Tag: U.S. foreign policy

Libya Begets Syria?

A little over a year ago, as members of the Obama administration were pondering military intervention in Libya, skeptics (including The Skeptics) pressed them to explain how that situation differed from other comparable cases elsewhere in the world. If Libya, why not Yemen? Why not Bahrain? Why not Syria? We may soon learn the answer to that last question. And their too-permissive—or merely haphazard—approach a year ago might pave the way for an intervention in Syria that would be ill-advised, if not disastrous.

At the time of the Libya debate (to the extent that there was one), the president and his foreign-policy advisers dismissed concerns that the intervention in Libya would set a precedent. “It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs,” President Obama said in a televised speech to the nation on March 28, 2011. But, he continued:

that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country—Libya—at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale… To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and, more profoundly, our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.

At other times, the administration alluded to a loose set of guidelines to explain why it might choose to use force, guidelines which the Libya case met but other cases supposedly did not. These included the likelihood that a large-scale loss of life was imminent; the belief that prompt military action would prevent this violence; and the support of the international community, ideally a formal sanction in the UNSC (absent that, the approval of a regional body, such as the Arab League, might suffice).

Notably absent was sufficient consideration of whether our vital strategic interests were at stake. They were not in Libya, and they are not in Syria.

We should strive to avoid foreign intervention in all but very rare cases. Because getting in is always much easier than getting out, the burden of proof must always be on those making the case for war, not those advising against.

Beyond that, we must know what mission the U.S. military has been tasked with performing. We must have a reasonable estimate of the likelihood that it will achieve its mission. And we must have some sense of the likely costs in blood and treasure. Finally, we are a nation of laws, not of men—and decidedly not of one man. The president has very little authority to send troops into harm’s way, and he has none when U.S. security is not at stake (a criteria that Barack Obama endorsed as a senator but abandoned when he assumed a higher office). If the Obama administration is considering military action to remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, it should obtain formal congressional authorization for such action. And it should do that before going to the United Nations.

No other country is afforded such choices. No other country is able to project power over great distances and on very short notice. No other country has a track record of frequent foreign intervention, even when such operations have no direct connection to advancing our own security. This pattern of behavior constitutes our unique power problem. It is precisely because the United States has used force on numerous occasions over the past two decades that we need a particularly stringent set of criteria governing our future interventions. There is an almost endless parade of aggrieved parties calling on Uncle Sam to save them from harm. And when Washington refuses, or merely drags its heels, they will say: You fought to save Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, why do you then refuse to aid Muslims in Northern Africa or the Levant? The United States must have a ready answer.

But the Obama administration, cheered on or goaded by liberal and neoconservative hawks, does not have one. Yet. And its halting signals are likely to embolden those calling for yet another war.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The New Pentagon Budget: Better, but Not Great

The changes announced in the Pentagon’s new budget guidance are, from my perspective, mostly good news, but woefully insufficient. They show how even limited austerity encourages prioritization among weapons systems that suddenly have to compete. A few more budgets like this and we’ll be getting somewhere.

The White House has not yet released the actual budget, but the Pentagon yesterday released a new document that explains the minor cuts in line for its slice. The document, unlike all the other defense strategy and guidance documents that have come out in recent years, sticks to plain English, avoids geopolitical gobbledygook, and tells you the budgetary impacts of its assertions. For that alone the Pentagon deserves some credit.

The document claims to be a guide to savings of $487 billion over 10 years. But you only get that figure by counting against past White House budget requests and their associated spending trajectory. We are saving just $6 billion from fiscal year 2012 to 2013, or 3.2% adjusted for inflation. If we leave out falling war costs, we have essentially frozen defense spending for two fiscal years (2011 and 2012), letting it grow at about inflation and then slightly slower, respectively. The Pentagon expects defense spending to grow at the rate of inflation or faster starting in fiscal year 2014, although their estimates of inflation are self-serving.

The new spending trajectory would cut about 8 percent from the base budget by the end of the decade. That’s from a budget that doubled in real terms from 1998 until 2012. And some of those savings are not really saved; they have simply migrated into the war budget. Keep in mind also that those savings are just a plan, one that is unlikely to last, particularly as presidents and Congresses change.

The biggest change in this budget is the beginning in a reduction of ground forces. The document says we will cut 80,000 troops from the Army and 20,000 from the Marines. The rationale is solid: we are probably not going to be committing large numbers of troops to another occupation of a populous country in revolt any time soon. Yet the cut leaves both forces with more personnel than they had prior to the expansion of ground forces that began in 2008. A real strategic shift away from occupational warfare would entail a bigger drawdown of Army and Marine personnel.

The document also reaffirms the administration’s decision to remove two army brigades from Europe, roughly halving our combat presence there. That’s good news given the absence of threat there and our NATO allies’ free-riding on U.S. taxpayers. But it only amounts to recommitting to a Bush administration plan. And we are unfortunately adding troops in the Philippines and Australia, at best a useless gesture that may encourage China’s military buildup.

The budget also takes a useful step in reducing the amount of tactical Air Force squadrons by six. Given the precision-revolution in targeting that makes each aircraft far more destructive and the increased Navy capability to strike targets from carriers, far bigger cuts in these forces are possible. Oddly, this reduction comes without a planned reduction in the purchase of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

Even worse, the Pentagon here reaffirms its commitment to the F-35B—the short-take-off and vertical landing version—taking it off “probation.” That version is meant to fly on amphibious landing ships to support missions where Marines attack shorelines. It’s hard to imagine such a mission where helicopters are insufficient for air-support and there is no carrier-based aircraft available to help the Marines, especially now that the Pentagon is again planning on operating 11 carriers.

The new version of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle is evidence of austerity forcing choices. The Pentagon now wants to cancel it because it is at least as expensive as the U-2 manned aircraft, which accomplishes similar tasks. This budget also usefully endorses the early retirement of some of our airlift capacity and tries to kill a new Army ground combat vehicle.

Another positive development is the request for two new rounds of base closures. This process requires legislation from Congress to form a Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC).

Still, the hard choices here are few. Many observers were hopeful that budget savings would include cutting our excessive means of delivering nuclear weapons. But while the proposal delays production of the new ballistic missile submarine and speaks vaguely of a “different” sort of nuclear arsenal, it supports the continuation of the triad. There is still hope on this front, however. The Air Force plans to build its next bomber initially without nuclear weapons delivery capability, adding it later in development. That amounts to dangling bait for budget cutters. Like the F-35B, the nuclear bomber has an unnecessary mission that a more austere budget would cause us to reconsider

So while the changes in this budget may be the first step toward a more restrained military posture, including perhaps a strategy of offshore balancing, they are a minor one. A true offshore balancing strategy would involve a greater shift of resources from the Army to the Navy. This budget, by contrast, seems unlikely to end the traditional budget split where each service gets roughly one-third of the base.

Unsurprisingly, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used his press conference yesterday to push Congress to amend the Budget Control Act to avoid sequestration, the across-the-board cuts in the Pentagon’s budget due next January, which would roughly double the cuts outlined here. I have argued that these pleas seem to play into Republicans’ hand in the coming budget negotiations. Readers should also know that the Pentagon could avoid the “meat-axe” nature of sequestration (to use Panetta’s language) by budgeting at the level sequestration would accomplish, roughly $492 billion, or about what non-war defense spending was in 2007. That would let the Pentagon choose how to make cuts. The strategic insights guiding these minor cuts could be exploited to make those larger ones.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Obama’s State of the Union Signals Grand Strategy Status Quo

It was clever, though a bit too opportunistic, for the president to begin and end his State of the Union address with references to Iraq, and the sacrifices of the troops. The war has been a disaster for the United States, and for the Iraqi people, of course. But the subject has always been a win-win for him. Whenever he talks about Iraq, it serves as a not-so-subtle reminder about who got us into this mess (i.e. not him).

Others might gripe about the president wrapping himself in the troops, and the flag (or, in the case of this speech, the troops’ flag). But Americans are rightly proud of our military, and there is nothing wrong with invoking the spirit of service and sacrifice that animates the members of our military. (There is something wrong with suggesting that all Americans should act as members of the military do, a point that Ben Friedman makes in a separate post.)

But while some degree of chest-thumping, “America, ooh-rah” is to be expected, this passage sent me over the edge:

America is back.

Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. …Yes, the world is changing; no, we can’t control every event. But America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs – and as long as I’m President, I intend to keep it that way.

Have we learned nothing in the past decade? Have we learned anything? To say that we are the indispensable nation is to say that nothing in the world happens without the United States’ say so. That is demonstrably false.

Of course, the United States of American is an important nation, the most important, even. Yes, we are an exceptional nation. We boast an immensely powerful military, a still-dynamic economy (in spite of our recent challenges), and a vibrant political culture that hundreds of millions of people around the world would like to emulate. But the world is simply too vast, too complex, and the scale of transactions in the global economy is enormous. It is the height of arrogance and folly for any country to claim indispensability.

The president is hardly alone, however. Many in Washington—including some of his most vociferous critics in the Republican Party— celebrate the continuity in U.S. foreign policy as an affirmation of its wisdom. The president’s invocation of the “indispensable nation” line from the mid-1990s is merely the latest manifestation of a foreign policy consensus that has held for decades.

But the world has changed, and is still changing. Our grand strategy needs to adapt. When we embarked on the unipolar project after the end of the Cold War, the United States accounted for about a third of global economic output, and a third of global military expenditures; today, we account for just under half of global military spending, but our share of the global economy has fallen below 25 percent.

What we need, therefore, is a new strategy that aims to promote our core interests, but that doesn’t expect U.S. troops and taxpayers to also bear the burdens of promoting everyone else’s. After all, the values that are so important to most Americans, and that the president cited in his speech last night, are also cherished by hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people in many countries around the world. It is reasonable to expect them to pay some of the costs required to advance these values, and to sustain a peaceful and prosperous international order. Our current strategy still presumes that it is not.

Playing to Our Strengths—and Why COIN Doesn’t

A recent editorial in the Boston Globe noted with some glee that the Obama administration strategy document released last week included the “acknowledgement that America’s brief and unhappy foray into counterinsurgency operations has come to an end.” The Globe editorialists conclude “Given the checkered history of counterinsurgency, and its cost in lives and money, its demise is hardly unwelcome. Even better to read of it in the very document that hopes to guide how the United States conducts wars the next time around.”

As a COIN skeptic from well before the publication of FM 3-24 (when COIN was called nation-building), I am inclined to claim some vindication. Often with Justin Logan in the lead, I have probably written more about this subject than any other (including here and here). More broadly, Cato has been a hospitable venue for skeptical views of nation-building as a cure for terrorism, including these two fine papers that explained why we didn’t need to repair/reconstruct weak or failing states in order to defeat al Qaeda, and this paper by Jeffrey Record on why COIN/nation-building was inconsistent with America’s strategic culture, and therefore likely to fail.

But I expect that some COIN advocates will push back, and a few quite vociferously. Some might admit that, yes, Afghanistan has been an unholy mess, but we need to give it more time. The public has soured on the war there, and is now turning against the dominant strategy, COIN, but those attitudes, they will say, could be turned around with concerted presidential leadership. And then they will launch into their full-throated defense of COIN, which might go something like this:

COIN is still useful in particular situations, especially when the operations are in support of a credible local partner, when we are able and willing to apply the necessary resources to have a reasonable chance of success, and when we are prepared to remain for the long haul. And once we have committed to the COIN mission, we must ensure that we execute the mission properly, as spelled out in FM 3-24, which means that the troops must accept greater risk in order to minimize civilian casualties.

My response, and I think that of other COIN skeptics, is that those key ingredients are almost never in place, hence COIN almost never works.

  • If there was “a credible local partner” there likely wouldn’t be an insurgency in the first place. Insurgencies come about and grow in strength because the government they are rising up against is not serving the best interests of some segment of the population.
  • Applying “necessary resources” means, in practice, a massive number of foreign troops and vast sums of money, far more even than most COIN advocates admit in public. They are especially loathe to do so when those resources are desperately needed at home. (Equally troubling is the application of a massive, costly, long-term effort in one place when those same resources could be applied in pursuit of different – or even the same – national security priorities elsewhere.)
  • Remaining in country “for the long haul” means decades, not years, another bridge too far for most Americans. We are not inclined to lord over others for decades or longer as past empires did.
  • Executing COIN tactics “properly” means limiting the use of force such that you only kill the bad guys but never kill the good guys, or the indifferent neutrals. One unfortunate accident, involving the inadvertent killing of innocent bystanders (who the insurgents will very cynically shield behind) can undermine weeks or months of effort in building trust. We are foreigners in their country, and the locals will be disinclined to give us the benefit of the doubt, or to trust in our good intentions. Though I admire and respect the professionalism and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, I don’t think it realistic to expect them to be perfect.

Afghanistan, by itself, does not prove that COIN can’t work. COIN might be the appropriate strategy in other cases or other places. But a football analogy is relevant here. Think of the upcoming AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens. A team with two-time MVP Tom Brady at quarterback doesn’t choose to pound the ball into the teeth of a run-stopping defense like Baltimore’s, especially when New England’s running backs are pretty average by NFL standards. Meanwhile, the Ravens’ Ray Rice is one of the premier backs in the league, so we can expect the Ravens to favor the ground game, run time off the clock, and keep Brady on the sidelines. In other words, each team will likely play to its strengths.

COIN skeptics said that Team USA should do the same. Although the COIN advocates claimed that there was no viable alternative, there was more than one way to win the game in Afghanistan, and we should play to our strengths. Our political culture and available resources, combined with the facts on the ground, advise us to avoid open-ended nation-building missions, generally, not just in Afghanistan. That means an air game (including air power from the sea), not a ground game.

I am pleased that the administration’s strategy seems to reflect these lessons. We’ll see, perhaps as early as next week, if their budget does as well.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Tonight on Stossel: Ron Paul, War, and Military Spending

The GOP presidential candidates will participate in yet another debate tonight from South Carolina in anticipation of the primary there on Saturday. I hope that the moderator, CNN’s John King, will bring up some of the major national security issues at hand, namely military spending.

Out of all the GOP contenders, it is clear that Ron Paul is the only candidate still standing that offers an alternative to the entrenched Republican foreign policy views. Some have called his foreign policy positions naïve and outside the mainstream. Others point to the fact that Ron Paul is so popular precisely because he is outside the mainstream and presents a different perspective on the intertwined issues of national security and military spending. Of course, the “mainstream” views on foreign policy are relative: what is common thinking inside the Beltway is not usually representative of the country.

Tonight at 10 PM EST on Fox Business Network’s Stossel, a host of experts will discuss Ron Paul’s foreign policy views, war, and whether the federal government has gone too far in its Constitutional obligation to defend the homeland. I will be discussing military spending and argue that we can cut the Pentagon’s budget and be more secure for it.

North Korea Reprises Its Role as International Beggar

The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il put relations with the rest of the world on hold.  But Pyongyang has stirred, reprising its role as international beggar.

The new regime, at least nominally headed by Kim’s 28-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, issued its first statement regarding relations with Washington.  The United States should send more than 300,000 tons of previously promised food aid and end economic sanctions to “build confidence” with the North.  In return, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might be willing to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The United States, Japan and South Korea stated yesterday that a “path is open” to restarting the six-party talks to address the concern over the North’s nuclear program.

Pyongyang seemed particularly aggrieved that the Obama administration would link humanitarian assistance to security issues.  Shocking!

As Yogi Berra famously said, it is déjà vu all over again.  North Korea makes agreement.  North Korea gets aid.  North Korea breaks agreement.  North Korea blames West.  North Korea offers to negotiate agreement.  And the cycle starts again.

No one knows what to do with the DPRK.  So far regime elites have preferred even impoverished stability over anything more than pro forma reform.  The death of Kim Jong-il creates an opportunity for change, but there is no obvious constituency for revolution among the party apparatchiks and military officers who dominate the system.

That almost certainly means that Pyongyang is not prepared to negotiate away its existing nuclear capability.  Only two men have ruled the North in the past 63 years; Kim Jong-un has none of their authority, and there are several plausible claimants for the throne.  None is likely to be so foolish to alienate the military by campaigning to give away its ultimate weapon.

It still is worth talking with North Korea.  Despite good reason for skepticism, lesser objectives might be achievable—limits on missile development, withdrawal of advanced conventional units, even caps on nuclear capabilities.  Moreover, the DPRK appears to moderate its behavior while engaged in negotiations.

However, Washington should not pay for more promises.  And the U.S. should not provide inducements just to get Pyongyang to talk.  America has much to offer—diplomatic relations, end of sanctions, access to international aid, military withdrawal from the South.  If confidence is to be rebuilt, it must be rebuilt on both sides.

Washington should make no exception for food aid.  The suffering of the North Korean people is tragic, but it remains the result of conscious policies adopted by the North Korean regime.  In fact, that is what “Juche,” the oft-proclaimed policy of self-reliance, is all about.

Moreover, the DPRK would view any government assistance as political affirmation.  And any assistance would bolster a system under siege, aiding the government as it attempts to demonstrate its power and wealth this year during its centenary celebrations of founder Kim Il-sung’s birth.  If the North needs more help, let it go to China, which already is keeping this desolate land afloat economically.

Refusing to engage other nations rarely makes sense, even in the case of North Korea, despite the monstrous nature of the regime.  However engagement does not mean appeasement.  In the future, Washington should restrict its rewards to the North for acting, not promising.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Setting the Record Straight on Military Spending Levels

As David Boaz recently demonstrated, the jeremiads emanating from Washington over proposed cuts in military spending are unfounded. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post is only the latest to decry the “damaging blow to our military” that will be done by “massive defense cuts.”

Not only is Pentagon spending not at its lowest level in 60 years, as the Heritage Foundation claimed, it will not fall to such a level even if the Budget Control Act’s sequestration spending caps are implemented. David shows that charts can obscure the relevant facts or contribute to poor arguments.

But charts can also help shed light on the truth. For example, in the first chart below, prepared by my colleague Charles Zakaib, one might conclude that the reductions being contemplated as an outgrowth of President Obama’s strategic review (the brown line) would represent a dramatic cut in the Pentagon’s base budget. The automatic sequester cuts (the red line at the bottom) appear even more draconian.

What is not shown, however, is the context in which such cuts would occur. In the next chart, those projections are compared to defense spending since 1989. As you can see, the sequestration cuts would return military spending to no less than the spendthrift days of 2007, as others have noted in the past.

Should sequestration occur, defense spending will remain at historically high levels relative to the last post-war drawdown and not approach the low of 1998, much less a 60-year low.

* Thanks to Charles Zakaib with his assistance on this research and this post.