Tag: grand strategy

The Council on Foreign Relations Doesn’t Care What You Think

Bruce Stokes has a piece up at Foreign Policy describing the disconnect between public opinion on US foreign policy and elite opinion. The point has been made many times before. Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton wrote a book arguing that there is a disconnect in that the public wants more liberal foreign policies—focusing on multilateral cooperation, protecting weak nations from one another, improving foreigners’ standards of living, and promoting democracy abroad—but elites are more realist, focused on power and dominance. Dan Drezner, on the other hand, argued that there is a disconnect, but in exactly the opposite direction: the public is more realist, focused on power and security, and cool to the liberal views and policies of America’s foreign-policy elite.

Tabling who is right and who is wrong about what the public wants, everyone making this sort of argument is at least implicitly acknowledging that the foreign-policy elite defies public preferences on foreign policy. This is pretty easy to explain. Since the United States is so safe, foreign policy isn’t salient to voters in the way that their proximate interests—getting a tax credit or transfer payment—are. Some scholars have pointed out that public opinion on foreign policy has a lot to do with voters’ identity: right-thinking sorts of people hold these sorts of foreign policy views: “I am a right-thinking person, therefore I will hold these sorts of views.” This is why you hear foreign policy elites bleating endlessly about leadership, American exceptionalism, strength, et cetera. Those concepts zap the public in ways that wonky arguments about how extended deterrence or alliance politics work don’t.

As Ben Friedman and Chris Preble recently wrote in the LA Times, the public is moving closer to the views of Cato’s defense and foreign policy scholars. A disastrous decade of foreign policy brought to them by the foreign-policy elite, combined with an economic slowdown and growing concerns about our domestic economy and politics, have created a come home, America sentiment among the public. Academic scholars, as well, have become more Cato-ish. As three academic proponents of the status quo recently admitted with alarm, “According to…most scholars who write on the future of U.S. grand strategy,” restraint’s time has come.

GOP National Security and Foreign Policy Debate: What to Ask the Candidates

The economy is likely to dominate next year’s presidential race, so it is surprising that Republicans would choose to conduct two debates focused on foreign policy in the span of 10 days. The first, co-hosted by CBS News and National Journal, was held last Saturday evening. (CBS apparently thought most people had better things to do; they preempted the final 30 minutes with an NCIS rerun.) CNN, no doubt, hopes that the sequel, to be held Tuesday, November 22, will draw a wider audience.

I wonder if the RNC hopes that it doesn’t. In fact, there are many reasons why GOP leaders would want to get the whole subject of foreign policy and national security out of the way well before next year. Let Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum wax poetic about the wisdom of waterboarding, and let them do it after television viewers have stopped watching. Better to save the talk of joblessness and massive federal debt for the main event with President Obama, when tens of millions of Americans, including many independents and undecided voters, might actually rely on the debates to inform their choices. (Unlikely, I know, but hope springs eternal.)

Foreign policy blunders have cost the GOP votes in three of the last four elections. (It was a non-factor in 2010.) Once trusted by the electorate as the voice of prudence and reason when it came to diplomacy and the use of force, the Republican brand has been sullied by the war in Iraq and the quagmire in Afghanistan.

One might think that the party has learned its lessons, and that those aspiring to carry the GOP banner into next year’s elections would be determined to draw distinctions between themselves and the recent past.

Judging from last Saturday’s debate, they haven’t. The answers provided by the presumptive front-runner, Mitt Romney, and his leading challengers, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, reveal a reflexive commitment to the status quo and an unwillingness to revisit the rationales for war with Iraq or for nation-building in Afghanistan. They hinted at expanding the U.S. military’s roles and missions to include possible conflict with Iran. They continued to speak of a “war on terror.” And they struggled to draw distinctions between themselves and President Obama, at times criticizing him for doing too little, other times for doing too much.

In advance of last week’s debate, several bloggers suggested some questions. Some of these made it to prime time. However, two big sets of questions—one pertaining to the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, the other related to the costs of our foreign policies—remain unexplored. I hope that the questioners in next week’s debate, or perhaps the other candidates, would try to get some answers. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@capreble) for a conversation during the debate. Justin Logan will also be live-blogging the event over at RealClearWorld.

In the meantime, here are some questions I would like answered:

Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nation-Building: Knowing what you know now, was it a mistake for the United States to have invaded Iraq in March 2003? Did any of you speak out against the war before it started? If you did not, but now have doubts, why should Americans trust you to exercise good judgment as president if you failed to do so when in a position of power and influence in late 2002 and early 2003?

Did President Bush make a mistake when he negotiated an agreement with the Iraqis to remove all forces by the end of 2011? Do you believe that U.S. troops should have remained in Iraq even if the Iraqi government refused to extend them conventional legal protections that we enjoy in other countries, including the right to be tried in U.S. courts?

What lessons have you taken away from the war, and how would they inform your conduct of foreign policy as president?

We now have nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and we will spend at least $110 billion on activities there this year. Is that too much or too little? What criteria do you use for assessing the costs and benefits of military operations there, as opposed to the range of other counterterrorism missions being conducted elsewhere around the world?

Should we be planning to conduct many more Iraq- and Afghanistan-style missions, with a decade or more of 100,000+ U.S. troops on the ground, at a cost of $100+ billion a year? Or would you employ the U.S. military in a different way, relying less on ground troops, the Army and Marine Corps, but perhaps bringing power from the sea and air when required?

Military Spending: What we spend on our military is the primary measure of the costs of our foreign policy. With respect to military spending, the Pentagon’s base budget—excluding the costs of the wars—has grown by over $1 trillion since 9/11. This year, in 2011, U.S. taxpayers will spend more on national security (in real, inflation-adjusted dollars) than at any time since the end of World War II. Is this too much? How much is enough?

By some estimates, Governor Romney’s fiscal plan would add $2 trillion in military spending over the next decade. Do the other candidates agree that we should increase military spending by that amount, or should we be spending even more? Or less?

If you agree that we should spend more, what additional responsibilities should the U.S. military take on? If you think we should spend less, what missions can we afford to shift to others? Should the U.S. military be responsible for defending other countries that could defend themselves? Should Americans be willing to spend five or 10 times as much on the military as do people in other wealthy countries?

The United States has formal security relationships with dozens of countries around the world. Many of these date back to the Cold War. Have these become, as Hillary Clinton says, embedded in our DNA? Would you be willing to revisit any of these alliances?

 Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Cutting Military Spending, Rethinking Grand Strategy

The Associated Press’s Pauline Jelinek has a story on the wires/Interwebs today that pokes holes in Leon Panetta’s claim that Pentagon budget cuts on the order of those contemplated under the debt deal’s sequestration provisions would be “devastating to the department.” Jelinek quoted me, as well as the Center for American Progress’s Larry Korb, and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s Todd Harrison.

Assuming that sequestration will actually happen (a big if), I tried to put the possible cuts in perspective, given the significant increase in military spending over the past decade.

But we shouldn’t put the budgetary cart before the strategic horse. I have said on several occasions that we should not cut military spending without rethinking our strategic ends.

Although Ben Friedman recently made a strong case for using fiscal austerity to drive a change in our grand strategy, I still believe it possible – and wiser – to do this in the reverse order; rethink the strategy first, and then shape the force to fit the strategy.

As Ben has taught me, austerity is a good auditor, but it doesn’t require us to cut anything, or increase taxes on anyone. The current fiscal situation doesn’t even force us to choose to make any difficult decisions now – so long as we’re willing to borrow money to make up the difference. It is that latter point, however, that people are getting hung up on. And rightly so. We’re doing a disservice to our children and grandchildren by saddling them with these debts, and no reasonable plan for retiring them. August’s debt ceiling deal pits two different factions within the Republican Party against one another: budget hawks and tax cutters (OK to cut, not OK to raise taxes) vs. hawkish hawks (not OK to cut military spending, OK to tax increases). Within this battle, the fiscal hawks are OK with sequestration. The hawkish hawks are not.

Leaving the fiscal constraints on military spending to one side, the underlying strategic logic to my argument that we can responsibly cut military spending still holds. Cuts on the order of $800 billion, or even $1 trillion, would not pose a grave risk to U.S. security. Panetta’s claim that it would rests on the dubious assumption that a nation’s strategic ends are fixed. They are not. What the United States chooses to do to advance its security are just that: choices. Some are wise in retrospect. Others are foolish. Some are understood to be foolish before they are undertaken. But it need not be so ad hoc.

This was one of Barry Posen’s pleas in his article “The Case for Restraint.” Posen made the case for rethinking our strategic goals well before the present fiscal crisis. But he began by reminding readers of the importance of strategy, or, more simply, what grand strategy is:

A state’s grand strategy is its foreign policy elite’s theory about how to produce national security. Security has traditionally encompassed the preservation of a nation’s physical safety, the country’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity, and its power position—the last being the necessary means to the first three. States have traditionally been willing to risk the safety of their people to protect sovereignty, territorial integrity and power position. A grand strategy enumerates and prioritizes threats and adduces political and military remedies for them. A grand strategy also explains why some threats attain a certain priority, and why and how the remedies proposed could work.

Our grand strategy has done none of those things (or at least not well), because the particular strategy that we have pursued for more than two decades—primacy, benevolent global hegemony, unipolarity, pick your term—is loathe to choose. Every crisis is a primary concern for the United States. No regional conflict can be handled by regional actors. Every humanitarian disaster, manmade or heaven-sent, demands U.S. intervention.

The list of goals that flows from such a grand strategy is just that—a list—with little or no consideration of how these should be ranked. We must be everywhere. We must do everything. The various strategy documents, meanwhile, are all based on the assumption that primacy is the only reasonable strategy for the United States. Taking the ends and ways as a given, they begin with a force structure (the means), and work backwards. Sometimes they don’t even do that.

Most of us who believe that we can responsibly reduce military spending without undermining U.S. security argue that point from the perspective that our strategy is flawed, and, therefore, that our resources are misallocated. The alternative claim—that our strategy is sound, but we can achieve the same ends with fewer means—is not tenable.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Leaving Afghanistan?

On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Kabul, stated that the United States “will be well-positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July.”  But as Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reports, the planned reductions likely wouldn’t lead to a major change in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Indeed, even as Gates is stating that the United States will adhere to its date to begin withdrawing troops, negotiations are in the works that could establish a long-term security presence for the U.S. beyond 2014 and might include permanent military bases.

Secretary Gates and General Petraeus both claim progress in Afghanistan.  But their concepts of progress are murky and exist within a strategy that has never had clearly defined objectives.

Today, I attended a discussion on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan hosted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.  The other attendees included journalists, think tankers, and government professionals—former and current.  On The Skeptics blog, I outlined some of the important points of discussion that I think help explain our broader problems in the region.

I would characterize the general mood as grim. A few attendees pointed to the killing of a number of Taliban figures in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and reports of progress in Marja and the rest of Helmand province as evidence of progress. These gains, one speaker maintained, were sustainable and would not necessarily slip in the event that U.S. forces are directed elsewhere.

(Giles) Dorronsoro (visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment), disputed these assertions. He judged that the situation today is worse than it was a year ago, before the surge of 30,000 additional troops. The killing of individual Taliban leaders, or foot-soldiers, was also accompanied by the inadvertent killing of innocent bystanders, including most recently nine children. So there is always the danger that even targeted strikes based on timely, credible intelligence, will over the long term replace one dead Talib with two or four or eight of his sons, brothers, cousins, and tribesman. How many people have said “We can’t kill our way to victory”?

For Dorronsoro, the crucial metric is security, not number of bad guys and suspected bad guys killed. And, given that he can’t drive to places that he freely visited two or three years ago, he judges that security in the country has gotten worse, not better. Many U.S. and Western troops cannot leave their bases without encountering IEDs or more coordinated attacks from insurgents. U.S. and NATO forces don’t control territory, and there is little reason to think that they can. Effective counterinsurgencies (COIN) are waged by a credible local partner, a government that commands the respect and authority of its citizens. That obviously doesn’t exist in Afghanistan. The Afghan militia, supposedly the key to long-term success, is completely ineffective.

Click here to read the entire post.

No Mr. Secretary, It Is Not in America’s “Interest” to Stay in Iraq

In testimony yesterday before the House Armed Service Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that the United States has an “interest” in keeping troops in Iraq past the agreed date of withdrawal, December 31, 2011.  Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) pressed Gates by asking:

How can we maintain all of these gains that we’ve made through so much effort if we only have 150 people there and we don’t have any military there whatsoever,” Hunter asked. “We’d have more military in Western European countries at that point than we’d have in Iraq, one of the most central states, as everybody knows, in the Middle East?

The logic of Rep. Duncan’s question provides some interesting context. His logic implies that the thousands of U.S. troops stationed in wealthy, developed, Western Europe is both necessary and beneficial to our current interests. But this is not a very good argument as European countries continue to cut their defense budgets in large part because they are sheltered under the American security umbrella. It is in fact highly questionable why Americans should be willing to accept massive deficits as far as the eye can see and spend still more on our military, so that our allies can continue to shirk their fundamental obligations to their own people. There is no reason why we should want to adopt the same model for Iraq.

And yet, Rep. Duncan assumes that U.S. troop deployments in Europe are the model for providing political and economic stability everywhere in the world. If U.S. troops withdraw, all of our “gains” in Iraq would be lost.

This assumes that, first, U.S. troops can provide this stability, and second that our strategic interests in Iraq are on par with those in other parts of the world. But leaving U.S. troops in Iraq for another two, five, or seven years will not advance American security. It is not now, and should never have been, the responsibility of U.S. troops to create a functioning state in Iraq. That is the responsibility of the Iraqi people and their government. Likewise, our troops should not serve as Iraq’s police force.

There is no doubt that there are political and security challenges in Iraq, but these concerns should not delay the withdrawal. There will always be excuses, especially from those who favored the war at the outset, for a continued presence. And these risks will persist no matter how long U.S. troops stay. The future of Iraq lies with the people of Iraq, and it is well past the time when they must take the reins.

A handover of security responsibilities to the Iraqi people is in America’s strategic interest. As we are currently seeing with European defense budgets, the United States has been in the business of doing for other governments what they should be doing for themselves.  Now would be a good time to start to change this pattern.

The Pentagon’s Faux Cuts

President Obama might want it to appear as though he is reining in defense spending with his budget submission for FY 2012, but his approach to the Pentagon’s budget reveals the opposite.

Perhaps the president hopes that his adoption of the faux cuts that Secretary Gates put on the table last month will be seen as responsible. Perhaps he is taking a prudent first step and signaling to the military, and its suppliers and contractors, that the days of double-digit increases are over. That may be; but far deeper cuts are warranted. . If the president had truly wanted to send a signal, he would have followed the advice of his own deficit reduction commission and endorsed far deeper cuts in military spending.

The Department of Defense will spend $78 billion less over the next five years than previous projections. This amounts to a drop in the bucket – technically just over 2% – of total Pentagon spending over that period. Nonetheless, in Washington-ese, this constitutes a cut. But the base budget (excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) will increase – from $549 billion to $553 billion, the largest budget in the department’s history. In the past 12 years, the budget that has doubled in real, inflation-adjusted terms.

Deeper cuts should be made along with an effort to lessen worldwide defense commitments, reducing the strain on the force. It will be up to outside pressure – either from Congress or from interested groups outside of government – to force Washington to cease acting as the world’s policeman, and forcing other countries to take responsibility for their own defense.

Thanassis Cambanis on “Cosmopolitan Isolationism”

Via Erik Voeten, Thanassis Cambanis has a long piece in Sunday’s Boston Globe about academic critics of America’s bipartisan grand strategy.  Cambanis rightly points out that Republicans and Democrats basically agree about American strategy, and spend all their time haggling over price and implementation.  By contrast, there is a burgeoning group of critics in the academy who disagree:

[The critics’] call for a humbler foreign policy hasn’t gained much of a hearing with the foreign policy elite, and is hardly talked about in mainstream circles. They question many of America’s basic habits and reflexes, at a time when it’s increasingly clear that the “long war” has not eliminated the threat of terrorism or neutralized rogue states and their nuclear black market.

Not every danger rises to the level of an existential threat, these thinkers say; often, the best way to project power is to stay out of other people’s fights. Or as [Barry] Posen, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist who is one of the most acerbic proponents of restraint, puts it: “We need to get out of the world’s face.”

[…]

Barry Posen

Posen’s thinking has evolved markedly. In the late 1990s he derided “neo-isolationists” who wanted to minimize American involvements abroad (“Isolationist is what we called the people whose ideas we didn’t like,” he said). Now he counts himself among their number, and has embarked on a book and lecture tour expounding his case for restraint.

There are plenty of reasons why retrenchment should get more of a hearing in contemporary America, Posen says, but he doesn’t think power brokers will take the idea seriously until a definitive crisis limits the Pentagon or the Treasury. “It’s almost as if in foreign and security policy, democratic debate peters out,” Posen says. “If you argue for restraint, people hold up garlic like they would against a vampire and shout ‘Isolationist! Isolationist!’ ”

[…]

For now, the old consensus is running strong. But for the new isolationists, America is at the tail end of an unsustainable experiment that has cost progress at home. America’s interventionist reflex has embroiled it in wars big and small and political disputes whose value to American interests is hard to fathom.

“Maybe I’m hallucinating, but there’s an awareness that this project we’re running isn’t sustainable,” Posen says. “The way we run our strategy generates new little dragons faster than we can slay the old ones.”

The piece mentions, in addition to Posen, my old professor John Mearsheimer, who had a solid cover story in the current issue of the National Interest (video clip of recent talk on the article here), as well as Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich.

Cambanis’s piece is interesting and hits on themes I have tried to drive home in the past.  At last year’s APSA Annual Meeting, I highlighted the gulf between academic grand strategists and the Beltway foreign policy elite and tried to explain it.  I’ve also written a bit about the “isolationism” canard, and how it was designed–and coined by A.T. Mahan–with the intention of demonizing the opponents of an activist American strategy.

I’m still shopping an article dealing with these themes, but I would suggest that while “hallucinating” might be too strong a word, Posen is too optimistic about the prospects of a major strategic shift along the lines that he–and I–would like.  There is simply no interest group support for it in Washington and no external pressure that looks likely to force us to pull in our horns.  Maybe I’m being too pessimistic, and maybe it’s a function of having been working on this project for a long time in DC with very little success, but I think the prospects for significant change are a long ways off, and sound arguments emanating from the academy are unlikely to get us there.

To my mind, there are two things that could bring substantial change to American strategy: the rise of some external security threat that would force us to make smarter, more prudent choices, or a shift in the domestic-political balance of power that involved the rise of a faction within Washington that had vested interests in strategic restraint.  To my mind, we’re miles away from either of those scenarios, and thus the status quo is likely to persist for decades.