Tag: U.S. grand strategy

Our Astrategic Syria Debate

Only a terrifically secure country could have as poor and astrategic a debate about war as the one we’re having about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. 

Actually, we’re not having a debate about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. That’s the problem. We’re debating Syria as though it’s an engineering question—an electrical outage, or a bit of erosion in the backyard. Doing so removes the most vexing aspects of the issue, leading us to the delusion that military action can easily make things better. 

Too much of the discussion has focused on moral arguments and too little of it on the very real political problems beneath the war. Take the advocacy of Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. As Hamid wrote of his thinking on Syria in January 2012, he was pro-intervention “emotionally, and from a purely moral perspective,” but had some nagging non-emotional, non-moral concerns: “I cannot say whether military intervention would work.” By June, though, the emotional and the moral took over, with Hamid declaring that it was “not the job of civilian think tanks” to figure out how military intervention would produce the desired outcome. 

Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, who until recently occupied George Kennan’s old office at the State Department, has similarly assumed away Syrian politics, making the case for intervention much easier. As she tweeted Sunday, “Suppose US goal in #Syria were simply to STOP THE KILLING. Forget who might/might not win down the line. What’s fastest/best way to do that?” 

But forgetting who might win down the line waves off the central problem: the killing is happening for a political reason. Bashar al-Assad and his enemies are not engaged in wanton, nihilistic slaughter; they are struggling over political control of Syria. Any analysis that removes that basic fact from the discussion of how to “STOP THE KILLING” turns a complex political question into a technical, scientific project, creating the delusion that it can be readily fixed by the U.S. government. 

In fairness to Hamid and Slaughter, they are carrying the torch of a time-honored American tradition of foreign policy thinking. Historically, debates over foreign intervention in the United States have featured liberal analysts against realists and the military. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower reportedly had to admonish his activist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to calm down: “Don’t do something, Foster, just stand there!” 

In the 1990s, apolitical liberal thinking on war reached its pinnacle. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell expressed hesitation about the Clinton administration’s intervention ideas, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lashed out: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” And President Clinton’s lack of understanding of war caused him to ruminate, accurately, to General Hugh Shelton that it would “scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”

In the 1990s, realists like Richard Betts were warning Americans not to fall victim to the “delusion of impartial intervention.” Admonishing policymakers for their newfound enthusiasm for limited, ostensibly apolitical intervention, Betts reminded readers of a ground truth: “A war will not end until both sides agree who will control whatever is in dispute.” This is as true in Syria as it is anywhere. Alternatively, if analysts want to use the U.S. military to regime-change Assad, they have every obligation to explain how they intend to shepherd the country toward whatever political order they seek.

More honest hawkishness can be found at the Institute for the Study of War, whose recent paper advocating aiding the Syrian opposition admitted that politics matter

The goal behind U.S. support to the opposition should be to build a force on the ground that is committed to building a nonsectarian, stable Syria, with a government more likely to respect American interests. 

That outcome is presumably what all analysts urging intervention desire. The trick is to acknowledge the problems of connecting military means to our political desiderata. Anyone who doesn’t deal with the underlying political problems at stake is threatening to push the country into another ill-considered, potentially costly war.

SecDef Should Tackle Personnel Costs

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel went before the House Armed Services Committee to answer questions about President Obama’s proposed FY 2014 military budget. The request for $526.6 billion for the base DoD budget is $3.9 billion lower than the 2012 enacted level. While this reduction is a positive step, it doesn’t go far enough given the nation’s fiscal state and changing military requirements, and it exceeds the spending caps mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act by $55 billion.

For more insight on the budget numbers and what this means politically, see my colleague Ben Friedman’s excellent post from yesterday. I want to focus on an area of the budget that cries out for reform: rising personnel costs.

During his testimony, Hagel reiterated the need to rein in such costs, echoing themes from his speech last week at the National Defense University. The president’s budget aims to reduce these costs by cutting end strength, limiting the size of pay increases (to 1 percent), and making “benefit adjustments” to TRICARE. Such adjustments are critical to the department in the long term.

A political battle over these types of reductions is all but certain; however, some members of Congress—perhaps most—will resist. This is unfortunate, especially for fiscal conservatives who understand the need to reform entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, yet fail to see the need to contain skyrocketing costs in personnel and benefits at DoD. The arguments are the same: the current path is unsustainable; reforms are needed or the costs will consume the rest of the budget; and if you implement the reforms sooner, they can be more incremental and less disruptive to the troops. But then again, farsightedness isn’t Congress’s strong suit.

Personnel costs, which account for approximately 32 percent of the budget request (over 45 percent when civilian pay and benefits are included), need to be addressed. The administration has proposed cutting conventional forces—mainly from within the Army and Marine Corps—by 100,000. Hagel has mentioned reducing the civilian workforce, but he hasn’t outlined specifically how he would downsize the “world’s largest back office.”

As Ben Friedman points out, it is also important to keep in mind that the $526.6 billion base budget request does not accurately represent the total cost of national defense. For instance, Overseas Contingency Operations (OCOs)—war funding—is a separate request. Many believe that as we draw down in Afghanistan, OCO funding will come down. But Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in yesterday’s hearing that those costs are likely to remain fairly steady for the next few years. Despite the fact that many budget projections count the drawdown in Afghanistan as “savings,” the United States will remain in Afghanistan for years to come.

When you factor in the budgets of other the defense-related items—nuclear weapons management under the Department of Energy, the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and Veteran Affairs—total spending on national defense soars to over $900 billion.

There is plenty of room for further cuts in this massive total, especially if we rethink what we ask our military to do. Shedding security commitments and unnecessary missions would allow for a budget that reflects our level of security. But the administration can start by addressing the costs relating to personnel. Otherwise, the future does not look bright for Pentagon budgets. 

Obama’s 2014 Military Spending Request

The Obama administration $640.5 billion fiscal year 2014 request for military spending authority is predictably unrealistic and excessive. Still, political circumstance continues to drag the Pentagon toward fiscal restraint. 

That $640.5 billion includes $88.5 billion for war (a.k.a. overseas contingency operations), $526.6 for non-war spending in the Department of Defense, and another $25.4 billion spending outside DoD, mostly for nuclear weapons in the Department of Energy, which officially counts as “national defense” or budget function 050 spending. 

Those spending levels ignore the budgetary cap set by law and the political reality it reflects. The $552 billion requested in 2014 for non-war “national defense” spending exceeds by $55 billion the spending cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, as amended by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. Were Congress to enact the president’s budget and leave the cap in place, that total would be sequestered equally across “defense” spending categories, including the war. 

Even if Congress agrees to a grand bargain altering the caps, military spending will likely face additional cuts. Republican resistance to tax hikes and Democratic protection of entitlements mean that any deal they cut will likely again target discretionary spending, more than half of which goes to the military. Of course, Congress’ failure thus far to undo this year’s more onerous sequestration suggests that no deal is likely. An over-under on where the non-war Pentagon budget winds up for 2014 would be closer to $500 billion than $550 billion. 

In a certain light, there is some sacrifice here. The non-war DoD request of $526.6 billion is just $1.2 billion more than last year’s request. Factoring in inflation, it’s about a 1.5 percent cut. This budget would bring the portion of GDP going to the military to 4 percent, versus. 4.3 percent this year, according to the administration. And as Russell Rumbaugh points out, DoD’s projected spending over ten years is down $114 billion from a year ago. 

On the other hand, the request would be a substantial increase over the $493 billion that the Pentagon actually got from Congress this year, after sequestration (see page 10 here). Economic growth is the main reason that a declining portion of national wealth is going to the military. And the cuts scheduled over the decade would arrive mostly in its second half, when someone else is president, meaning that the cuts are basically imaginary

Additionally, the “placeholder” request of $88.5 billion in Pentagon funds for war—the same as last year—is suspiciously high. The administration says they will revise the request once they determine force levels in Afghanistan. But the president already announced plans to halve total U.S. troops there from 68,000 to 34,000 by next February. Even with the increased cost from exiting, the total cost should be far lower. The Pentagon is likely continuing to use the war budget to dodge caps and fund personnel and other non-war functions. Meanwhile, the administration still claims to support a ten-year cap on war spending. As Charles Knight and I explain here, that is a feckless gesture at a good idea. 

One reason why the Pentagon request is unrealistically and unnecessarily large is that it’s part of a struggle with Republicans over the shape of deficit reduction. The White House may be holding military spending cuts in reserve to offer as an alternative to tax increases that Republicans will refuse. Another, more fundamental, reason is that the administration remains wedded to the liberal internationalist species of the militarist consensus that sees U.S. military power as the linchpin to global stability, trade, and liberalization. Here are some newer arguments against that bipartisan consensus. Hopefully the new secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, shares some of that skepticism and will demonstrate it once he has time to guide the budget. 

Given our safety, we should stop spending on the military as we did at the height of the Cold War. The Pentagon budget should comply with the spending cap by making choices among missions and goals, rather than clinging to existing alliances and ambitions. The cuts on offer are mostly efficiencies—they require doing the same things more cheaply. Some reforms of this kind, like the administration’s proposal to increase TRICARE fees and start another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round, can save big bucks, though Congress will probably ignore them. Bigger cuts require larger choices. If, for example, we shed allies and the pretension that stability everywhere depends on our military presence, far deeper cuts to each service, especially the ground forces, are possible. We could cut a leg or two of the nuclear delivery-vehicle triad without sacrificing deterrence. One virtue of austerity is to encourage these sorts of overdue choices.

U.S. Cuts Welfare Payments to Portugal, Portuguese Unhappy

American alliances are systems that transfer wealth from U.S. taxpayers and their debtors to citizens in wealthy allies. With Uncle Sam paying for those countries’ defense, their governments are free to use their own revenues for welfare programs or other domestic priorities. This is a sucker’s bet from an American perspective, but pretty great from the perspective of the citizen of a rich country who benefits from this largesse.

The Wall Street Journal’s news section over the weekend showed this phenomenon in an article illustrating the wages of sequestration. In the course of trimming the U.S. troop presence in Europe from 74,000 to 67,000 over two years, the strategically vital hamlet of Praia da Vitória in the Azores will be particularly hard hit. You see, the U.S. military presence will be reduced there, possibly by more than 1,000, devastating the economic well-being of the village, population 22,000.

One sympathizes with the Portuguese citizens who, over three generations, have come to rely on U.S. taxpayer dollars for their well-being. They don’t really know a world without that economic nourishment, so it must be unnerving to think about what will happen without it.

The story reads like a bad breakup. One U.S. official quoted in the article charged with breaking the news that we’re just not that into them remarked that the Portuguese felt “we are no longer important to you and we have been your best friend. They took it personally.” Worse, they felt “strategically devalued.” Other unnamed officials rubbed salt in the wound, noting the danger that the removal of U.S. troops threatened to “diminish the continent’s value as a strategic partner,” implying that its strategic value is provided by Washington.

The article also noted that the Portuguese are already whispering about having their eye on another suitor:

Since word of possible cutbacks at the base surfaced a year ago, rumors began circulating that the Americans would leave [the base] entirely, and that China, which has growing economic ties with Portugal, would establish a naval base their to patrol the Atlantic.

An American conservative movement worthy of the name would realize the economic strain the country is under and wouldn’t be embracing situational Keynesianism and trying to insulate the bloated military budget from cuts. It would be pointing out that this system of transferring money from U.S. taxpayers to taxpayers in Japan, or Germany, or Portugal is bad for Americans, unconservative, and unnecessary.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of conservative movement.

Obama’s Perilous Foreign Policy Path

To both a greater and lesser degree of success, foreign policy scholars have tried to explain the disconnect between President Obama’s soaring idealism of America’s role in the world and his halting political caution about it in discrete situations. That vacillation has drawn criticism, both for being too meddlesome and for not being meddlesome enough. 

Daily Caller contributor Adam Bates ably sums up the president’s incoherence as “not based on any particular logic or worldview beyond the president’s own desire to distance himself from America’s foreign policy past without bothering to actually change any policies.” Indeed. As this author has written in the past, specifically on counterterrorism policies, 

On the one hand, Obama openly rejected Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ approach to foreign affairs. On the other hand, Obama’s sophisticated demeanor opened him to criticism, with hawks condemning him as too weak and easily manipulated by America’s enemies. 

The administration has supported policies that have failed to deliver tangible benefits to the American people (Libya), continued to prop up brutal regimes (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt), and helped tether our country to the region’s parochial quarrels (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and perhaps ever-more-so in Syria). Despite seemingly courageous attempts to distance itself from failed policies of the past, the Obama administration has managed to drift into strategic purgatory. 

Karzai’s Latest Outrageous Comment

Yesterday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai alleged that the United States and the Taliban are “working in concert to convince Afghans that violence will worsen if most foreign troops leave.” His accusation exposes a strange irony. Karzai not only supports U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, but also disparages that presence to evade his own failings. 

Since 2001, senior U.S. officials have tethered our military might to the sick man of Central Asia. In 2004, President George W. Bush pledged America’s “ironclad commitment” to help Karzai’s country succeed. In 2010, President Obama made clear that the U.S. role in Afghanistan “is a long-term partnership.” 

President Karzai codified those pledges last May by concluding the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America. Despite his history of hindering U.S.-backed anti-corruption investigations, denouncing the international community, and claiming the U.S. ferried Taliban to the north in order to spread violence, he eagerly signed an Agreement that commits the U.S. government to Afghanistan’s future. It provided for the possibility of a U.S. troop presence until 2024, and a long-term framework for training Afghan security forces and targeting al Qaeda. 

Washington’s devotion to nation building still holds fast despite Karzai’s inability to fulfill its lofty expectations. As former U.S. ambassador to Kabul Karl W. Eikenberry bluntly warned his superiors in November 2009, Karzai “is not an adequate strategic partner.” 

Certainly, the United States is not blameless for Afghanistan’s downward spiral—it took responsibility back in 2001 to rebuild the war-ravaged country and then shifted its attention and resources in 2003 to invade and occupy Iraq. Yet, the endemically corrupt Karzai regime and its band of thugs and cronies are also culpable. 

Ample reporting on Afghan corruption need not be repeated here. More to the point, Karzai fails to appreciate the way in which his poor governance vindicates insurgent propaganda and drives many Afghans to fight. A widespread perception of the central government’s massive corruption delegitimizes the state and inspires the sense of injustice that makes the Taliban appear as an effective alternative. Apart from Karzai himself, Afghan police are notorious for perpetrating crimes they are supposed to be stopping, such as corruption, theft, kidnapping, murder, and child abuse. Meanwhile, the Afghan army, long hailed as the mission’s shining success story, is rife with factionalism and patronage networks that could splinter the institution along political and ethnic lines. Foreign policy planners in Washington overlooked the second- and third-order consequences of their attempts to build a strong central government that wields a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. 

As the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee admitted two years ago, “Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.” (Emphasis mine.] 

Perversely, the corruption of the Afghan central government and the failures of the foreign-led nation-building project feed off one another in disturbing symbiosis. The Washington Post hasreported that foreign military and development spending provide roughly 97 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, fomenting fears that withdrawal will push the Afghan economy into depression. The alternative to popping that foreign aid bubble, some argue, would be to commit several hundred thousand troops and decades of attention, resources, and patience to transform Afghanistan’s deeply divided society into a stable, non-corrupt, electoral democracy. Of course, such success would hardly be guaranteed and assumes we possess the local knowledge as well as the cultural and religious legitimacy to operate indefinitely in a country notoriously suspicious of outsiders and largely devoid of central authority. 

Over twelve years of nation-building has had little success in creating an economically viable Afghan state, much less a self-sustaining Afghan security force. Indeed, nation building has propped up an erratic and unreliable regime whose behavior feeds the insurgency’s momentum. 

Policymakers must reject the flawed premise on which their policies rest. They must overcome their tendency to overestimate the strategic importance of a small, underdeveloped country to the narrower and more achievable goals of disrupting terrorist networks and preserving U.S. national security.

Fred Kaplan on David Petraeus and Counterinsurgency

I have a new blog post up at US News and World Report discussing Fred Kaplan’s latest book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, a terrific book about a very important subject. 

I’m thrilled to be hosting Fred at Cato in a few weeks. I’ve been a Kaplan fan for nearly two decades, since I first read his classic, The Wizards of Armageddon. I also thoroughly enjoyed Daydream Believers, about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. It is an honor to be able to personally welcome him to Cato.

I’m particularly interested in the subject of his latest book: counterinsurgency (COIN). The discussion at Cato, which will also feature comments by Janine Davidson and Spencer Ackerman, hearkens back to several others that I’ve hosted or participated in. 

One in particular sticks out. Back in 2006, Cato published a paper on the American way of war by Jeffrey Record of the Air War College. I thought the paper was outstanding at the time, and, upon rereading it this week, I was struck by how much of what Jeff observed overlaps with a discussion about COIN that Petraeus hosted at Fort Leavenworth in February 2006 (the focus of my blog post at US News). He couldn’t know this at the time he was writing, of course, but it just so happens that many of Jeff’s questions and concerns about COIN were shared by many others within the national security establishment, including those who Gen. Petraeus invited to vet the COIN manual. (Those interested in the subject might also want to watch or listen to the event that we hosted with Jeff, Tom Ricks, and Conrad Crane, one of the principle authors of the COIN manual, FM 3-24.) 

Here are a few excerpts from the paper: 

Barring profound change in America’s political and military cultures, the United States runs a significant risk of failure in entering small wars of choice, and great power intervention in small wars is almost always a matter of choice. Most such wars…do not engage core U.S. security interests other than placing the limits of American military power on embarrassing display. Indeed, the very act of intervention in small wars risks gratuitous damage to America’s military reputation…. 

If this analysis is correct, the policy choice is obvious: avoidance of direct military involvement in foreign internal wars unless vital national security interests are at stake…. 

Avoidance of such conflicts means abandonment of regime-change wars that saddle the United States with responsibility for establishing political stability and state building, tasks that have rarely commanded public or congressional enthusiasm. 

Other elements of the discussion re: COIN were echoed in a paper that I coauthored with Ben Friedman and Harvey Sapolsky in 2008: 

The problem with counterinsurgency warfare is not that its theory of victory is illogical. If you understand the culture, if you avoid counterproductive violence, if you integrate civilians and make reconstruction operations a reward for cooperation, if you train the local forces well, if you pick your allies wisely, if you protect enough civilians and win their loyalty and more, you might succeed. But even avoiding a few of these ifs is too much competence to expect of foreign powers. That is why insurgencies in the last century generally lasted for decades and why the track record of democratic powers pacifying uprisings in foreign lands is abysmal…. 

Another reason Americans will struggle to master counterinsurgency doctrine is that it requires a foreign policy at odds with our national character… 

Americans have historically looked askance at the small wars European powers fought to maintain their imperial holdings, viewing those actions as illiberal and unjust. Misadventures like Vietnam are the exceptions that make the rule. It is no accident that U.S. national security organizations are not designed for occupation duties. When it comes to nation building, brokering civil and ethnic conflict, and waging counterinsurgency, we are our own worst enemy, and that is a sign of our lingering common sense. 

In The Insurgents, Fred Kaplan, summarizing a set of questions and comments from those who reviewed the COIN manual before it was published, asks “whether counterinsurgency was even possible? The question,” Kaplan writes, “had two parts. Was the U.S. Army up to the task? And, at least as uncertain, were the American people?” 

I think we know the answer now, and we could have known it in 2006, before the Iraq surge, or in 2008, well before the Afghan surge. Instead, we chose to believe the opposite of what history and logic taught us. 

What do we have to show for it?

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