Tag: foreign policy

Congress Quietly Passes Ukraine Bill

While Washington focused yesterday on the prospect of yet another government shutdown, both House and Senate quickly and quietly passed bills which increase sanctions on Russia and authorize the sale of defensive arms to Ukraine.  S.2828 passed mid-afternoon by voice vote, while H.R. 5859 was passed without objection at 10:25pm last night, on a largely empty House floor. Indeed, the House resolution had been introduced only that day, giving members no time to review or debate the merits of a bill which has major foreign policy implications.

The bill requires the imposition of further sanctions on Russia, particularly on Rosboronexport, Russia’s main weapons exporter, as well as increasing licensing requirements for the sale of oil extraction technology to Russia. Any Russian company exporting weapons to Syria is also liable for sanctions. In addition, the bill contained a contingency, requiring the President to sanction Gazprom in the event that it interferes with the delivery of gas supplies to NATO members or to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The bill also takes aim at Russia more broadly, directing the President to hold Russia accountable for its violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and to consider whether it remains in U.S. interests to remain a party to this treaty.

Significantly, the bill authorizes the president to make available defensive weapons, services and training to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, crew weapons and ammunition, counter-artillery radar, tactical troop-operated surveillance drones, and command and communications equipment. It  also includes additional aid for Ukraine, earmarked to help Ukraine loosen its reliance on Russian energy, and strengthen civil society. Other funds go to increasing Russian-language broadcasting in Eastern Europe by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in order to ‘counter Russian propaganda.’

Putin’s Speech and the Russian–Western Impasse

Today at the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to the Federal Assembly. The speech made the news for its antagonistic tone and, in particular, for Putin’s comparison of Crimea with Jerusalem. But for all the hype surrounding the speech, it said little new, emphasizing instead the impasse that Russia and the West find themselves locked in. Putin’s message was clear: Russia’s foreign policy is not changing.

The foreign policy narratives pervading the speech were strongly familiar, reiterating the points made by Russian leaders and state-owned television throughout the last year. Yet the twisted worldview presented bears little resemblance to reality.

Putin argued that Russia is being persecuted for seeking only to peacefully engage with the world. He presented Russia as a key proponent of international law, describing the annexation of Crimea as the result of a peaceful self-determination vote. In contrast, the United States was portrayed as a meddling hegemonic menace that, he insinuated, aids Russia’s enemies, foreign and domestic. Putin even implied that European states are vassals of the United States:

Sometimes it is even unclear whom to talk to: to the governments of certain countries or directly with their American patrons and sponsors.

The speech went on to describe international sanctions on Russia as illegitimate, with Putin arguing that sanctions are largely unrelated to Crimea or to the ongoing conflict. Instead, he insinuated, sanctions are an attempt by the United States to curtail Russia’s growth and power:

I’m sure that if these events had never happened… they [the US] would have come up with some other excuse to try to contain Russia’s growing capabilities.

These points aren’t true or accurate, but they are certainly consistent with the narrative advanced by the Kremlin. This is one key reason why Putin’s approval rate is still a massive 85%, with many Russians blaming the West for Russia’s woes. Putin thus spent much of the speech deflecting blame. In particular, he focused on Russia’s faltering economy, and while he touched on key economic concerns—the collapsing ruble, the falling price of oil, stalling economic growth, rising inflation—he largely glossed over them, focusing instead on blaming the West. 

Letting it Go: Ukraine’s Frozen Future

Secretary of State John Kerry met late yesterday in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Though somewhat overshadowed by Kerry’s meetings with Iran, the meeting nonetheless provided some fascinating clues as to where the Ukraine crisis is headed.

First, international tensions over Ukraine seem to be slowly relaxing, although violence continues to mar the ceasefire in the Donbas itself. Russian troops are withdrawing from the border, as specified in the Minsk Protocol. The United States is making encouraging noises about the possibility of sanction removal. More importantly, Kerry made a clear point of emphasizing Russian-American cooperation and announced that the two countries would engage in intelligence sharing on ISIS.  This represents a major about-face for the Obama administration, which just six months ago said its goal was to “isolate President Vladimir Putin.” It seems that faced with the difficulty of managing simultaneous conflicts – something the White House is not good at – officials are opting for a more conciliatory approach to Russia.

Second, Crimea wasn’t mentioned. Though it calls for Ukrainian sovereignty to be respected, the protocol doesn’t explicitly discuss Crimea. In short, it looks like Crimea may be off the negotiating table, effectively ceded to Russia. Instead, the main point of contention between Kerry and Lavrov appears to have been the worry that Ukrainian separatists will hold another referendum on joining Russia, in place of Ukrainian parliamentary elections in late October.

President Poroshenko Goes to Washington

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke before the U.S. Congress yesterday morning, and afterward met with President Obama at the White House. The visit was overshadowed by other major events of the week—Congress’s vote to authorize arms and training for Syrian rebels, and the Scottish independence referendumbut it was noteworthy that the visit didn’t elicit any U.S. offers of military support for Ukraine.

Poroshenko’s speech to Congress focused heavily on Ukraine’s role as a “strong American partner” and fellow democracy, and argued for greater U.S. involvement in the crisis. He even went so far as to argue that “this is America’s war too,” though he certainly offered no justification for why Ukraine is of key strategic interest for the United States. Between rousing rhetoric, references to John F. Kennedy, and anecdotes about brave Ukrainian warriors, he did ask the United States for three pieces of aid:

First, he asked for weaponry. Poroshenko thanked the United States for the humanitarian aid it has provided to Ukraine, but argued that “we can’t win a war with blankets.” The White House has promised a new $53 million aid package, comprising nonlethal military aid (i.e., blankets and food supplies). In contrast, the Ukrainians are particularly interested in heavy and antitank weapons.

Second, Poroshenko asked Congress for a massive injection of financial aid to support investment, fight corruption, and reform the Ukrainian state.

Finally, and most worrisome, he asked the United States (and NATO) to grant Ukraine a “special, non-allied partner status” for security and defense. It’s unclear exactly what this would entail, but it sounds suspiciously like a plea for NATO protection of Ukraine without full NATO membership.

There is limited interest in Congress to give Poroshenko some of what he is seeking. Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have co-sponsored the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, which would seek to arm Ukrainian troops. But though the bill unanimously passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it is unclear what will become of it as the Senate begins its recess, or whether it would command broader support from Congress.

Arming Ukraine’s government is foolhardy at best. Even if Ukraine were central to U.S. interests, the United States cannot possibly provide enough military aid to allow Ukraine to prevail against the Russian military. Such aid has the potential to escalate the situation and undermine a diplomatic settlement. Giving Ukraine a “special defense status” is an even worse idea, especially if it were to commit NATO to the military defense of Ukraine.

Luckily, the Obama administration seems determined to give Poroshenko a public relations boost—rolling out the red carpet for his visit—and nothing more. President Obama’s remarks praised Poroshenko’s leadership, but promised only to continue to help Ukraine reach a diplomatic settlement with Russia. With the U.S. military already gearing up for action on two different continents, it isn’t surprising that American leaders would choose to avoid escalating another regional conflict. Let’s hope this restraint continues once the other crises are past. 

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.