Tag: hegemony

Obama’s Power Problem, and Ours

I have an op-ed in Politico today that explores what I call President Obama’s power problem, a common theme in my work (my book is now in a Kindle edition!).

Simply stated, when a country has more military power than it needs to defend itself and its core interests, it will expand its definition of “the national interest.” This will, in turn, lead it to intervene militarily in places and disputes that have no connection to the country’s security. That certainly has been the pattern for the United States for at least the last two decades. The problem is nicely encapsulated in the famous exchange between Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, which Powell recounted in his memoir.

Madeleine Albright, our ambassador to the UN, asked me in frustration “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.

This brings us to Libya, and to a new group of people who likely said something similar to Mike Mullen and Bob Gates. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s disagreements with Gates were on public display last Sunday, but reports of a whisper campaign within the administration, in which Clinton and her advisers were frustrated by President Obama’s unwillingness to deploy the U.S. military on yet another mission, have been flying around for weeks.

In the end, the Valkyries got their war. Clinton’s advice, along with that of Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who have all loudly called for U.S. military intervention in the past, convinced President Obama to override Gates and Mullen’s objections, and to launch what Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman aptly characterized yesterday as “just the most muddled definition of an operation probably in U.S. military history.” Anne-Marie Slaughter, who recently returned to Princeton after a stint at State’s policy planning staff, was sniping from the sidelines.  Pressure from our European allies, especially France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron in the UK, also appears to have been decisive.

This is not so unique a set of circumstance, however, as I discussed with Cato Audio’s Caleb Brown a few days ago. Near the end of the interview, I focused on the particular challenges that confront the leader of a country whose military capabilities seem almost limitless:

I agree that it is difficult, it is very difficult, for the President of the United States to resist the impulse to intervene when he has people, many people, calling on him to do something. But it’s precisely because we have so much power, and because the temptation to use it is almost overwhelming, that a president has to have extraordinary discipline and say: “No. I was elected by the people of the United States to protect them, to keep this country safe and security, and if a mission does not advance those ends I will not do it.”

That is not the counsel of despair, and the counsel of inaction. On the contrary, there are many other countries, especially those in Libya’s immediate neighborhood, that have both a compelling  national security rationale and a moral rationale [to intervene]. And it’s precisely the combination of those factors that we, the United States, should have encouraged in the past, and we could have encouraged in this particular case. Instead, other countries waited for the United States to act,…

Caleb Brown, Cato Audio: And just the possibility the U.S. will act probably puts a lot of countries on the sideline…

Me: That’s correct…. Because of the expectation that the United States will act, it causes other people to wait it out. And sometimes, tragically, they wait it out too long. Because, again, the United States does not always intervene. There are a number of cases where we have not. And I fear that we have set up a system where, if the United States doesn’t act, nothing gets done, and I don’t think that’s the right approach. I think there are alternatives that will use other countries’ legitimate security interests to advance humanitarian ends.

You can listen to the whole clip here.

Thursday Links

  • There is a growing gap between Washington policymakers, and the taxpayers and troops who fund and carry out those policies.
  • Why do budget and deficit hawks keep sidestepping growing entitlements?
  • Don’t forget to join us on Monday, March 28 at 1pm ET for a live video chat with Julian Sanchez on the growing surveillance state.
  • The individual mandate in Obamacare is another example of the growing congressional power under the Commerce Clause:

U.S. Military Power: Preeminence for What Purpose?

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question focuses on the recently released Hadley-Perry “alternative QDR.”

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. of NationalJournal.com asks:

The U.S. military is already unaffordable – and yet it needs to be larger to sustain America’s global leadership, especially in the face of a rising China. That’s the bottom line from a congressionally chartered bipartisan panel, co-chaired by Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security adviser, and William Perry, Bill Clinton’s Defense secretary. The report, released July 29, is the independent panel’s assessment of and commentary on the Pentagon’s own Quadrennial Defense Review, released earlier this year.

Frequent expert blog contributor Gordon Adams, among others, has already blasted the Hadley-Perry report for making the underlying assumption that the U.S. can and should continue to invest heavily in being a “global policeman.” Is Adams right that the Hadley-Perry report calls for an unaffordable answer to the wrong question? Or are the report’s authors correct when they argue that the U.S. must be the leading guarantor of global security? And if the U.S. must lead, has the Hadley-Perry panel laid out the right path to doing so?

My response:

Dan Goure says that U.S. military preeminence is not unaffordable. That is probably correct. Even though we spend in excess of $800 billion annually on national security (including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs) we could choose to spend as much, or more, for a while longer. We could choose to shift money out of other government programs; we could raise taxes; or we could continue to finance the whole thing on debt, and stick our children and grandchildren with the bill.

But what is the point? Why do Americans spend so much more on our military than does any other country, or any other combination of countries?

Goure and the Hadley-Perry commissioners who produced the alternate QDR argue that the purpose of American military power is to provide global public goods, to defend other countries so that they don’t have to defend themselves, and otherwise shape the international order to suit our ends. In other words, the same justifications offered for American military dominance since the end of the Cold War.

Most in Washington still embraces the notion that America is, and forever will be, the world’s indispensable nation. Some scholars, however, questioned the logic of hegemonic stability theory from the very beginning. A number continue to do so today. They advance arguments diametrically at odds with the primacist consensus. Trade routes need not be policed by a single dominant power; the international economy is complex and resilient. Supply disruptions are likely to be temporary, and the costs of mitigating their effects should be borne by those who stand to lose – or gain – the most. Islamic extremists are scary, but hardly comparable to the threat posed by a globe-straddling Soviet Union armed with thousands of nuclear weapons. It is frankly absurd that we spend more today to fight Osama bin Laden and his tiny band of murderous thugs than we spent to face down Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao. Many factors have contributed to the dramatic decline in the number of wars between nation-states; it is unrealistic to expect that a new spasm of global conflict would erupt if the United States were to modestly refocus its efforts, draw down its military power, and call on other countries to play a larger role in their own defense, and in the security of their respective regions.

But while there are credible alternatives to the United States serving in its current dual role as world policeman / armed social worker, the foreign policy establishment in Washington has no interest in exploring them. The people here have grown accustomed to living at the center of the earth, and indeed, of the universe. The tangible benefits of all this military spending flow disproportionately to this tiny corner of the United States while the schlubs in fly-over country pick up the tab.

In short, we shouldn’t have expected that a group of Washington insiders would seek to overturn the judgments of another group of Washington insiders. A genuinely independent assessment of U.S. military spending, and of the strategy the military is designed to implement, must come from other quarters.