Tag: Iraq

Strength vs. Stupidity

The New York Times weighs in this morning with a timely and sensible editorial on military spending. The main focus is on the increasingly outdated pay and benefits system for the nation’s troops. Some choice excerpts:

Military pay, benefit and retirement costs rose by more than 50 percent over the…decade (accounting for inflation). Leaving aside Afghanistan and Iraq, those costs now account for nearly $1 out of every $3 the Pentagon spends.

Much of that is necessary to recruit and retain a high-quality, all-volunteer military….But current military pay, pension systems and retiree health care benefits are unsustainable and ripe for reform.

[…]

The retirement system is both unfair and increasingly expensive. Most veterans, including many who have served multiple combat tours, will never qualify for even a partial military pension or retiree health benefits. These are only available to those who have served at least 20 years. Those who do qualify can start collecting their pensions as soon as they leave service, even if they are still in their late 30s, making for huge long-term costs.

So far, so good. Two essential points bear repeating.

First, the rise in military spending over the past decade has not been driven solely by the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon costs are growing, and the rate of growth is rising. Programmatic reform is needed to reign in those costs; avoiding stupid wars won’t solve the problem (although it won’t hurt).

Second, the current system disproportionately rewards individuals who stay in the service for 20-plus years, and undercompensates those men and women who serve several tours, but who do not qualify for military retirement. A better system would allow anyone who has served to retain some of what they paid (or what taxpayers paid for them) into a portable retirement account that they control. Private industry has been steadily moving away from a fixed-benefit, pension-style system for years. I have heard the arguments against such a move, but I don’t find them particularly convincing.

One point from the Times editorial, however, calls out for clarification. The editors claim on two separate occasions that current military spending patterns are “unsustainable.” They conclude:

The United States already has a comfortable margin of [military] dominance….The Pentagon’s ambitions expanded without limit over the Bush era, and Congress eagerly wrote the checks. The country cannot afford to continue this way, and national security doesn’t require it. (emphasis added)

The latter point, “national security doesn’t require it,” is crucial, correct, and should be repeated at every opportunity. The former assertion, “the country cannot afford” it, is false. Repeating that claim plays into the hands of the inveterate hawks who never saw a war, or a weapon system, that wasn’t deserving of more lives/money.

The hawks are correct to point out that the United States has in the past, and could in the future, choose to spend as much or more on our military. Current spending levels amount to about five percent of GDP (when including the costs of the wars), and military spending as a share of total government spending has been falling steadily for years. According to the hawks, it is other spending, or too little revenue, that is putting our children and grandchildren into debt.

I wish that the Times had spent more time hammering the point that such spending is unnecessary. Contrary to anecdote and the evening news, the international system is remarkably stable and peaceful. The United States need not spend more than we did at the height of the Cold War in order to be secure from most threats. And those few genuine threats to our security could be handled with a smaller, more efficient military—if we offloaded some responsibilities to other countries that have sheltered under the U.S. security umbrella for decades.

The Times doesn’t directly address that last point. By focusing most of their attention on programmatic reforms to pay and benefits, and a bit on costly procurement of unnecessary weapons, but not enough to the underlying flawed assumptions that drive military spending, the editors contribute to the misconception that the U.S. military should continue to be the world’s policeman, and find ways to do this on the cheap.

That is unfortunate. Spending more than we need to doesn’t make us stronger. Ignoring our favorable strategic circumstances is simply stupid. We spend too much on our military because we ask our troops to do too much. To spend less, we must do less. The good news is that we can. The bad news is that too few people understand that.

A U.S. Troop Presence in Iraq Does Not Serve U.S. Security Interests

Many years ago, longer than I care to remember, I wrote an op ed wondering aloud “Who Will Decide When We Leave Iraq?” More than five and a half years later, we still don’t know the answer to that question.

Sure, we have an agreement with the Iraqis to leave by the end of this year. All U.S. troops are supposed to be gone, although a very large diplomatic presence, including perhaps thousands of security contractors, will remain. George W. Bush presided over the negotiation of the deal, and then passed it off to his successor. When he drew down to fewer than 50,000 troops over the summer, on a path to zero by January 1, 2012, Barack Obama was merely implementing the policy. He cannot fairly be accused of doing anything other than what his predecessor would have done. If it is a mistake for Obama to preside over a troop withdrawal, then it was a mistake for Bush to negotiate one.

But maybe we’re not leaving? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is reportedly supporting a deal for 3,000 to 4,000 troops to remain in a training capacity past the end of the year, provided a deal can be struck with the Iraqis.

Those few Americans who are still paying attention to Iraq cannot be enthusiastic about this. We have long since tired of the ruinous, pointless war. The cheerleaders for invading Iraq said it would be a cakewalk, and that the costs would be paid for by Iraqi oil revenues, not U.S. taxpayers. It has instead consumed nearly $800 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars, claimed the lives of over 4,400 U.S. troops, and wounded many thousands more. The costs of caring for the wounded and recapitalizing equipment will likely top an additional $1 trillion.

Haven’t we had enough already?

Apparently not.

A handful of U.S. senators are appalled to learn not that U.S. troops might be staying in Iraq, but rather that the administration is contemplating a troop withdrawal. (Is this news to them?) When they learned that the administration was trying to retain a U.S. troop presence beyond the end of this year, Diane Feinstein, Joseph Lieberman, John McCain and Lindsay Graham, complained that the numbers being contemplated were insufficient. They claimed that such a draw down would imperil the fragile gains made in the country over the past few years, and expose the few troops left behind to serious harm.

That last point might be true. It isn’t clear to me why 3,000 troops makes much more sense than 30,000 or 300. But the essential fact is that the presence in Iraq, any presence, is unnecessary. Bush made many mistakes in Iraq, beginning with the decision to invade. He was correct to determine that the mission must end. It does not serve U.S. security interests to remain in that country indefinitely.

At the time when I wrote that earlier op ed, in early 2006, I pointed to President Bush’s insistence that we would only stay so long as the Iraqis wanted us there, and suggested that the Iraqs might ultimately determined whether we stayed or went. Bush might have been gambling that the Iraqis would not ask us to leave, at least not right away, and the polling data at the time suggested that was a safe bet.

It isn’t any longer. A few people here in the United States might want U.S. troops to stay in Iraq; but very few Iraqis agree.

Realist IR scholars will repeat ad nauseum the mantra from Thucydides:  “The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must.” To the extent that this is true, no U.S. president would gamble this country’s security on the whims of a nascent parliamentary democracy rife with anti-American sentiment. We would never hand such a decision over to the Iraqis if it was truly vital to our national security to remain there.

It isn’t. It never has been. The Iraq war was a war of choice; we can choose to leave. We should.

 

Leave Iraq to the Iraqis

Many advocates of promiscuous military intervention angrily reject the claim that America is an “empire.” Granted, the U.S. doesn’t directly rule its imperial dependents. But Washington policymakers do insist on maintaining a military presence wherever and whenever possible, irrespective of America’s defense needs.

The Obama administration’s attempt to pressure the Iraqi government into “inviting” the U.S. to remain is almost comical. Rather than requiring Baghdad to demonstrate why a continuing American presence is necessary, U.S. officials have been begging to stay. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said: “I hope they figure out a way to ask.” His successor, Leon Panetta, recently blurted out: “dammit, make a decision.”

However, it is Washington that should make a decision and bring home America’s troops.

The U.S. continues to garrison Europe, Japan, and South Korea, decades after American forces first arrived. All of these international welfare queens could defend themselves. Despite President Bill Clinton’s promise that American troops would spend just a year occupying the Balkans, an area of minimal security interest to the United States, some troops remain to this day. And uber-hawks talk about maintaining a permanent presence in Afghanistan, as distant from conventional U.S. defense interests as any nation on the planet.

But right now Iraq is exciting the most concern, since the United States is supposed to withdraw its combat forces by year-end. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the top military spokesman in Iraq, said Washington “has committed to an enduring partnership with Iraq,” but it would be easier if the Iraqis spoke up “while we have troops here and infrastructure here.”

From start to (almost) finish, the Iraqi operation has been a tragic fiasco. The United States invaded to seize non-existent WMDs. American forces destroyed the country’s system of ordered tyranny, turning the country into a bloody charnel house, killing hundreds of thousands and forcing millions to flee. Washington’s occupation transferred democracy to Iraq without the larger liberal culture necessary for democracy to thrive. U.S. intervention empowered Iran while destroying Baghdad’s ability to control its own borders.

Yet President Obama wants to stick around, meddling in Iraq’s domestic affairs and defending it in foreign matters.

The United States should not have invaded Iraq. Washington can’t undo the ill effects of the war, but it can avoid the costs of a permanent occupation.

America’s job in Iraq is done. The Iraqis should be left in charge of their national destiny. All U.S. troops should be withdrawn. Washington should stop collecting increasingly dangerous dependencies for its empire.

Cross-posted from The National Interest

$1 Trillion in Phony Spending Cuts?

In the Washington Post Friday, Ezra Klein partly confirmed what I fear the Republican strategy is for the debt-limit bill—get to the $2 trillion in cuts promised through accounting gimmicks. As I have also noted, Klein says that there is about $1 trillion in budget “savings” ($1.4 trillion with interest) to be found simply in the inflated Congressional Budget Office baseline for Iraq and Afghanistan. Klein says, “I’m told that a big chunk of these savings were included in the debt-ceiling deal” that Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Sen. Jon Kyl (D-AZ) are negotiating with the Democrats.

Republican leaders have promised that spending cuts in the debt-limit deal must be at least as large as the debt-limit increase, which means $2 trillion if the debt-limit is extended to reach the end of 2012. In a Daily Caller op-ed, I noted that you can find $1 trillion in “savings” from this phony war accounting and another $1 trillion by simply pretending that non-security discretionary will stay flat over the next decade.

There is more evidence that few, if any, real spending cuts are being discussed. One clue is that the media keeps quoting Joe Biden essentially saying that it was easy to reach agreement on the first $1 trillion in cuts.

The other suspicious thing is that the media keeps floating trial balloons for specific tax hikes, but I’ve seen very few trial balloons for specific spending cuts. Friday, the Washington Post story on the debt discussions mentions all kinds of ideas for raising taxes on high earners. A few days ago, news stories revealed that negotiators were talking about changing tax bracket indexing to create annual stealth increases in income taxes. The only item I’ve seen being discussed on the spending side is trimming farm subsidies.

If Republican and Democratic lawmakers were really discussing major spending cuts, then the media would be full of stories mentioning particular changes to entitlement laws to reduce benefits and stories about abolishing programs widely regarded as wasteful, such as community development grants.

I hope I’m wrong, but this is starting to look a lot like the phony $100 billion spending cut deal from earlier this year.

Sean, Rush, Greta, Glenn, Bill: When you get Republican leaders on your shows, get them to promise that they won’t use phony baseline accounting like war costs to reach the $2 trillion in cuts. The budget and the nation desperately need real cuts and real government downsizing.

Tuesday Links

Two Cheers for Iraqi Nationalism

What Does This Mean? (Reuters/Ceerwan Aziz)

Today’s New York Times has a piece on the running discussion in Iraq about the prospect of U.S. military withdrawal from their country. As the article highlights, the discussion itself “reflects a nation still struggling with issues of sectarian identity, national pride, and how to secure its future.”

One of the few things former President Bush said about Iraq that I agreed with was his claim on Al Arabiya in 2005 that “the future of Iraq depends on Iraqi nationalism and the Iraq character—the character of Iraq and Iraqi people emerging.”

In general, I am not very fond of nationalism, but if you want to hold together a country of 25 million people, especially when they have been riven by decades of sectarian strife, a living-memory civil war, a variety of identity politics divides, and disputes over the rents from natural resources, you could probably use some. (Maybe we could find a way that a very diverse coalition of Iraqis could chase us out.)

As the article indicates, there are a range of views about the prospect of American withdrawal. One Iraqi remarks hopefully that “I prefer that the U.S. forces leave Iraq because then extremists wouldn’t have an excuse to carry guns.” A follower of Muqtada al-Sadr remarks that “Whatever [Sadr] says, we will do. We will keep on resisting until the last days of our lives.” An intellectual remarks that if American military forces leave, “the sectarian conflict between Iran and the rest of the Arab countries will seep into Iraq because the Iranians will try and make the Shiites more powerful and the Arab countries will support the Sunnis. This will lead to a sectarian war.”

Several of the Iraqis interviewed were profoundly cynical about American intentions, believing that the United States would try to stick around for various selfish reasons. At a time when political leaders like Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. John Boehner, and others are suggesting that we need to find a way to stay in their country, can you really blame the Iraqis for feeling a bit cynical?

Regardless, the future of Iraq will ultimately turn on whether Iraqis decide that there is such a thing as Iraq, and if so, whether they should identify strongly with it and be loyal to it. The fact that the jury is still out on those questions more than eight years after we changed the regime speaks volumes about the folly of the war in the first place.

Wednesday Links

  • Osama bin Laden’s death gives us a chance to end what might have become an era of permanent emergency and perpetual war.
  • The Cold War ended–what are we doing in Korea?
  • Two cheers for President Obama for ending eight (well, three) tax breaks to oil companies.
  • Does Osama bin Laden’s death mean an end to U.S.-Pakistan relations?
  • Please join us next Tuesday, May 10 at 4:00 p.m. Eastern for a Cato Book Forum on America’s Allies and War: Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, by University of Mary Washington political scientist Jason W. Davidson. Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and Georgetown University international relations professor Charles Kupchan will join Professor Davidson in a discussion of the book and its themes, particularly U.S. relations with NATO allies, moderated by Cato director of foreign policy studies Christopher A. Preble. Complimentary registration is required of all attendees by Monday, May 9 at noon Eastern. We hope you can join us in person, but we encourage you to watch online if you cannot attend personally.