Tag: U.S. foreign policy

Strength vs. Stupidity

The New York Times weighs in this morning with a timely and sensible editorial on military spending. The main focus is on the increasingly outdated pay and benefits system for the nation’s troops. Some choice excerpts:

Military pay, benefit and retirement costs rose by more than 50 percent over the…decade (accounting for inflation). Leaving aside Afghanistan and Iraq, those costs now account for nearly $1 out of every $3 the Pentagon spends.

Much of that is necessary to recruit and retain a high-quality, all-volunteer military….But current military pay, pension systems and retiree health care benefits are unsustainable and ripe for reform.

[…]

The retirement system is both unfair and increasingly expensive. Most veterans, including many who have served multiple combat tours, will never qualify for even a partial military pension or retiree health benefits. These are only available to those who have served at least 20 years. Those who do qualify can start collecting their pensions as soon as they leave service, even if they are still in their late 30s, making for huge long-term costs.

So far, so good. Two essential points bear repeating.

First, the rise in military spending over the past decade has not been driven solely by the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon costs are growing, and the rate of growth is rising. Programmatic reform is needed to reign in those costs; avoiding stupid wars won’t solve the problem (although it won’t hurt).

Second, the current system disproportionately rewards individuals who stay in the service for 20-plus years, and undercompensates those men and women who serve several tours, but who do not qualify for military retirement. A better system would allow anyone who has served to retain some of what they paid (or what taxpayers paid for them) into a portable retirement account that they control. Private industry has been steadily moving away from a fixed-benefit, pension-style system for years. I have heard the arguments against such a move, but I don’t find them particularly convincing.

One point from the Times editorial, however, calls out for clarification. The editors claim on two separate occasions that current military spending patterns are “unsustainable.” They conclude:

The United States already has a comfortable margin of [military] dominance….The Pentagon’s ambitions expanded without limit over the Bush era, and Congress eagerly wrote the checks. The country cannot afford to continue this way, and national security doesn’t require it. (emphasis added)

The latter point, “national security doesn’t require it,” is crucial, correct, and should be repeated at every opportunity. The former assertion, “the country cannot afford” it, is false. Repeating that claim plays into the hands of the inveterate hawks who never saw a war, or a weapon system, that wasn’t deserving of more lives/money.

The hawks are correct to point out that the United States has in the past, and could in the future, choose to spend as much or more on our military. Current spending levels amount to about five percent of GDP (when including the costs of the wars), and military spending as a share of total government spending has been falling steadily for years. According to the hawks, it is other spending, or too little revenue, that is putting our children and grandchildren into debt.

I wish that the Times had spent more time hammering the point that such spending is unnecessary. Contrary to anecdote and the evening news, the international system is remarkably stable and peaceful. The United States need not spend more than we did at the height of the Cold War in order to be secure from most threats. And those few genuine threats to our security could be handled with a smaller, more efficient military—if we offloaded some responsibilities to other countries that have sheltered under the U.S. security umbrella for decades.

The Times doesn’t directly address that last point. By focusing most of their attention on programmatic reforms to pay and benefits, and a bit on costly procurement of unnecessary weapons, but not enough to the underlying flawed assumptions that drive military spending, the editors contribute to the misconception that the U.S. military should continue to be the world’s policeman, and find ways to do this on the cheap.

That is unfortunate. Spending more than we need to doesn’t make us stronger. Ignoring our favorable strategic circumstances is simply stupid. We spend too much on our military because we ask our troops to do too much. To spend less, we must do less. The good news is that we can. The bad news is that too few people understand that.

Attack on U.S. Embassy Highlights Need to Exit Afghanistan

Political leaders and military commanders will dismiss the Taliban’s recent coordinated assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul as a “one-off” incident. But the attack is a vivid reminder of how poorly things are going, and why America needs to leave.

By every measure, violence is higher than ever. The coalition and civilian casualty rate for this year is on pace to break the record for last year, which in turn eclipsed the record for 2009, which in turn eclipsed the record for 2008. Spiraling violence came after significant increases in troops and resources. Defiant optimists have claimed that with more troops comes more combat and naturally, more casualties. But to accept that things will get worse before they get better is also a slippery slope: never giving up, no matter the cost, discourages a dispassionate assessment of whether a continued investment is justified. In turn, the longer we stay and the more money we spend, the more we feel compelled to remain to validate our investment. Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom, as expressed by President Obama in March 2009, is that “If Afghanistan falls to the Taliban…that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” We are also told that if America and its allies fail to create a minimally functioning government in Afghanistan, then Pakistan will collapse and its nuclear weapons will fall to the Taliban.

These claims of falling dominoes are all wrong.

First, if Afghanistan were to fall to the Taliban, it is not clear that they would again host al Qaeda—the very organization whose protection led to the Taliban’s overthrow. Besides, targeted counterterrorism measures would be sufficient in the unlikely event that the Taliban were to provide shelter to al Qaeda. Moreover, to declare that Afghanistan can never again be a base for terrorists justifies indefinite war, which does less to serve the American public and more to benefit the private industries that profit from conflict and nation-building. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that after a decade of war, more than $450 billion spent, and over 1,600 American lives lost, the United States can still be attacked by terrorists. This creates a humiliating situation in which our Afghanistan policy weakens the U.S. militarily and economically and fails to advance its vital national interests.

Second, an endless war of whack-a-mole does far more to inspire terrorists “to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” In this respect, our political leaders seem to have learned little from 9/11. The unintended consequence of U.S. intervention and meddling is that it serves as a radicalizing impetus. Regardless of what percentage of the Afghan population wants us to rebuild their country, our presence, however noble our intentions, can serve as both a method to combat insurgents and as the insurgents’ most effective recruiting tool. Aside from that “mobilizing militants” dilemma, our elimination of Taliban figures (including shadow governors, mid-level commanders, and weapons facilitators) may very well weaken the Taliban’s chain of command, but it hasn’t resulted in a decrease of Taliban activity. Indeed, the use of IEDs has reached record highs. Worse, the insurgents’ second-largest funding source is the U.S. taxpayer, with stabilization and reconstruction money often being diverted to insurgents to pay them to ensure security. Of course, they then use U.S. taxpayer money to buy bombs and explosives to kill American troops and Afghan civilians.

Finally, U.S. officials are playing with fire if they think these conditions help strengthen neighboring Pakistan. Certainly, Rawalpindi’s self-defeating support of Islamist proxies has not done its country any favors—but neither has the coalition’s presence next door. Continuing to stay the course in Afghanistan inspires the worst strategic tendencies among Pakistani military planners. It also encourages militants to attack NATO supply vehicles entering Afghanistan (nothing new), and has inadvertently contributed to the very instability that leaders in Washington ostensibly seek to forestall. As Karachi goes, so goes Pakistan, and current developments are doing more to push militants from Pakistan’s rural hinterland and into its major cities. Lastly, despite Washington’s nuclear obsessions, a large-scale foreign troop presence in Afghanistan does not resolve the ongoing rivalry between Pakistan and India. In fact, Pakistan has been accelerating its production of nuclear material for bombs and their ability to delivery them over the past several years.

In the end, the current scale and scope of the coalition’s mission in Afghanistan (over 100,000 troops and $120 billion per year from the U.S. alone) stems from overstated fears about what will follow if we fail. Luckily, America and its allies do not have to build a legitimate and stable Afghan government as an alternative to the Taliban. Al Qaeda is a manageable threat, and a conventional, definitive “victory” against them was never possible. Rather than drawing out our withdrawal and fighting an insurgency on behalf of an incompetent and illegitimate puppet regime in Kabul, American leaders should declare “mission accomplished.”

A U.S. Troop Presence in Iraq Does Not Serve U.S. Security Interests

Many years ago, longer than I care to remember, I wrote an op ed wondering aloud “Who Will Decide When We Leave Iraq?” More than five and a half years later, we still don’t know the answer to that question.

Sure, we have an agreement with the Iraqis to leave by the end of this year. All U.S. troops are supposed to be gone, although a very large diplomatic presence, including perhaps thousands of security contractors, will remain. George W. Bush presided over the negotiation of the deal, and then passed it off to his successor. When he drew down to fewer than 50,000 troops over the summer, on a path to zero by January 1, 2012, Barack Obama was merely implementing the policy. He cannot fairly be accused of doing anything other than what his predecessor would have done. If it is a mistake for Obama to preside over a troop withdrawal, then it was a mistake for Bush to negotiate one.

But maybe we’re not leaving? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is reportedly supporting a deal for 3,000 to 4,000 troops to remain in a training capacity past the end of the year, provided a deal can be struck with the Iraqis.

Those few Americans who are still paying attention to Iraq cannot be enthusiastic about this. We have long since tired of the ruinous, pointless war. The cheerleaders for invading Iraq said it would be a cakewalk, and that the costs would be paid for by Iraqi oil revenues, not U.S. taxpayers. It has instead consumed nearly $800 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars, claimed the lives of over 4,400 U.S. troops, and wounded many thousands more. The costs of caring for the wounded and recapitalizing equipment will likely top an additional $1 trillion.

Haven’t we had enough already?

Apparently not.

A handful of U.S. senators are appalled to learn not that U.S. troops might be staying in Iraq, but rather that the administration is contemplating a troop withdrawal. (Is this news to them?) When they learned that the administration was trying to retain a U.S. troop presence beyond the end of this year, Diane Feinstein, Joseph Lieberman, John McCain and Lindsay Graham, complained that the numbers being contemplated were insufficient. They claimed that such a draw down would imperil the fragile gains made in the country over the past few years, and expose the few troops left behind to serious harm.

That last point might be true. It isn’t clear to me why 3,000 troops makes much more sense than 30,000 or 300. But the essential fact is that the presence in Iraq, any presence, is unnecessary. Bush made many mistakes in Iraq, beginning with the decision to invade. He was correct to determine that the mission must end. It does not serve U.S. security interests to remain in that country indefinitely.

At the time when I wrote that earlier op ed, in early 2006, I pointed to President Bush’s insistence that we would only stay so long as the Iraqis wanted us there, and suggested that the Iraqs might ultimately determined whether we stayed or went. Bush might have been gambling that the Iraqis would not ask us to leave, at least not right away, and the polling data at the time suggested that was a safe bet.

It isn’t any longer. A few people here in the United States might want U.S. troops to stay in Iraq; but very few Iraqis agree.

Realist IR scholars will repeat ad nauseum the mantra from Thucydides:  “The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must.” To the extent that this is true, no U.S. president would gamble this country’s security on the whims of a nascent parliamentary democracy rife with anti-American sentiment. We would never hand such a decision over to the Iraqis if it was truly vital to our national security to remain there.

It isn’t. It never has been. The Iraq war was a war of choice; we can choose to leave. We should.

 

The Curious Case of Lloyd Chapman

Last week, I flayed the American Small Business League’s Lloyd Chapman for his absurd claim that legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) would close the Small Business Administration (see here). As I expected, Chapman’s response is equally absurd.

In an ASBL press release, Chapman actually threatens to take me to court over my calling him a “conspiracy theorist”:

The next time you call me a conspiracy theorist, be ready to back it up with facts. You just might find yourself in court.

Good luck with that, Lloyd. In the meantime, let’s allow the court of public opinion to decide if the following claim you recently made is the stuff of a conspiracy theorist:

Clearly Republicans like Senator Burr, his supporters and groups such as the CATO Institute are directed like puppets by the defense and aerospace industry.

I can’t speak for Sen. Burr, but Chapman’s assertion that the Cato Institute is being “directed like puppets by the defense and aerospace industry” is ridiculous. Cato’s Downsizing Government website, which I co-edit, lays out the case for cutting the Department of Defense.

My Cato colleagues past and present have consistently advocated for a limited U.S. presence abroad:

Cato’s foreign policy vision is guided by the idea of our national defense and security strategy being appropriate for a constitutional republic, not an empire. Cato’s foreign policy scholars question the presumption that an interventionist foreign policy enhances the security of Americans in the post-Cold War world, and maintain instead that interventionism has consequences, including the formation of countervailing alliances, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and even terrorism. The use of U.S. military force should be limited to those occasions when the territorial integrity, national sovereignty, or liberty of the United States is at risk.

Does that strike the reader as anything the defense and aerospace industry would direct Cato to advocate? Clearly, Chapman is hopelessly lost in a fantasy world of his own creation.

Perhaps realizing that he embarrassed himself by threatening me with legal action, Chapman now says that he wants to take a different approach:

I am sure that Tad DeHaven and the staff at the CATO Institute have seen my press release in response to their attack on my credibility. I’d like to take this opportunity to try a different approach and appeal to their sense of patriotism, logic and reason.

He then proceeds to talk about all of the jobs that small businesses create and the fact that federal contracts set aside for small businesses sometimes end up instead benefiting large businesses. Uh, Lloyd, in my “attack” on you, I never said otherwise. I even noted that “Chapman is correct that government contracting is fraught with fraud and abuse.” In my testimony on the SBA before the Senate Small Business Committee, I discussed examples of fraud and abuse in government contracting, including federal contracts set aside for small businesses that ended up benefiting large companies like General Electric and Lockheed Martin.

As I noted in my “attack,” Chapman is focused on the contracting issue whereas I’m primarily focused on the SBA’s loan guarantee programs. I frankly don’t care what firms receive federal contracts so long as work is performed at the lowest cost to taxpayers. I’m more concerned with reducing the size and scope of government, which would mean lower taxes and fewer burdensome regulations for small businesses. Moreover, does Chapman not understand that those government contracts are paid for, in part, by other small businesses through taxes? I would argue that the strength of the small business community should be measured by the goods and services produced for private consumption, not government consumption.

Finally, if Chapman is so pro-small business/anti-big business, why isn’t he concerned with the SBA’s loan guarantee programs? I challenged Chapman on this issue:

I’m all for a serious discussion and debate on the SBA. The SBA’s loan guarantee programs benefit a relatively tiny number of small businesses at the expense of the vast majority of small businesses that do not receive government support. Moreover, the biggest winners from these loan guarantees are big banks who reap the profits but get to kick the bulk of any losses to the government. One would think a pro-small business/anti-big business guy like Chapman would be concerned by this. Instead, Chapman consistently resorts to wild exaggerations and conspiracy theories. As a result, I can’t take him seriously. It’s too bad policymakers do.

The silence from Chapman on this matter is deafening. In addition to resorting to wild exaggerations and conspiracy theories, we can now add the threat of legal action. Until Chapman dispenses with the antics, policymakers should stop taking him seriously.

Explaining Aircraft Carriers

Yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made the following comment regarding China’s maiden voyage in the old Varyag carcass it has been tinkering with for over a decade:

We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment.

This echoes Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks at the 2005 Shangri-La Dialogue in which he puzzled in quintessentially Rumsfeldian fashion:

Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder:

* Why this growing investment?

* Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?

* Why these continuing robust deployments?

Maybe, like me, the Chinese are reading Aaron Friedberg’s new book on U.S.-China security competition (Friedberg worked on Asia for Vice President Cheney). Perhaps high-ranking military officials there shudder a bit when they read, on page 184, that someone very close to the levers of power in Washington admits mildly that

Stripped of diplomatic niceties, the ultimate aim of the American strategy is to hasten a revolution, albeit a peaceful one, that will sweep away China’s one-party authoritarian state and leave a liberal democracy in its place.

Given this, as Friedberg sensibly notes later (p. 231),

It is difficult to believe that the present Beijing regime will accept indefinitely a situation in which its fate could depend on American forbearance, and hard to see how it can escape that condition without building a much bigger and more capable navy.

I actually agree with David Axe’s characterization of the Shi Lang as “a piece of junk,” and given the geography of the region, I wouldn’t—as the Chinese aren’t—pour many resources into aircraft carriers to remedy this predicament. But if the roles were reversed, and China spent four times as much as we did on our military—and if China had naval bases ringing my coastline and fancied itself the “hub” of a “hub-and-spokes” set of alliances between itself and a variety of Latin American countries and Canada—I’d probably think that these facts, when assembled, constituted a pretty strong argument for spending more money on anything I could use to defend myself. Especially if China had recently gone on an ideological rampage trying to “hasten revolutions” and leaving smoldering wreckages in its wake.

At any rate, what’s good for the goose ought to be good for the gander, so I anxiously await the Pentagon’s detailed explanation for why we need each of our 11 aircraft carriers, every one of which is enormously more powerful than the PRC’s puny flattop.

Cross-posted from the National Interest.

Military Spending and the Budget Deal

The budget deal announced last night offers two sets of potential cuts in military spending.

The first set of potential cuts, created by the budget caps, target “security” spending. That includes the Pentagon, State, foreign aid, the Department of Homeland Security and Veterans (the discretionary portion of Veterans spending, to be precise). The deal caps “security” spending at $684 billion for this fiscal year and $686 for the next. That requires little pain; the 2012 security cap is only $5 billion below what we’ll spend on those categories in fiscal 2011. The White House claims that the caps will generate $350 billion in savings from base defense spending for ten years. They get there, dubiously, by projecting security spending at the capped level across the decade, even after the caps expire, and counting as savings the difference between that spending trajectory and what CBO now projects. They are also assuming that all the savings go to defense, even though Republicans will try to make the other security categories absorb the pain.

The second set of potential cuts, which occur automatically if the Joint Committee fails to reach its spending cut goals, target defense spending directly. This could add $500 billion in defense cuts over ten years, the White House says.

Assuming that is true, the maximum amount of defense cuts possible here is $850 billion. That is a cut of roughly 15 percent compared to planned spending based on the president’s February 2011 budget submission — not including the wars. It is roughly on par with the cuts proposed by the Bowles-Simpson Commission. The total savings are much lower, roughly half, if you compare the cuts to what we actually spend now, rather than the increases we were planning on in past planning documents.

And remember, that $850 billion is a maximum; it may not materialize. It will be lower, if, as hawks hope, the cuts fall on the non-defense elements of the security category. It will be lower if the Joint Committee finds other accounts to cut, avoiding the triggers.

Still, that possible amount is enough to make hawks apoplectic. We are sure to hear more complaints about “gutting or “hollowing out” the force. But let’s keep some facts about military spending in mind:

The Pentagon’s budget has more than doubled over the past decade, and current projections call for the Pentagon to receive more than $6 trillion from U.S. taxpayers through 2021. If its budget got cut by 15 percent, that would return us to roughly 2007 levels. That hardly seems like “gutting”. After such cuts, we would still account for more than 40 percent of global military spending, and our margin of military superiority over any combination of rivals would remain unrivaled.

The focus should now shift to strategy. The White House says the Pentagon’s ongoing roles and missions review will guide the first round of security cuts. The aim is to eliminate military capabilities that are unnecessary or provided by multiple services. We should go deeper, looking to what missions, allies, and possible wars, we can jettison.  The recommendations should guide not only the first set of cuts, but also the second. That means making recommendations for the Joint Committee on additional defense cuts and preparing for automatic cuts should they occur. There is nothing preventing those cuts from being achieved by retiring force structure required by needless missions—such as defending rich allies that can defend themselves.

We should also keep in mind that this deal hardly solves our deficit problem and does not exhaust the possible savings we should seek. Deeper military cuts are possible and could even enhance security given the right strategy.

Leave Iraq to the Iraqis

Many advocates of promiscuous military intervention angrily reject the claim that America is an “empire.” Granted, the U.S. doesn’t directly rule its imperial dependents. But Washington policymakers do insist on maintaining a military presence wherever and whenever possible, irrespective of America’s defense needs.

The Obama administration’s attempt to pressure the Iraqi government into “inviting” the U.S. to remain is almost comical. Rather than requiring Baghdad to demonstrate why a continuing American presence is necessary, U.S. officials have been begging to stay. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said: “I hope they figure out a way to ask.” His successor, Leon Panetta, recently blurted out: “dammit, make a decision.”

However, it is Washington that should make a decision and bring home America’s troops.

The U.S. continues to garrison Europe, Japan, and South Korea, decades after American forces first arrived. All of these international welfare queens could defend themselves. Despite President Bill Clinton’s promise that American troops would spend just a year occupying the Balkans, an area of minimal security interest to the United States, some troops remain to this day. And uber-hawks talk about maintaining a permanent presence in Afghanistan, as distant from conventional U.S. defense interests as any nation on the planet.

But right now Iraq is exciting the most concern, since the United States is supposed to withdraw its combat forces by year-end. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the top military spokesman in Iraq, said Washington “has committed to an enduring partnership with Iraq,” but it would be easier if the Iraqis spoke up “while we have troops here and infrastructure here.”

From start to (almost) finish, the Iraqi operation has been a tragic fiasco. The United States invaded to seize non-existent WMDs. American forces destroyed the country’s system of ordered tyranny, turning the country into a bloody charnel house, killing hundreds of thousands and forcing millions to flee. Washington’s occupation transferred democracy to Iraq without the larger liberal culture necessary for democracy to thrive. U.S. intervention empowered Iran while destroying Baghdad’s ability to control its own borders.

Yet President Obama wants to stick around, meddling in Iraq’s domestic affairs and defending it in foreign matters.

The United States should not have invaded Iraq. Washington can’t undo the ill effects of the war, but it can avoid the costs of a permanent occupation.

America’s job in Iraq is done. The Iraqis should be left in charge of their national destiny. All U.S. troops should be withdrawn. Washington should stop collecting increasingly dangerous dependencies for its empire.

Cross-posted from The National Interest