Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Frenemy Saudi Arabia Makes the World More Dangerous

Saudi Arabia is a medieval system whose horrid human rights practices match its antiquated political system. Official Washington breathed a sigh of relief at the smooth transition after King Abdullah died last week. President Barack Obama is visiting Riyadh to pay his respects.

Secretary of State John Kerry called the departed king a “man of vision and wisdom.” President Barack Obama declared that Abdullah “was always candid and had the courage of his convictions.”

U.S. officials long have celebrated their friendship with the Saudi royals, who sit atop vast oil reserves. Even more important, the American military continues to act as the Saudi royals’ bodyguard.

President George H.W. Bush inaugurated the first Gulf War as much to safeguard Saudi Arabia as liberate Kuwait. He left a garrison in Saudi Arabia later targeted by the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks. America’s presence on sacred Saudi soil was one of Osama bin Laden’s grievances.

While American officials are conflicted by the tension between democracy and stability, the Saudis suffer no such indecision. Essentially a totalitarian dictatorship at home, the House of Saud favors whoever and whatever reduces threats to the monarchy abroad.

Yemen’s Chronic Instability

The last few days have brought dramatic news from Yemen: rebels occupied the presidential palace, initially forcing constitutional concessions and then the resignation of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. The president was, at least nominally, a U.S. ally, cooperating with U.S. forces on drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP).

Yemen itself had even been hailed as one of the few successes of the Arab Spring, with a negotiated transition resulting in steps toward democracy. But such an interpretation glosses over Yemen’s long history of instability, as well as intervention by foreign powers. The current conflict is not only a popular uprising, it’s a proxy war, one that has been worsened by U.S. policy in Yemen.

Yemen has experienced chronic instability throughout its history, in large part because of interference from Saudi Arabia, which has long been worried about Yemeni influence. The first Saudi king, Abdulaziz, is reputed to have called his senior sons to his deathbed, admonishing them to “keep Yemen weak.” The Kingdom has at various times provided funds not only to the Yemeni government, but also to various opposing tribal leaders.

The most recent iteration of Yemeni instability is a decade-long civil conflict between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, Sunni militias, and a Zaidi Shi’a militia group known as the Houthis. This latter is also known as the Shabaab al-Marmineen (or the Believing Youth), and is believed to receive large quantities of funding and arms from Iran (and formerly Syria). The insurgency has spanned a decade, with only sporadic ceasefires, resulting in widespread death and displacement. The Houthis even initiated cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia in 2009, which led to a large-scale Saudi invasion of Northern Yemen.

The Houthis were also heavily involved in the 2011 protests against Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, although they rejected the Saudi-negotiated transfer of power to then–Vice President Hadi. Since late last year, the Houthis have controlled large parts of the capital Sanaa, although power has remained nominally vested in the hands of the Hadi government.

The crisis in Yemen is thus not only a civil conflict, but also a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this, it is similar to the early Syrian civil war, which was initially driven by Saudi support for rebel groups and Iranian support for the Assad regime. While the situation in Yemen is unlikely to deteriorate in this way, it is worth focusing on the fact that many conflicts in the Middle East are actually driven by larger regional actors, some of them U.S. allies.

U.S. involvement in Yemen has also helped to worsen this crisis. The Hadi government’s support for U.S. drone strikes against AQAP contrasts strongly with Yemeni popular opinion, which has been widely outraged by the killing of innocents. Such unfortunate killings are driven by U.S. reliance on Yemeni targeting data: Yemeni leaders have a tendency to present political rivals as terrorists in order to engineer their demise. These deaths have driven growing anger at the Hadi government.

Ironically, the Houthi fighters are themselves strongly opposed to AQAP and actively engage in combat against the group. There is even evidence that the United States has cooperated with the Houthis on targeting AQAP.

The situation in Yemen remains fluid. The country appears to have no leader, and it is unclear whether the Houthi occupation of the capital constitutes a coup or not. But in either case, the United States should stay out of the conflict, evacuating the embassy if Sanaa becomes too dangerous. The crisis in Yemen is typical of the country’s long-running instability, and the pressures it faces from regional powers. U.S. involvement won’t help.

North Korea Wants Attention: Let’s Talk to Pyongyang

North Korea has been in a conciliatory mood recently, suggesting a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.  Pyongyang also indicated that it would suspend nuclear tests if the United States cancelled joint military exercises with the South. 

The United States refused and went ahead with the naval maneuvers.  In fact, the Obama administration recently expanded sanctions on North Korea in response to the Kim regime’s apparent hacking of Sony pictures.  Alas, past experience suggests the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea likely will respond with new provocations, perhaps another nuclear test.

Frustration with the Kim regime led retired Gen. John Macdonald to propose turning the movie ‘The Interview’ into reality:  “We’ve got to do something.”

Since Pyongyang hasn’t changed its behavior, the United States should try a different approach, but not an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un.  Washington should start by dropping the annual military exercise and reducing America’s military presence.  The administration also should develop a comprehensive engagement plan for North Korea.

Obviously, there’s no guarantee that engagement would yield a more positive result.  However, the People’s Republic of China’s growing frustration with the younger Kim provides an unexpected opportunity for Washington. 

So far, Beijing has proved unwilling to apply significant pressure on the DPRK lest the result be a messy collapse with advantage to a united Korea allied with America.  But China has tired of the antics of its irresponsible neighbor, especially the latter’s nuclear weapons program. 

The PRC nevertheless remains reluctant to cooperate with Washington unless the United States reduces the perceived threat to North Korea.  The United States should express its willingness to negotiate with the North, and even create a low-key diplomatic presence, such as a small consular office. As I point out in National Interest:  “Whatever the North’s response, the U.S. would gain a useful window into a mysterious political system and provide the Kim regime with something to lose for bad behavior.”

Budget Snapshot: Average Annual Defense Spending by Administration

In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry lamented the effects of the Budget Control Act’s spending caps: “the plummeting readiness levels, the long lines of equipment in disrepair, the jets that aren’t flying, and the soldiers who aren’t practicing at the rifle range.” These are problems, to be sure. The bigger problem is a general trend that has the Pentagon spending more, and getting less.

Consider the chart below, prepared by my colleague Travis Evans. Following World War II, the United States did what it had always done at a wars’ end: it demobilized. The result was a sharp and sudden decline in both military manpower and funding. From 1948 to 1950, Pentagon spending averaged $187 billion per year (all figures in 2015 dollars). Demobilization was short-lived, however. As the British and French empires retrenched and the Soviet Union expanded, the United States assumed the role of communist counterweight. Then North Korea invaded South Korea, and all hell broke loose. The primary beneficiary of the strategic shift was the Pentagon, whose budget increased by 156 percent in just one year, from $198 billion in 1950 to $508 in 1951. Large defense budgets became the norm, with spending even after the Korean armistice well above the pre-war levels.

All told, Pentagon spending averaged $458 billion per year throughout the Cold War (1948-1990). That figure includes funding for wars in Korea and Vietnam, as well as for the 1980’s arms buildup. Pentagon spending decreased steadily following the fall of the Berlin Wall, only to ramp back up as the United States embarked on the current round of post-9/11 wars. Defense budgets under Bush the younger averaged $601 billion per year, while his successor has presided over annual budgets averaging $687 billion between 2009 and 2014. Indeed, President Obama, who was elected during an economic crisis, will leave office having approved more military spending than any presidential administration in the nuclear era. Not too bad for a president who is often accused of trying to gut the military.

Listen to China to Confront North Korea

One of Washington’s greatest policy failures is North Korea.  Apparently, Pyongyang’s most recent provocation was hacking Sony Pictures in retaliation for the movie ‘The Interview.’  More fundamentally, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains determined to create a sizeable nuclear arsenal.

Successive administrations have sought China’s aid to restrain the DPRK, but have failed to listen to Beijing while lobbying Chinese officials for their support.  If Washington hopes to win support from the People’s Republic of China, American policymakers must respond to the PRC’s concerns.

Understandably distrustful of Pyongyang, the United States has insisted upon de-nuclearization before delivering substantial aid to the North.  However, when approached by Washington for assistance, China has responded by blaming America for creating a sense of insecurity which encouraged the DPRK to develop nuclear weapons. 

In 2013, Wang Jiaru, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department, met with several China specialists in Beijing.  I asked him about North Korea.  He criticized the United States and South Korea for contributing to increased tensions through such policies as regular military exercises.  He contended that while “the United States believes talks should start after the North abandons nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons should be abandoned through talks.”  He explained, “If the United States does not act, it cannot rely on China to solve the problem.” 

In Beijing’s view, the DPRK will not yield its nukes so long as it feels insecure.  Of course, Pyongyang might not do so in any case.  But it almost certainly is true that the Kim regime will not give up what looks like the ultimate security guarantee if it believes its future is at risk. 

Japan’s Defense Budget Is Still Inadequate

The Japanese government and Western news outlets are highlighting Tokyo’s commitment to increase its military spending for the third straight year.  Pundits and policy experts see the boost as a response to the spike in bilateral tensions with China—especially the bitter dispute concerning sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.  But as with similar moves by the Baltic republics and Washington’s other NATO allies that reflect worries about Russia’s recent behavior, there is more symbolism than substance in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision. 

Japan’s defense budget for the fiscal year beginning in April will be 4.98 trillion yen ($42 billion). The increase is quite modest—up from 4.84 trillion yen in the current year. Moreover, even the larger sum is less than half of China’s official military budget and less than one-third of what the Pentagon and most independent experts believe is Beijing’s actual level of spending. Although Japan’s “Self Defense Forces” already can deploy a significant amount of modern weaponry, such a large disparity in spending is cause for concern. 

That is especially true since Abe’s government has adopted an increasingly assertive posture toward China on a range of issues. In one sense, U.S. officials have reason to be gratified by that move and Tokyo’s greater overall interest in East Asia’s security. Japan finally seems to be taking steps to become a normal great power regarding military matters instead of clinging to pacifism and relying on the United States to protect important Japanese interests. Abe’s efforts to “reinterpret” Article Nine of the country’s constitution, which officially places draconian restraints on the military, also reflect the shift in thinking.

The Danger of Analogies

Last week I wrote a piece for the Orange County Register, talking about the dangers of describing the current U.S. conflict with Russia as a new Cold War. In it, I highlighted the problems that arise when policymakers use historical analogies as a cheat sheet to understand today’s foreign policy crises.

Drawing analogies to past crises is a natural human reaction, and one which is widespread among foreign policy decision makers. As I noted:

Political science research demonstrates that leaders often rationalize their decisions by making analogies to prior crises. Policymakers also frequently use historical analogies to justify their choices.

Such analogies range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The prize for most ridiculous, at least recently, goes to those who described the North Korea/Sony hacking scandal as a potential “cyber Pearl Harbor.” But there were also a variety of serious analogies which dominated the news last year.

The idea that the United States and Russia are now engaged in a new Cold War has been mooted by media and by politicians. Yet current tensions with Russia over Ukraine differ in key ways from the cold war: Russia and Europe are far more economically linked than during the cold war, and disagreement centers primarily on the issue of NATO expansion, rather than on ideological grounds. By describing tensions with Russia as a new cold war, policymakers interpret all facets of the U.S.-Russian relationship in a conflictual way, preventing cooperation on other policy issues like Syria.

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