Tag: militarism

Bin Laden’s Death and the Debate over the U.S. Mission in Afghanistan

Osama Bin Laden’s death marks a significant achievement in the fight against al Qaeda. It also highlights the fact that our ostensible objective for continuing the war in Afghanistan has been achieved. Although some lawmakers have been quick to claim that bin Laden’s demise proves that our nation-building mission is showing signs of success, others recognize that this momentous achievement justifies scaling down our presence in Afghanistan. Indeed, rather than expansive counterinsurgency campaigns, targeted counterterrorism measures would suffice.

It is encouraging that Republican members of Congress are questioning the mission. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed his concern yesterday:

[Senator Lugar] said Afghanistan no longer holds the strategic importance to match Washington’s investment. He cited recent comments from senior national-security officials that terrorist strikes on America are more likely to be planned in places like Yemen.

Lugar raised concerns that U.S. policy on Afghanistan is focused more on building up its economic, political and security systems. “Such grand nation-building is beyond our powers,” he said bluntly.

Most poignantly, he summed up the problem as such:

With Al Qaeda largely displaced from the country, but franchised in other locations, Afghanistan does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost, especially given current fiscal constraints.

These realities have neither shifted the GOP establishment’s talking points on defense, nor the Obama administration’s “stay-the-course” policy in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, this debate, especially among Republicans, is important. As my Cato colleague Ben Friedman has pointed out in original research, the Tea Party Republicans that swept into office last November may have good instincts, but have done little to shift the overarching debate about the efficacy of nation-building. Perhaps increased calls for rethinking the mission will have to come from senior GOP types like Lugar. As my other Cato colleague, Gene Healy, trenchantly notes, “There was always something odd about conservatives jumping from ‘they hate us because we’re free’ to ‘if we make them free, then they won’t hate us.”

Cato scholars have been making the case for de-escalation from Afghanistan for the past several years. Hopefully, more Republicans will recognize, as most libertarians already do, that it is inconsistent to espouse talk of fiscal responsibility and limited government at home while engaging in social engineering and nation-building abroad. More republicans should recognize that there is nothing conservative about wasting taxpayer dollars on a mission that weakens America economically and militarily. As Cato founder and president Ed Crane has argued, it’s time for the GOP leadership to return to its non-interventionist roots.

Since 9/11, America’s mission in Afghanistan has evolved dramatically. It’s gone from punishing al Qaeda and the Taliban to paving roads and building schools. To imagine that the U.S.-led coalition can create a functioning economy and establish civilian and military bureaucracies through some “government in a box” highlights the ignorance and arrogance of our central planners in Washington.

Let’s hope that the landmark death of Osama bin Laden brings a swift end to our ongoing investment and sacrifice.

Tea Party Isn’t Mellowing GOP Militarism

Lindsay Graham isn’t alone when he imagines an emerging “isolationist wing” of the Republican Congress. Pundits have lately both lamented and celebrated the arrival of a Tea Party foreign policy, where deficit fears restrain military adventures and Pentagon spending.

I wish there were such a thing. My op-ed in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer shows that there isn’t.  I report there on research that I did (really research that intern Matt Fay did) on support among Republicans in the House and Senate for cutting defense spending and getting out of Afghanistan. I found little.

I also tested the idea that the Tea Party is restraining Republican militarism, by comparing the 101 freshmen that largely claim adherence to that movement to other Republican members. Freshmen are not more dovish than the rest, suggesting that the Tea Party reflects Republican politics more than it guides it. A post I put up yesterday on the National Interest’s Skeptics blog illustrates this point with charts.

As Tad DeHaven notes, Congressional Republicans, including leaders in both Houses, have increasingly said that they would support defense cuts as part of a deficit reduction package. But those taking that position remain a minority of their party–fifteen percent by a generous accounting, comprising roughly equal fractions of new and old members. And the cuts that the minority of Republican want are likely to be cosmetic, trimming fat and chasing efficiencies, not taming the beast by taking on less missions and cutting force structure. For these reasons, it’s not surprising that the symbolic spending cut resolution up for a House vote Tuesday exempts the nearly two-thirds of domestic spending labeled as “security,” as I discussed in another Skeptics post.

GOP support for indefinite war in Afghanistan is stronger. Only ten Congressional Republicans are obviously against that war, and not one is a Senator or a freshman. That last bit bears repeating: none of the 101 new Republican members of the House and Senate are clearly against the war in Afghanistan.

The difference between new and old Republicans on these issues is that the new members are less likely to have firm positions. They got elected largely without expressing coherent views on defense issues. Since then, many seem to be reading the tea-leaves and keeping quiet about those matters.  But they will soon be tied into positions as they justify votes. So the coming months are crucial in determining how a big chunk of Republicans vote for some time.

I am not optimistic that many will side with those of us that would like to vastly scale back our foreign policy. In the Skeptics post I explain why:

The GOP has been in the habit, probably since the 1970s, of out-hawking the Democrats and equating military aggressiveness with support for the military and American virtue. Whether that is winning political strategy I’m not sure (yes in 2004, no in 2008), but it is at least a powerful habit, reinforced by decades of neoconservative warbling, whose authors are now ensconced in the nation’s most prominent op-ed pages and think tanks.

Beyond that, military spending bestows its munificence in many districts, generating bipartisan support. But, on the left, the prospect of spending caps creates countervailing interests. Caps force defenders of other domestic spending to be dovish on defense. Health care’s cost competes with the Navy’s, especially under budget caps. That’s not as issue on the right.

The most important force keeping Republican fond of military adventure, however, is common to Democrats: international opportunity. We have expansive foreign policies because we can. Balancing is weak. The costs of adventurism are few and diffuse. For Europeans alive 100 years ago, foreign policy failures could bring conquest and mass death. Even successful wars would kill many sons and consume a considerable portion of societal wealth. For most Americans, especially since the draft ended, foreign policy disasters bring marginally higher tax rates. Ideologies justifying expansive policies—liberal internationalism on the left, neoconservatism on the right—grow popular because they justify the behavior this structure allows.

Doves say that the United States cannot afford its foreign policy. The problem is that it can, even when recessions make the load a bit harder to bear. Unsustainable things end. The United States can afford to do all sorts of foolish things.