Tag: U.S. foreign policy

Why Romney’s Proposed Foreign-Policy Tour Is a Dumb Idea

Today, Politico reported that Mitt Romney is considering a globe-trotting foreign-policy tour. His foreign-policy advisers have been trashing him in the media for not focusing on their topic enough in the campaign, and the only explanation I can come up with is that he’s doing this to get them off his back. It’s still a dumb idea.

First, voters are overwhelmingly focused on the economy in this election, for understandable reasons. Second, even if he made voters care more about foreign policy, they like President Obama’s, by and large.

I break-down his proposed trip further over at Steve Walt’s blog on ForeignPolicy.com. Whoever suggested (unsuccessfully, apparently) that he stop off in Afghanistan was slapped down. In that case,

it seems the Romney people have realized that Bill Kristol’s suggestion, that he “go and look serious,” is absurd. Going there at all is a huge loser. It’s a zero-sum tradeoff between saying things the public will like and saying things Kristol and his foreign-policy team will like. The public loathes the war, but the Kristol and the Romney foreign-policy staffers like it a lot. So if he went and said anything the public wants to hear – like that he wants America to leave soon – he’d get trashed in the media by his foreign-policy team again. And if he gave a sop to his foreign-policy team, the public would worry he’s Bush redux. So they’re smart to stay away from Kabul.

Read the rest here.

The Trouble with Centralization

Jay P. Greene’s discussion of national education standards in the Wall Street Journal applies to more than just education:

Proposing that all children meet the same standards is essentially proposing a nationalized system of education. Some reformers may argue otherwise, but the truth is that standards drive testing, which in turn drives what material is covered, as well as how and when it is taught.

Such uniformity would only make sense if: 1) there was a single best way for all students to learn; 2) we knew what it was; 3) we could be sure the people running this nationalized education system would adopt that correct approach; and 4) they would remain in charge far into the future. But that isn’t how things are.

Those are good cautions to keep in mind when we discuss centralized and mandatory plans for anything, from subsidizing green energy to nation-building in Afghanistan.

Obama’s War Spending Cap

Along with Chares Knight of the Project on Defense Alternatives, I have just published commentary on the National Interest’s website about President’s Obama’s proposed $450 billion nine-year cap on war spending. We argue that a war cap—better yet a war tax—is a good idea, but this particular proposal is nearly useless.

For one, it is unlikely to become law. The White House has shown little interest in pushing for it. Meanwhile, Republicans are already bashing the president for possibly shortchanging troops amid a war. And even if it does become law, the cap is unlikely to matter. By the time the cap has any effect, economic recovery may have slackened Congress’s appetite for austerity. With the president’s support, Congress may undo the cap or evade it by claiming an emergency, especially if any new war has begun. The bottom line is that there is no effective fiscal restraint here.

As is often the case, the promise of savings tomorrow serves mainly to distract us from their absence today. If the White House wanted thrift rather than its appearance, it would push an annual war spending cap.

The argument in favor of a war cap or tax follows from the arguments the late Bill Niskanen made against the (starve the beast) claim that cutting government revenue will cut government spending:

It is most implausible that reducing the current tax burden of federal spending would reduce the amount of federal services that voters demand. Orthodox price theory…is unambiguous in concluding that reducing the price of a good or service increases the amount demanded. Reducing the current tax burden of federal spending has much the same effect as a price control, increasing the amount demanded relative to that supplied from current revenues.

Just as people don’t value what they don’t pay for, democracies won’t correctly value policies with hidden or deferred costs. That prevents the competing interests from being weighed carefully, screwing up debate and policy outcomes.

Policies producing diffuse costs and concentrated benefits exacerbate this problem. As I have occasionally written (once with Bill), U.S. defense policies, including wars, fall into that policy category. Americans face few personal consequences when their government makes war. Few of us fight, and danger from fiascos is remote. Much rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, the survival of our freedoms or way of life is no longer at stake in our wars. Our volunteer professional military bears great risk in war of course, but professional norms prevent it from publicly complaining much. War’s cost for most of us is slightly higher taxes, subsidized by debt. We can support war casually.

A war cap or war tax would somewhat mitigate this problem. A tax encourages taxpayers to consider the value they are getting for that money. A cap heightens competition for resources within the government and thus among Congressmen and interest groups, which ought to sharpen debate. That won’t prevent dumb wars, but it ought to help.

 

Don’t Arm Syria’s Rebels

With the death toll in Syria now climbing above 5,000, and graphic videos and images of the bloodbath flooding the internet, some in Washington have called for arming the Syrian resistance. That option, compared to other alternatives like a NATO-led no-fly zone, seems antiseptic. But America’s arming of rebels will amount to contributing to a worsening situation without a means of reaching a peaceful end state. Restraint, however unpalatable, is the most prudent option in an increasingly intractable situation.

First, there is no clear group in the resistance for Washington to provide arms to, even if that was the policy option chosen. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has argued most forcefully for arming the rebels, said, “It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter.” But Sen. McCain stopped short of calling for the direct supply of weapons by the United States, and didn’t mention to whom among the resistance he’d like to lend a helping hand.

No single group or leader speaks on behalf of Syria’s resistance, especially in a country where political loyalty tends to hew to one’s ethnicity, religion, sect, or clan. The Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC), considered weak by some Syrian activists, is still willing to engage the regime in a power-sharing unity government.

The exile-based Syrian National Council (SNC) rejects all contact with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. SNC seeks recognition from the West, but is viewed by some as a vehicle for monopolizing the uprising. The Free Syrian Army, a disorganized mash-up of disparate rebel groups and government soldiers who have switched sides, has declared its allegiance to the SNC.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has said it’s open to foreign intervention, at first emphasizing Muslim Turkey. Meanwhile, a large portion of Syrian Kurds see Turkey as a primary threat. These rifts persist amid reports of Sunni jihadists entering Syria from Iraq, and fears that al Qaeda may hijack what for many is a struggle for a democratic Syria.

Furthermore, as George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch and others have argued, “boosting rebel fighting capacity” is likely to crystallize Syria’s internal polarization, and do little to weaken the Assad regime politically.

Flooding Syria with weapons, in a conflict the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has described as on the brink of civil war, might be used to justify a heavier government crackdown. U.S. assistance to rebels would vindicate Assad’s narrative that the revolt is a conspiracy of outside forces, including the U.S., Israel, and the Gulf states. It could also stir Sunni elites in Damascus and the relatively quiescent Aleppo to rally around Assad, strengthening his support, rather than weakening it.

Lastly, the civil war won’t end after arming one side. The most infamous instance of backlash was from the U.S. arming rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a country that later turned into an al Qaeda sanctuary.

Today in Syria, the foreign frenzy of weapons pouring in has already resulted in a hot mess. Iranian and Russian arms, along with political support from Lebanon and Iraq, are going to the regime in Damascus and the large portion of minority Shia Alawites who support it. Arms and support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia back the majority Sunnis and other anti-Shia Islamist factions. Whatever this regional and international sectarian proxy war morphs into Washington would do best to stay out of it.

Syria’s deepening slide into civil war looks likely, which can be prevented only by either marshaling international opposition to the Assad regime, something Washington has already attempted to do, or encouraging more defections from within the regime, with the promise of resettlement and amnesty. The current diplomatic policy of waiting for the resistance to congeal and pledge to guard minority rights is prudent and should be pursued.

Sending weapons to rebels might satisfy the outside world’s moral urge to do something immediately, but it also might add to the mayhem, increase the loss of life, and push Syria further away from a stable future. Restraint is the more difficult choice, but the one that serves both the American and the Syrian people better in the long run.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Tragedy of U.S. Iran Policy

The latest orchestrated frenzy over Iran’s nuclear program is reaching a crescendo. If the Obama administration were genuinely interested in increasing the prospects for a diplomatic resolution, it would be trying to lessen Iran’s perception of insecurity. Instead, every new policy initiative on Iran heightens that insecurity. Unless Iran responds to all of this in a way that few predict it will, each day brings us closer to another war in the Middle East.

Iran likely wants a nuclear option, if not a nuclear weapon, for a variety of reasons. The most important is security. The different treatment meted out to Iraq and Libya, on the one hand, and North Korea and Pakistan on the other taught Iran that the only sure way to avoid being attacked by the United States is to acquire a nuclear arsenal. Iran also probably seeks the international prestige of being at least an incipient nuclear state.

When Iran hears the constant threats emanating from Washington—the almost daily repetitions that a preventive war is “on the table,” attempts to strangle the Iranian economy, and legislation taking containment off the table—Tehran’s belief that the United States has aggressive intentions is confirmed. Iran knows that a nuclear capability wouldn’t provide it with power projection capability or allow it to dominate the Middle East. Rather, Iran would move from being a weak state with no deterrent to a weak state with a small deterrent. Tragically, the main reason America and Israel are so frantic about the Iranian nuclear program is that neither country wishes to allow itself to be deterred by Iran. In an election year, all of the political pressure on the administration is going to push the administration to make the problem worse, not better.

What Was the Point of Romney’s China Op-Ed?

Mitt Romney has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that Dan Drezner has aptly characterized as “Romney SMASH China!” Drezner takes Romney’s arguments on their own terms, but I’m more cynical, and accordingly I’m interested in why Romney wrote this piece. Sure, sure, maybe it’s possible that he just has strongly held ideas about U.S.- China policy and chose to voice them, but let’s be real: the man is trying to get the GOP nomination and then get elected president. He or someone in his campaign decided that now was a good time to reach out to the largest circulation conservative op-ed page in the country—one that gets read by a lot of people from whom he’d like to get contributions—with this message.

And what is the message? There’s the usual inchoate American nationalism (making the 21st “an American, not a Chinese century”) and criticism of Obama’s extravagant spending, sure, but there are also some fairly clear signs that Romney wants to signal he’ll get tough on China. He argues that Washington must “directly counter abusive Chinese practices in the areas of trade, intellectual property, and currency valuation.” On the latter, he goes so far as to promise that “on day one of my presidency I will designate [China] a currency manipulator…” despite gradual appreciation in the renminbi highlighted in today’s New York Times.

On the security side, he unsurprisingly suggests that the United States should bolster its role as the balancer-of-first-resort in the Asia-Pacific, claiming without evidence that our allies are worrying that we’re going to leave the region.

Now let’s go back to my question: What’s the play here? Does he think that this is some sort of mass appeal argument that will burnish his credentials in the eyes of the median Republican primary voter? Is he trying to tie economic malaise to the looming ChiCom menace? Maybe so, but does he think that the wealthy potential contributors who read the Journal op-ed page are going to be aroused by this message? That doesn’t seem right to me at all.

There are lots of people who’ve gotten wealthy running political campaigns who no doubt got this piece placed (and probably wrote it), but the questions remain: Why this message? Why this outlet? What was this piece supposed to accomplish? I can’t figure out a persuasive answer.

U.S.-China Summit Likely to Downplay Security Issues

The fact that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington has been overshadowed by the frenzy over Iran is an indictment of the Beltway foreign-policy establishment’s priorities. The U.S.-China relationship is far more consequential than Iran, the Israel/Palestine dispute, the war in Afghanistan, or any other development in southwest or central Asia. This relationship will define U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century.

During the trip, Xi is likely to highlight the cooperative aspects of the U.S.-China relationship such as trade and the two countries’ shared interest in shoring up the global economy. The leaders are likely to gloss over their differences on issues such as intellectual property, the value of the renminbi, and creeping protectionism. Further down the list of issues are the growing security disputes between China and U.S. partners in the Asia-Pacific: the status of China’s claims in the South China Sea, the growing U.S. military presence in China’s region, and Beijing’s belief that Washington is encircling China militarily. It should be expected that these more contentious issues will take a backseat in the discussions, at least in public.

But putting the relationship on a sounder footing requires addressing security issues. Power transitions have represented some of the most unstable periods in world history. Should China’s relative power continue to grow, its ambition is likely to do the same. Given that there are few signs that Washington will welcome a larger Chinese role in Asian security issues, this could portend serious disagreements in the years to come.