of billions of American tax dollars to do with what they will.

Richard Haass on U.S. Foreign Policy

Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass has just published an article in Time magazine (also available here) that challenges many of the comfortable nostrums guiding U.S. foreign policy for at least the last twenty years. He scores a 9 out of 10 in his analysis of what is wrong: we have an inordinate fear of things that shouldn’t be that frightening; we have a misplaced faith in our ability to fix nettlesome problems in distant lands; and we repeatedly stumble into costly and counterproductive wars that we should generally avoid.

Haass then proposes a new doctrine to “help establish priorities and steer the allocation of resources” and “that fits the U.S.’s circumstances.”

 It is one that judges the world to be relatively nonthreatening and makes the most of this situation. The goal would be to rebalance the resources devoted to domestic challenges, as opposed to international ones, in favor of the former. Doing so would not only address critical domestic needs but also rebuild the foundation of this country’s strength so it would be in a better position to stave off potential strategic challengers or be better prepared should they emerge all the same.

So far, so good. The problem, however, is not what Haass proposes to do – refocus America’s attention and resources at home, what he calls “restoration” – but rather how he proposes to do it. For all his wisdom in defying the Washington foreign policy consensus, he betrays a typical Washington-centric approach by suggesting that the federal government must take the lead “in restoring this country’s strength and replenishing its resources — economic, human and physical government.”

Restoration is not just about acting more discriminating abroad; it is even more about doing the right things at home. The principal focus would be on restoring the fiscal foundations of American power.

[…]

Reducing discretionary domestic spending would constitute one piece of any fiscal plan. But cuts need to be smart: domestic spending is desirable when it is an investment in the U.S.’s human and physical future and competitiveness.

In other words, the money we save by not waging foolish wars abroad would be redirected to other government projects. Thus, he calls for more federal spending for higher education, despite the fact that such spending has exploded over the past three decades, and has coincided with an equally dramatic rise in tuition – often three to four times the rate of inflation. (H/T N.M.) Haass likewise calls for more money to public transportation, despite the fact that federal support for Amtrak, for example, amounts to a massive subsidy paid from non-riders to the often relatively well-to-do. Similar facts prevail in other government-subsidized transit systems.
 
Haass is also wrong to perpetuate the myth that we are dependent on Middle East oil. We’re not. The Middle Easterners are dependent upon selling it. We have alternatives to buying their oil, and we don’t need government to force us to exercise them.

Here’s a different approach to restoring America’s strength at home: we should stop asking our brave men and women in uniform to be the world’s policemen; refocus a smaller, less expensive military on a few core missions that are vital to U.S. security; and give every American family a tax cut. If we spent what the average British or French citizen devotes to national security, that could amount to more than $6,000 a year for the average family of four. The savings would be even greater if we matched what Germans and Japanese spend. Every American family could then choose how to spend or invest their money (e.g. Save for college. Pay for bus/train fare. Buy a more fuel-efficient car, etc). 
 
There is already considerable support for cutting the Pentagon’s budget, and I think there would be even more if people believed that these savings would not merely be diverted elsewhere within the federal government. Richard Haass has made an important and timely contribution to the debate over the future of U.S. foreign policy, and I generally concur with his assessment. But he and others should demonstrate the tangible benefits that would flow to the average American from a more prudent, restrained foreign policy. I think that fewer dumb wars and more money in our pockets is a pretty compelling case.

Gauging the Mood of Congress on Military Spending

Amidst the wrangling over a debt deal between the White House and Congress, the most interesting movement pertains to military spending. Several reports today suggest that up to $700 billion in military spending cuts is under consideration, which would amount to a bit more than 10 percent less than current projections over the next 10 years. A more realistic bottom line might be $300 billion, which could be achieved by allowing the budget to grow at the rate of inflation (in other words, no real cuts in spending).

As always, the devil is in the details. From what baseline? Over what time period? Would the cuts apply only to the base DoD budget, or all national security spending, including the costs of the wars, as well as the budgets for the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs? Most important is timing. If the savings are all backloaded in the out years, they may never materialize. Today’s budgets project spending out five or 10 years, and the “savings” really just amount to a new set of projections against that baseline. Plus, these agreements are rarely binding on future congresses; a different cast of characters will be responsible for passing DoD appropriations bills in 2018 or 2020.

One thing is clear, however. People here in Washington are now considering military spending cuts that they thought strategically unwise and politically impossible just a few years ago. And conservatives are joining in. South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney offered an amendment to the DoD budget appropriation bill that would have frozen spending at 2011 levels, a $17 billion cut below the amount voted out of committee. Meanwhile, three Democrats and three Republicans co-sponsored an amendment to cut the proposed increase in the FY 2012 budget in half, generating savings of $8.5 billion. The bad news for taxpayers is that both amendments failed. The good news is that some in the GOP are starting to match their rhetorical zeal for spending cuts with actual votes that do so; 43 Republicans voted for both measures. (h/t DSM)

It is no longer credible to declare military spending off limits in the search for savings, and most Americans understand that we can make significant cuts without undermining U.S. security (William Kristol being one of the predictable outliers).

I’ll hazard a prediction: I think that military spending in FY 2012 will be slightly less than President Obama initially requested, but still not less than will be spent in FY 2011 (in other words, they’re still only faking cuts).

To get real cuts, Washington is going to have to clear some things off the military’s plate. If we want a military that costs less, we have to ask it to do less. And I don’t see a lot of enthusiasm for that—yet. Starting a new war in Libya (and signaling that similar missions are in the military’s future) doesn’t help.

Perhaps the key will be to connect two seemingly disconnected dots: our subsidizing defense spending for other rich countries has allowed them to divert money to dubious social spending and a too-large public sector with too-generous pay and benefits. I don’t know how Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) can go to their constituents and say they’re cutting popular programs here in the United States, and holding the line on the DoD’s budget, so that our European and East Asian allies can fend off cuts in their pensions and avoid taking responsibility for their own security.

For more, see the video after the jump.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Sen. Rand Paul on a ‘Conservative Constitutional Foreign Policy’

I had the good fortune of attending a speech by Sen. Rand Paul earlier this week in which the senator from Kentucky made the case for a “conservative constitutional foreign policy.” His office has recently posted the text of his remarks, and it is worth a closer look.

Senator Paul tweaked President Obama for disagreeing with Senator Obama when it comes to the war power, a point that I highlighted here a few weeks ago.

But Paul’s remarks went well beyond the Libyan war. He explained that he was trying to stake out a middle ground between the extreme of intervening militarily everywhere, all the time, and nowhere, none of the time.

What I’m talking about here has a relatively recent example: Ronald Reagan.

[…]

Reagan’s foreign policy was one in which we were somewhere, some of the time, in which the missions were clear and defined, and there was no prolonged military conflict — and this all took place during the Cold War….

Reagan’s policy was much less interventionist than the presidents of both parties who came right before him and after him. And Reagan’s foreign policy was certainly more restrained than that of our current president.

I’d argue that a more restrained foreign policy is the true conservative foreign policy, as it includes two basic tenets of true conservatism: respect for the Constitution, and fiscal discipline.

The whole speech can be found here.

Robert Gates Is Overrated

That’s the argument Ben Friedman and I made in our “Think Again” piece for Foreign Policy magazine. Our point there was that someone reading newspapers and watching television would think that Secretary Gates was some sort of transformational figure who took hold of a boneheaded grand strategy, two failing wars, and one broken bureaucracy and made them into successes. We argued that this description, which one finds almost everywhere one finds the secretary’s name, is wrong. (For responses to some of the critiques of our piece, Ben has a post up at The Skeptics.)

Dana Milbank, Defense Analyst

Over the weekend Dana Milbank authored a column demonstrating the tendency to represent Gates as something of a messiah. He does so by juxtaposing…Sarah Palin’s and Robert Gates’s current tours, which show a stark contrast in “hubris and humility,” respectively:

The week’s dueling tours of Gates and Palin show the best and worst in American public life. Both call themselves Republicans, but he comes from the best tradition of service while she is a study in selfishness. He’s self-effacing; she’s self-aggrandizing. He harmonized American foreign policy; she put bull’s-eyes on Democratic congressional districts and then howled about “blood libel.”

Milbank then offers the usual laundry list of Gates’s accomplishments. He

set a new standard for honesty when, at his confirmation hearing in 2006, he admitted that the United States was not winning in Iraq. At the Pentagon, he brought new openness: He ended the gag order banning coverage of flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base. He hired a journalist, Geoff Morrell, to repair press relations. He penned personal notes to families of fallen soldiers and attended funerals.

Gates brought new accountability, firing top officials over the outrages at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the mishandling of nuclear weapons. He fought with Congress and the military bureaucracy to redirect funds toward troop protection. His championing of mine-resistant vehicles saved countless lives, and his push for better Medevac in Afghanistan cut the average time-to-hospital for wounded soldiers to 40 minutes from 100.

His unusual frankness continued right into his farewell tour. During his trip, he affirmed that “everything is on the table” for defense spending cuts, spoke in detail about disputes with China, discussed shortcomings in Afghanistan and acknowledged his disagreement with Obama’s decision to attack Libya.

Ben and I examine almost every one of those plaudits in our article, and even granting that many of them were indeed successes, we argue that Gates’s legacy far outstrips his actual accomplishments.

For our take on Gates’ tenure as secretary of defense, go here. Also, Chris Preble had an op-ed in today’s Defense News on Gates’s record, available here.

The President’s Next Middle East Speech

The news media is abuzz with speculation about what President Obama will say in an address this Thursday at the State Department. The topic is the Middle East, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained, “we’ve gone through a remarkable period in the first several months of this year…in the Middle East and North Africa,” and the president has “some important things to say about how he views the upheaval and how he has approached the U.S. response to the events in the region.” The speech, Carney hinted to reporters, would be “fairly sweeping and comprehensive.”

If I were advising the president, I would urge him to say many of the same things that he said in his June 2009 speech in Cairo, this time with some timely references to the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, and an explanation of what the killing means for U.S. counterterrorism operations, and for our relations with the countries in the region.

Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s long-time number two (now, presumably, its number one) railed for years about overthrowing the “apostate” governments in North Africa and the Middle East. And yet, one of the biggest stories from the popular movements that have swept aside the governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and may yet do so in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, is al Qaeda’s utter irrelevance. President Obama won’t need to dwell on this very long to make an important point.

The killing of Osama bin Laden doesn’t signal the end of al Qaeda, but it might signal the beginning of the end. In reality, al Qaeda has been under enormous pressure for years, but that hasn’t stopped the organization from carrying out attacks—attacks which have mainly killed and injured innocent Muslims since 9/11. It is no wonder that al Qaeda is enormously unpopular in the one place where bin Laden and his delusional cronies sought to install the new Caliphate. How’s that working out, Osama?

Al Qaeda had nothing to do with the reform movements that have swept across North Africa and the Middle East; the United States has had little to do with them either. That is as it should be. These uprisings were spontaneous, arising from the bottom up, and they are more likely to endure because they were not imposed by outsiders. Sadly, the same will not be said of the Libyans who rose up against Muammar Qaddafi, without any special encouragement from the United States. If the anti-Qaddafi forces ultimately succeed in overthrowing his four-decades long rule, President Obama’s decision to intervene militarily on their behalf ensures that some will question their legitimacy. The same would be true in Syria, or in Iran, if the United States were seen as having a hand in selecting the future leaders of those countries.

Barack Obama was elected president in part because he publicly opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq at a time when many Americans, including many in his own party, were either supportive or silent. He had a special credibility with the American people, and among people in the Middle East, because he worried that the Iraq war was likely to undermine American and regional security, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and claim many tens of thousands of lives. Tragically, he was correct.

There is a right way, and a wrong way, to go about promoting human freedom. In Thursday’s speech, I hope that the president reaffirms the importance of peaceful regime change from within, not American-sponsored regime change from without.

The United States remains, as it has been for two centuries, a well-wisher to people’s democratic aspirations all over the world. But we learned a painful lesson in Iraq, and we should be determined not to repeat that error elsewhere. That is a message worth repeating, both for audiences over there, and for those over here.

Cross-posted from The National Interest

George Will on Libya

President Obama’s incomprehensible “kinetic military action” in Libya has driven George Will to distraction, and to mordant wit:

At about this point in foreign policy misadventures, the usual question is: What is Plan B? Today’s question is: What was Plan A?

Not to mention literary allusion:

Perhaps the CIA operatives should have stayed home and talked to some senators who seem to know what’s what. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) refers to the Libyan rebels as part of a “pro-democracy movement.” Perhaps they are. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) must think so. Serving, as usual, as Sancho Panza to Sen. John McCain’s Don Quixote, Graham said last Sunday (on “Face the Nation”), “We should be taking the fight to Tripoli.”

Read the whole thing.