Tag: leon panetta

Obama Right to Resist Arming Syrian Rebels

In a front-page story for the Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous reports that President Obama rejected a plan to arm Syrian rebels presented by officials at the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department. It seems that despite the advice of the most senior members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and then-CIA director David Petraeus, the president decided against becoming more deeply embroiled in a brutal civil war. 

The president’s caution is welcome news for those of us who are skeptical of the United States’ ability to pick winners and losers in distant conflicts. I am also deeply sympathetic with the president’s dilemma, which is the theme of my book The Power Problem. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as the saying goes. But true responsibility means acting wisely, not simply acting. It takes enormous discipline and courage for a president to resist the incessant demands that he do something—anything—when horrible things occur. He should only act (1) in those rare cases when vital U.S. national security interests are at stake, and (2) when it is clear that the action being taken has a reasonable chance of delivering tangible results at a reasonable cost. 

Neither of those criteria is satisfied with respect to the Syrian conflict. 

Indeed, as the Journal story notes, the president appreciated that armed support for individuals and factions within the Syrian opposition was likely to have a number of unintended consequences. Specifically, the White House was dissatisfied with the answers to “lingering questions” including “which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and whether the weapons would add to the suffering.” And the president apparently didn’t listen only to those making the case for expanded U.S. involvement; an anonymous U.S. official told the Journal that a team of CIA analysts cast doubt on the impact of arming the rebels in the conflict. 

Although the United States is providing non-lethal support to Syrian rebels, there are other good reasons to avoid doing more. One is the United States’ terrible track record in providing material, and lethal, support to opposition groups and figures. We have often mistaken power-hungry thugs, or simply manipulative charlatans, for committed democrats, and it is unreasonable to expect that our ability to separate the true patriots from the phonies has improved markedly since Iraq. 

More Truth about Sequestration

Pentagon officials and other proponents of big military spending have three basic complaints about sequestration. That’s the process created by last summer’s Budget Control Act that would cut planned federal spending by about $1.1 trillion over the next nine years through budget caps and a $110 billion in across-the-board cuts in January 2013, with half the cuts coming from defense.

The first complaint is that the cuts would harm national security. The second is that the defense cuts would cause great job loss and economic damage. The third complaint concerns sequestration’s breadth. Because the hit coming in January would apply in equal proportion to every “program, project, and activity” in the defense budget, Pentagon officials claim it prevents prioritizing among programs and planning to limit its pain. That’s what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, always ready with a violent metaphor, calls the “goofy meat-axe approach.”

The video Cato posted yesterday concerns the first complaint, noting that the cut is not that large in historical terms and that we could safely spend far less if we defended fewer countries (a point Chris Preble, Justin Logan and I have often made elsewhere). In a paper Cato released today, Ben Zycher attacks the economic case against military spending cuts, including sequestration, showing that they generally increase economic productivity and employment in the long term.

In a piece published today by CNN.com’s Global Public Square, I concentrate on the third complaint. I point out several ways that current law gives the Pentagon to control where sequestration applies. The most important is a provision in the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, which the BCA amends. It seems to allow the president to transfer funds at will beneath the defense cap, provided Congress passes an expedited joint resolution approving the shift. So the president, with Congress’s permission, can convert the 2013 sequester into a cap and prioritize among programs beneath it.

These options (and several others mentioned in Frank Oliveri’s excellent subscriber-only piece in CQ Weekly) undermine the claim that the Pentagon cannot plan for sequestration. The reason you hardly hear about them is that both the Obama administration and Republicans leaders are gambling that the threat of sequestration will serve their priorities (tax increases and entitlement cuts, respectively), so everyone in power wants it to sound as scary as possible.

To be clear, I do not think sequestration is good policy unless what I just mentioned occurred—the 2013 cut essentially becomes a spending cap. Even if that joint resolution process does not occur, the same end could be accomplished by amending the BCA.

Americans Favor Accelerated Withdrawal from Afghanistan

In case you haven’t heard, the war in Afghanistan is in a tailspin. Following the turbulent events of the past two weeks—including yesterday’s incident on a Helmand runway and the disarming of U.S. Marines before Defense Secretary Leon Panetta—Afghan president Hamid Karzai has demanded U.S. troops withdraw from villages and operate only from large NATO bases. Furthermore, the Taliban announced that it is breaking off peace talks with the United States.

These new developments further call into question the Obama administration’s ability to implement its strategy of a gradual transition of responsibilities to the Afghan national security forces by 2014. And the American people recognize this.

A USA Today/Gallup poll finds 50 percent of respondents support an accelerated troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, while an Washington Post-ABC News-poll shows 54 percent favor a U.S. military withdrawal even if it means the Afghan security forces are not “self-sufficient.” That same poll finds 60 percent believe the war is “not worth fighting.” A majority of Americans rightly understand the futility of staying the course. Leaders in Washington should, too.

What the Pentagon’s New Military Strategy Should Look Like

President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey are scheduled to brief the media tomorrow morning on the recently completed strategic review that will inform the Pentagon’s budget priorities for the coming five to ten years. Early indications suggest that the status quo will hold. And that is bad news for U.S. troops, and U.S. taxpayers.

Obama, Panetta, and Dempsey should clearly spell out:

  1. The types of missions that the U.S. military will be expected to perform on a regular basis
  2. Those operations that the military will occasionally conduct on short notice, and for short periods of time
  3. How defense capacity can be augmented in those very rare cases calling for significant mobilization of additional resources.

Some suggest that the strategy document will abandon the requirement that the Pentagon must be prepared to fight two sustained ground wars at the same time, something that the country hasn’t done since well before Barack Obama was born. Such a change, if true, should be welcomed.

It is significant the president is attending, and the most important questions should be reserved for him. It is particularly incumbent upon the civilian leadership within the Obama administration, beginning with the president himself, to spell out their intentions regarding the use of force, and of the role of the U.S. military more broadly. These should go beyond vague signals; our military leaders shouldn’t be forced to guess what missions that they will be asked to perform. The president must tell them.

For example, does he intend to deploy U.S. troops to more weak and failing states, missions that require a very sizable ground presence for an indefinite period of time? Or have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan taught the president and his advisers that such missions are costly and counterproductive (and politically unpopular at home)? If the latter, the Pentagon should be planning for significant reductions in the Army and Marine Corps.

Does President Obama plan to conduct more Libya-style missions, operations conducted from the air, with some involvement by other militaries? Or is the recent deployment to Uganda emblematic of future missions, with a small-scale U.S. military presence on the ground in support of indigenous forces? Either way, the Air Force and the Navy are likely to be involved, though perhaps not as active as in the past decade.

More broadly, will the White House and the State Department continue to task the U.S. military with the defense of the global commons, providing security for all countries, and expecting nothing in return? Or will the twin constraints of fiscal insolvency and dwindling public support here at home lead to a less grandiose foreign policy, one that will call on the U.S. military to defend the United States and secure vital U.S. interests, while encouraging other countries to take responsibility for their own defense? The former requires a military even larger than the one that we have today, one that costs more than all other militaries in the world, combined, and that expects and demands much of our men and women in uniform. The latter mission, by contrast, could be easily handled with a smaller, more elite force, based largely here in the United States.

The answers to these key questions are what should guide the Pentagon’s force planning for the coming decade. The president, Secretary Panetta, Secretary of State Clinton, and other senior officials have stated that the United States must continue to be the world’s policeman, effectively discouraging other countries from doing more. The end result is likely to be a smaller U.S. military, tasked with a longer to-do list. That isn’t fair to the troops, or to the U.S. taxpayers who will foot the bill.

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.

The Pentagon and Jobs

Desperate to fend off cuts in military spending, the defenders of the status quo are claiming that potential reductions included in the debt ceiling deal’s sequestration provision would result in huge job losses. In September, Leon Panetta suggested that cuts of up to $1 trillion would increase the nation’s unemployment rate by a full percentage point, and put up to 1.5 million people out of work.

Early last week, the Aerospace Industry of America (AIA) jumped in claiming that “more than one million American jobs could be lost as a result of defense budget cuts if the deficit reduction select committee fails to reach agreement on alternative balanced budget solutions….”

The media picked up on the AIA’s press release, but their documentation was flimsy, at best: AIA offered up a five-page summary of the research conducted by George Mason University professor Stephen S. Fuller, and a video of the press conference in which Fuller, AIA CEO Marion Blakey, and Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, railed against the “devastating impact” (Blakey) of military spending cuts and the “economic turmoil” (Buffenbarger) that would result.

Yesterday, nearly seven weeks after the secretary issued his dire warning, Panetta’s office released the findings of a report from Interindustry Forecasting at the University of Maryland (INFORUM) to buttress their claims.

By then, the counteroffensive was already in full swing. Bill Hartung has one of the better assessments that I’ve seen because it includes Bill’s insight into the inner workings of the military-industrial complex, blended with his characteristic wit. The bottom line, he explains, is that the contractors are doing just fine, and they will be in the future. The claims of massive job losses are just the latest in a string of scaremongering tactics aimed at allowing them to hold onto their loot.

Other opinion writers and columnists have fixed on aspects of the jobs argument that suit their broader purpose. Paul Krugman pushed a predictably Keynesian line (all government spending is good, but non-military spending is better). Others pointed to the hypocrisy of the situational Keynesians, people who generally oppose government spending when it buys road and bridges, but who embrace military spending for its supposedly magical stimulative effects. These are the “believers in the military spending fairy,” explains Dean Baker at the Center for Economic Policy Research.

None of this debate is new. In the late 1940s, Keynesians assailed Harry Truman for questioning whether excessive military spending might drag down the economy. Nonsense, they said. We can afford much more spending, and it will have wonderful stimulative effects, to boot. Many of these same Keynesians claimed that Dwight Eisenhower’s fiscal restraint was forcing the country to fight the Soviets with one arm tied behind its back. (Truman eventually relented, which has earned him the undying respect and admiration of liberal and conservative hawks alike; Ike’s fiscal conservatism, by contrast, has generated only scorn from the same group).

Ronald Reagan was no Keynesian, but he seemed to agree with them when it came to military spending. “Defense is not a budget issue,” he said, “You spend what you need.” And yet, not even the Gipper spent as much as we do today on our military. We are spending more, in inflation-adjusted terms, than at any time since World War II. More than during Korea, more than during Vietnam, and more, even, than in the early 1980s. It is likely that total military spending will be lower in 2012 than 2011, but most of these savings will come from the troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon’s base budget may yet emerge unscathed.

Military spending advocates routinely skirt around such inconvenient facts. Looking at absolute spending, even if adjusted for inflation, they say, obscures the reality that spending as a share of GDP is relatively modest, in historical terms. But the hawks can’t have it both ways: they can’t claim on the one hand that military spending constitutes a very small share of the total economy (and therefore we can spend as much, or more, with ease), and at the same time wail about the massive job losses that would result from cuts in military spending.

In the end, it all comes back to opportunity costs. Unless one believes that every dollar saved from the Pentagon’s budget will be thrown into a huge government money hole in the New Mexico desert, the reality is that at least some–and likely most–of the taxpayers’ dollars that are currently dedicated to the military could be better employed elsewhere. My preference would be for each of us to keep a bit more of the money that we earn, money that we will then choose to spend as we see fit. This new private spending would more than offset the cuts in government spending, given the government’s inherent inefficiencies, dead-weight losses, etc. Yes, some workers might lose jobs in the near term, but, as Gordon Adams notes, the economy has recovered from a number of previous military build downs, which were deeper and faster than those envisioned today.

Finally, we should embrace the discipline that even modest fiscal constraints can have on our grand strategy. The most “draconian” cuts envisioned under sequestration would take the military’s budget back to 2007 levels–hardly a “lean” year for the defense industry–but policymakers are likely to pay more attention to how they allocate resources if they perceive that they have less of them.

During his last few months as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen explained that the Pentagon had forgotten how to prioritize during more than a decade of ever-rising budgets. The White House and others in the national security community have as well. I’m confident that shrinking budgets will infuse a measure of prudence and restraint that is long overdue.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Panetta’s Obligatory Warning to NATO on Military Spending Will Accomplish Nothing

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a warning to NATO allies that reducing military spending on both sides of the Atlantic will risk “hollowing out” the alliance’s capabilities. Panetta implied that Europeans cannot continue to rely on the United States for their security. Following former defense secretary Robert Gates’s comments in June, Panetta joins the long list of U.S. presidents, secretaries of defense and state, and innumerable lower-level officials who have pleaded with Europe to pick up the slack on military spending, provide for their own security, and close the gap in capabilities.

But Secretary Panetta’s speech also praised NATO for the mission in Libya and he extolled Europe’s leadership in the campaign: “The alliance achieved more burden-sharing between the U.S. and Europe than we have in the past…on a mission that was in the vital interest of our European allies.”

Relative to past NATO operations, it may be true that Europe contributed more in this instance. But this ignores the fact that the mission would not have been possible without the unique capabilities of the U.S. military. As Justin Logan pointed out, the Europeans quickly ran out of munitions and relied on the United States to conduct air strikes. “Thus, Washington essentially borrowed money from China to buy ordnance to give to Europe to drop on Libya.”

Panetta’s finger-wagging will do little to alter the incentive structure European states confront when determining what they should spend on defense. As I explain in an article recently published at Big Peace, until the United States takes concrete steps to force Europeans to spend more for their security, they will continue to free-ride on the U.S. taxpayers’ dime.

Cutting the Pentagon’s budget without imposing additional burdens on our troops requires getting our allies to do more. That is unlikely to happen unless U.S. officials, beginning with Secretary Panetta, force the issue. Unfortunately, he is merely one of many in Washington who seem to forget how incentives work:

Those who simply assume that others would not do more to defend themselves and their interests often ignore the extent to which U.S. actions have discouraged them from doing so. Just as some welfare recipients are often disinclined to look for work, foreign countries on the generous American security dole do not see a need to obtain military power. Our great power, and our willingness to use it, even when our own interests are not at stake, has allowed others to ignore possible threats, always confident that the United States will be there to rescue them.

The Obama administration’s rhetoric merely reinforces this message. The National Security Strategy, published in May 2010, declares “There should be no doubt: the United States of America will continue to underwrite global security.” Taking their cue, U.S. allies have proved understandably disinterested in military spending.

Despite Panetta’s pleas, U.S. strategy—and NATO’s very existence—allows this free-riding to continue. The Libya operation appears to have reinforced these destructive tendencies. If Washington really wants our allies to spend more to defend themselves and their vital interests, U.S. officials must jettison their reflexive attachment to the NATO alliance, an organization that has been irrelevant to U.S. vital security interests for at least two decades.

Secretary Panetta understands the United States is dealing with its own fiscal problems, but he has missed a perfect opportunity to offload a share of our burdens on to our rich allies.