Tag: neoconservatism

President Obama’s Rhetoric on Libya

The prospect of the United States intervening in Libya is uncertain.  Yesterday, Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen appeared to downplay the possibility of military action, while not clearly taking a position.  But lost in much of the reporting is President Obama’s Executive Order declaring a national emergency, and the accompanying letter to congress, issued last Friday.

Obama claimed that the overall situation constituted “…an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”  Over at The Skeptics, I examine why it is a mistake for the president to lump together national security and humanitarian considerations:

Obama should be ashamed of this language. Muammar Qadhafi is a despicable man without basic decency, but this fuzzy rhetoric is wrong and possibly harmful. Not just a “threat” to U.S. national security, but an “extraordinary” threat? What would constitute a trivial threat or a non-threat, then? And what is the rhetorical purpose of adding the clause “and foreign policy” to the sentence? To fuse the argument about national security threat to one claiming that Muammar Qadhafi’s slaughter of his own citizens might influence our foreign-policy decisions, it seems. But writing in that way leads a casual observer to believe that the president is emphasizing what he believes to be a threat to U.S. national security posed by Libya, which does the English language a disservice. For some reason the phrase “giving the appearance of solidity to pure wind” is coming to mind.

I understand that the same clique of neoconservatives and New Republic people and other liberal imperialists who got us into the Iraq war are urging Obama to act and salivating at the prospect of accusing him of being “weak,” but even they did not use the sort of hyperbolic rhetoric that Obama did in his Executive Order and letter to congress.

 Whole thing here.

Eisenhower’s Lament

Spurred on by a new release of documents from the archives, the past few weeks have witnessed a renewed interest in the military-industrial complex (MIC), the term forever associated with Dwight David Eisenhower.

Or, at least, that should be the case. Eisenhower – the West Point graduate, career military officer, and hero of World War II – was one of the first to ever use the phrase, in a televised Farewell Address to the nation on January 17, 1961. Over the years, however, the MIC has become a mantra for progressives and left liberals, usually used in tandem with an assault on private enterprise, writ large, or as part of an elaborate conspiracy theory that equates crony capitalism with market economics. The left’s capture of the term has enabled too many on the right to dismiss it out of hand.

That is unfortunate. Dwight David Eisenhower was no liberal; far from it. And though the neoconservatives have attempted to expunge Ike from our collective memory, it is appropriate that his legacy is enjoying yet another revival. For what it’s worth, I’ll be doing my small part, at a half-day conference next month, and throughout 2011, to offer a perspective on the military-industrial complex that might appeal to devotees of limited, constitutional government.

This work will focus not just on Ike’s farewell address, but also on one of his first public addresses, the Chance for Peace Speech, delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April 1953. Taken together, the speeches highlight two of Eisenhower’s enduring concerns: opportunity costs, money spent on the military cannot be spent elsewhere; and the political and social costs of the United States becoming a garrison state, the creation of a permanent armaments industry, Ike feared, had already precipitated major changes in the nation’s economy, and threatened to change the nation itself.

Speaking in January 1961, during one of the darkest periods of the Cold War, Eisenhower viewed the MIC as a necessary evil. He viewed the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its sometime communist allies as sufficient justification for maintaining a large standing army, and a vast and technologically advanced Air Force and Navy. He also presided over a dramatic expansion of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and realized (belatedly) that he had far too little control over those weapons and the men tasked with using them.

But I suspect that the permanence of the MIC would be most disturbing to President Eisenhower, were he with us now. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans today spend more on the military than at any time since World War II, and more than twice as much – in inflation-adjusted dollars – than when Ike left office. The general-president clearly failed to convince his fellow Americans of the need to limit the military’s growth. For all practical purposes, the MIC won.

Here’s hoping that many Americans will rediscover Eisenhower, and take heed of his warning, starting in 2011. They could start by supporting efforts to refocus our military on a few core objectives and reduce the Pentagon’s budget.

The ‘Spectacularly Misnamed Radicals’ Fire Back on Military Spending

Bill Kristol has a plan to help the US military

George F. Will has called neoconservatism “a spectacularly misnamed radicalism” whose adherents are “the most radical people in this town.”  (It is a shame that the Heritage Foundation has fallen so far from its sensible opposition to the neoconservative vision and evidently bought into the neoconservative program in toto.)

Like other radicals, however, they are pretty good at politics, which is clear from reading their latest offering, a talking points document [.pdf] produced by the “Defending Defense” initiative intended to demonstrate that U.S. military spending is not that large and should not be cut.

I have several things to say about the document, but all of the internet sniping and providing adversarial quotes to journalists probably aren’t the best way to adjudicate the debate.  To that end, on behalf of my colleagues I extend the offer of an open, public, live debate to the Defending Defense people:  Let’s debate the security of the United States, the strategy to best protect it, and the resources needed to fund the strategy.  Any time, any place.

The overarching problem in this debate is that the big spenders keep inserting the red herring of defense expenditures as a percentage of GDP into the debate.  This is relevant only as it pertains to their claim that “current levels of defense spending are affordable,” but last time I checked the mere fact that something wouldn’t, in itself, bankrupt the country is not a sufficient conservative justification for a government program.

The logic of basing the military budget on a percentage of GDP would imply that security and economic growth are inversely related.  Of course, the simple fact is that economic growth does not pose a threat to the United States and economic contraction does not make us safer.  During World War II we spent roughly 40 percent of GDP on our military, and given where we were, that seems sensible to this analyst.  But the “given where we were” part of that sentence is doing a lot of work.  Where are we today?  What are the threats we face?  How should we deal with them?  How much would it cost to do so?  Answers to those questions should provide the grounding for our military budget, not the deeply unconservative justification that “it won’t bankrupt us.”

Another point: It might sound pedantic, but many of what they characterize as “myths” can’t be myths.  They might be wrong.  They might be poor analytic points.  But they can’t be “myths.”  To correct just a few of what they call “myths”:

“Pentagon budgets were a “gusher” of new money in the Bush Administration.”
-    A metaphor can’t be a myth.

“The United States should not be ‘the world’s policeman.’”
-    Preferences aren’t myths.

“Defense spending should focus primarily on ‘winning the wars we’re in.’”
-    Again, preferences aren’t myths.

Myths are mistaken empirical claims that people believe, or the stories surrounding mistaken empirical claims that cause people to believe them.  For example, lots of people think President Obama signed the TARP.  That’s a myth.  President Bush did it.  The way the neoconservatives are using the word “myth” in the document is something more like “argument I disagree with.”

But let’s take these “myths” one by one and have a look at the analysis.

1)    “Additional defense spending is unnecessary as the United States already spends more on defense than half the world combined.”

Interestingly, the authors nowhere argue that additional military spending is necessary, although they strongly imply that it is.  In 2005 Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt wanted 5 percent of GDP to go to defense, which today would be roughly $730 billion.  It wasn’t clear whether they wanted to keep the supplementals going with the 5 percent comprising just the base budget, but with the wars we’re already spending roughly $730 billion on the military as it is.  (Also, just a factual correction, the best estimate is that we spend just under what the rest of the world spends combined, not just over.)

The authors also spirit in a normative claim in the first sentence to fend off scrutiny: “No other country in the world has the enduring vital national interests of the United States, and therefore the U.S. military has global reach and responsibilities.”  Given the weight hung around this claim, it would have been good if the authors could have offered even a superficial defense of it.  They did not.

Instead, they move on to observing that using purchasing power parity, Chinese defense spending is closer to $150 billion than the $78 billion that market exchange rates would indicate.  This is solid analysis.  I am glad to see that someone has convinced Heritage president Ed Feulner, a leader of “Defending Defense,” to distance himself from his problematic 2007 judgment that “Beijing’s military spending, in purchasing power parity terms, would be around $450 billion - about what America spends.”  (Maybe he read my blog post correcting him.)

2)    “Pentagon budgets were a ‘gusher’ of new money in the Bush Administration.”

Again, “a gusher” is in the eye of the beholder.  For facts, you should turn to the study authored by my colleagues Ben Friedman and Chris Preble.  There they point out that U.S. military spending has risen by 50 percent over the last 12 years, not including inflation or the wars.  If you include the wars, U.S. military spending has increased by more than 80 percent since 1998.  Military spending constitutes 23 percent of the federal budget.  That’s real money where I come from.

3)    “Cutting waste and excess from the Pentagon budget will provide sufficient funds to make up for shortfalls.”

Depending on whether we change our grand strategy, this is definitely true.  Our foreign policy is insolvent today.  Given our commitments, defense spending is too low, but the commitments are the problem.  We could spend less with fewer commitments and still be safe.

4)    “Current levels of defense spending are unaffordable.”

Even though the rhetoric the authors assemble to knock down this claim isn’t very good, I agree with them.  (I agree based primarily on Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth’s excellent book, which makes a strong case that the United States can afford a massive military budget.)  Big, fabulously wealthy countries like ours can afford to do lots of expensive things, like Medicare Part D or funding a chunk of the defense of Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Israel ourselves.  But it doesn’t mean we should, necessarily.

5)    “The United States should not be ‘the world’s policeman.’”

Again, this is a preference, not a myth.  But the authors’ central defense of the implied claim that we should be the world’s policeman comes in the argument that “the cost of preserving America’s role in the world is far less than would be the cost of having to fight to recover it or, still greater, the cost of losing it altogether.  While many Americans would prefer to see our allies and partners play a larger part in securing the blessings of our common liberty, no president of either political party has backed away from America’s global leadership role —a bipartisan consensus that remains strong evidence that American leadership is still necessary to protect the nation’s vital interests.”

This argument, in turn, is based on an unstated theoretical premise, which is that when America isn’t somewhere, all hell breaks loose, and that when all hell breaks loose, it tends to land on our heads.  The balance of power doesn’t work, we live in a bandwagoning world not a balancing world, and therefore if we aren’t everywhere, chaos will be, and if chaos is everywhere, it’s going to hit us eventually.

I think this is a silly claim, and I also think the theoretical roots of neoconservative foreign-policy thought are underdeveloped, but it would be good if an actual neoconservative could speak for himself about his own theory of international politics rather than allowing others to try to assemble coherent theoretical groundings for his ideas.

6)    “Defense spending should focus primarily on ‘winning the wars we’re in.’”

This might be a surprising area of agreement, but as someone who has long thought that the wars we’re in are dumb (and deeply unconservative), I believe strongly that focusing our defense dollars on winning the wars we’re in is a dumb idea.

Again, though, there’s lots left to discuss, so let’s hope AEI, Heritage, or the Foreign Policy Initiative will agree to a debate.

Deep Thoughts from the Weekly Standard

StrangeloveRepublican Party platform, 2012?

Sad to say, neoconservatism is clearly the dominant foreign-policy ideology of the Republican Party.  George H. Nash apparently has written that “We are all neoconservatives now.”  And after the strategic and political masterstroke the neocons produced in Iraq, who could blame the Republicans for doubling down with them?

So sometimes it’s good to stroll by the Weekly Standard blog, just to see what those folks are thinking about.

Today, for example, it’s war with Russia.  (Now there’s a “stimulus!”)

If the Republicans were smart, they’d get rid of these guys before it’s too late.

Neoconservatism and Militarism

Matt Yglesias identifies a puzzle, comparing Cold War/Irving Kristol neoconservatism to today’s Weekly Standard Wilsonianism:

[E]ven though the high-level theoretical content of the realpolitiker 70s version of neoconservatism and the Wilsonian 2000s version of neoconservatism seem very different, the operational content is extremely similar. You have support for higher defense budgets, a tendency toward threat-inflation and hysteria, a belief in an aggressive military posture and extensive saber-rattling, hostility to negotiations, and hostility to international law both in theory and in practice. This was initially presented to the world as a “realistic” alternative to lefty critiques of US support for anti-communist dictators and more recently appeared as an “idealistic” critique of lefty reluctance to launch wars, but the continuity between the views is enormous.

What Matt doesn’t say is why the policy outcomes stayed largely the same despite shifting theoretical sands.  I think this piece by Brian Schmidt and Michael Williams can help shed some light on the problem.

Irving Kristol's Medal of Freedom Award (Paul Hosefros/The New York Times)Irving Kristol’s Medal of Freedom Award (Paul Hosefros/The New York Times)

A social order based purely on narrowly egoistic interests, neoconservatives argue, is unlikely to survive — and the closer one comes to it, the less liveable and sustainable society will become. Unable to generate a compelling vision of the collective public interest, such a society would be incapable of maintaining itself internally or defending itself externally. As a consequence, neoconservatism regards the ideas at the core of many forms of modern political and economic rationalism — that such a vision of interest can be the foundation for social order — as both wrong and dangerous. It is wrong because all functioning polities require some sense of shared values and common vision of the public interest in order to maintain themselves. It is dangerous because a purely egoistic conception of interest may actually contribute to the erosion of this sense of the public interest, and the individual habits of social virtue and commitment to common values that sustain it.

In this context consider the worshipful treatment of men like Teddy Roosevelt and Rudy Giuliani by neoconservatives, and neoconservatives’ utter contempt for libertarians and individualism.  For neocons, the higher defense budgets and militarism, the aggressive military posture and extensive saber-rattling, the nationalism, were in some sense ends in themselves rather than rationally calculated means to defend the country.  Without an enemy and a grand national project — note in the article to which Matt points Kristol’s admonition that “statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies” — the society would descend into a variety of individual pursuits — family, profit, local community, learning — that provide no unifying politics.  Again, for Kristol, “a nation whose politics turn on the cost of false teeth is a nation whose politics are squalid.”  A grand national project, be it a global proxy war against the Soviet Union, a crusade to end terrorism, or even a recurring fetish for space travel, provides unifying substance for the country.

The trouble, as Matt rightly observes, is that you can’t explicitly just go around glomming onto whatever rationale provides the best argument for militarism and nationalism today. The citizens of the country seem unlikely to support costly and destructive policies based on the idea that it’s all for their own good.  I am reminded of Ed Crane and Bill Niskanen’s apt reference to neoconservatism as “a movement with a head but no body,” meaning that it lacked indigenous support at the grassroots level.  So the obvious play for neocons was to sew the neoconservative head onto the conservative nationalist body.  To justify endless war, the idea of “real America” being under siege by both an insular and tweedy academy (in Schmidt and Williams’ story, the scientific-rationalist realists) and an array of foreign devils allowed a group of radical ideas to strike a conservative pose:

In foreign policy as in domestic policy, neoconservatism claims to represent the majority of real Americans, to speak on their behalf, and to defend the validity of their beliefs in their virtues and values (and their place as the basis for the national interest of the United States), just as vociferously as it has represented those values against the depredations of elites in the culture wars. Although a high proportion of neoconservatives are intellectuals — and are often part of what would be considered an academic elite by any standards — they are able to represent themselves as outsiders shunned and victimized by liberal (and realist) intellectuals in precisely the same way that real people are, and for the same reasons — for expressing what the people really know in an elite cultural environment dominated by self-interested, self-righteous, and yet culturally decadent liberal elites.

In this reading, trying to ground the policy outcomes in a coherent theory of international politics is bound to be fruitless.  The policy outcomes themselves are designed to provide a centripetal counter to the polity’s natural tendency to fly apart.  On this point Schmidt and Williams cite Midge Decter (“domestic policy was foreign policy, and vice-versa”) and Robert Kagan (“there can be no clear dividing line between the domestic and the foreign”).  I think there’s something to this.