Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Maybe U.S. Should Defend South Korea by Letting it Develop Nuclear Weapons

U.S. foreign and defense policy long has been brain dead.  ‘Whatever has been must ever be’ seems to be the Pentagon’s mantra.  That’s the typical response to the idea that Washington should bring home its troops and allow South Korea to defend itself.

The Republic of Korea has grown up and surged past the North. The ROK should use its abundant wealth and larger population to close the military gap.  Just as most Americans expect those on welfare to get a job to take care of themselves and their families, the ROK should step up and take care of itself.

There may be good arguments against the proposal. But I have yet to hear them. Instead, what dominates is the tyranny of the status quo. 

Perhaps the best, or at least most interesting, counter is that America must babysit the ROK lest a frightened Seoul go nuclear in response to the DPRK.  In fact, Washington’s conventional forces do nothing to forestall a North Korean nuclear bomb. 

But will the ROK believe in America’s nuclear umbrella without a conventional guarantee?  Washington has risked war on Seoul’s behalf for six decades. If that’s not enough, the problem might be the weak case for Washington to turn other nations’ nuclear wars into America’s nuclear wars. 

If Pyongyang eventually develops a miniaturized nuclear warhead and reasonably accurate ICBM, what risks would Washington take on South Korea’s behalf?  Why should the United States turn a peripheral geopolitical problem into an existential threat?

The Challenges of Being a Superpower

The foreign policy meme is fixed that President Barack Obama is weak and therefore responsible for virtually every global ill.  It’s hard for the denizens of Washington to accept that not everything in the world is about them. 

As I point out in National Interest online:  “People elsewhere have interests and ambitions.  Like the obstreperous British colonists in North America more than two centuries ago, foreigners are willing to defy major powers in order to achieve their ends.”

Government and guerrilla leaders still may worry about what Washington thinks. But they judge American threats based on a perception of U.S. interests more than abstract “credibility.” 

Little would have changed had President Obama launched military strikes in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. No other country would have feared military attack for different reasons.

For instance, what happens in Ukraine matters to Washington, but not enough to confront Russia, which considers the issue an essential matter of security. The United States might be willing to attack another largely helpless Middle Eastern state for peripheral stakes, but it won’t do the same against a nuclear-armed great power.

Unfortunately, top officials routinely put U.S. credibility at stake by issuing proclamations better left to second tier State Department desk officers. In the midst of the African summit, for example, the Obama administration complained that the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, might run for a third term. 

Foreign Policy Solyndra

Washington’s track record over the decades of selecting honest, effective, and democratic political leaders to support in developing countries is as dismal as the government’s attempts to pick economic winners in this country.  We have endured a lengthy series of foreign policy equivalents of the notorious Solyndra scandal.  I discuss that depressing record in a new article over at the American Conservative.  

U.S. officials habitually make one of two blunders.  On some occasions, they back a foreign client who is willing to do Washington’s bidding, even if that person lacks meaningful internal political support from the very beginning.  On other occasions, the chosen client may initially have respectable domestic backing, but soon dissipates that support through pervasive corruption and brutality, often funded by U.S. tax dollars. 

Washington’s diplomatic love affair with Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, was a prime example of the first type of fiasco. U.S. policymakers during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush wildly overestimated Chalabi’s popularity inside Iraq.  When the U.S-led military intervention ousted Saddam Hussein, American officials acted as though the Iraqi people would choose Chalabi as their new leader virtually by acclamation.  The actual extent of his domestic support became apparent in Iraq’s first free parliamentary elections in 2005. Chalabi’s party received a paltry 0.5 percent of the vote and failed to win a single seat.

The enthusiasm for Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines was a typical example of the second type of embarrassment.  Marcos won his first election as president in 1966 in legitimate fashion, but he soon displayed all the usual characteristics of a tinpot dictator. Yet Washington continued to back him diplomatically and financially until his imminent overthrow in a popular revolution could no longer be ignored. More recently, Washington’s enthusiasm for Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki proved equally misplaced over the long term.

Those experiences (and many others) should teach U.S. officials not to fall in love with superficially attractive foreign political clients.  Instead of reflexively backing glib figures who are adept at telling American policymakers what they know those policymakers want to hear, we should approach all foreign players with caution, coldly evaluating how much popularity and staying power they are likely to command. The United States also needs to be far more skeptical about whether backing any particular client serves the best interests of the American republic.   

Japan Moves Closer to Defending Itself like a Normal Country

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun to transform Japan into a normal country. Tokyo plans to take a more active role internationally. Eventually it should take over responsibility for defending itself.

As military occupier after World War II, the United States imposed Article Nine of the Japanese constitution, disarming Tokyo.  But in recent years, Washington has pushed Japan to do more militarily. 

So far, Tokyo simply has revised its interpretation of Article Nine. Japan’s “Self Defense Force” will be allowed to cooperate with other countries in combat. 

Overseas the response was mixed.  Naturally, the United States was pleased. China was unhappy. Other nations, such as Australia, were supportive.

Some critics still worry about Tokyo’s ultimate intentions, as if the Japanese had a double dose of original sin.  But Japan, with a stagnant economy, middling (and declining) population, and pacifist ethos, doesn’t look much like the next global dominatrix.

Instead, Japan’s well-established desire to do nothing has run aground because the world looks ever more dangerous. Moreover, basic economics suggests that Washington will have to reduce its role. As Prime Minister Abe recognized in 2012: “With the U.S. defense budget facing big cuts, a collapse of the military balance of power in Asia could create instability.” 

More Questions than Answers on Iraq

The U.S. bombing campaign being waged against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) raises more questions than it answers. Ben Friedman noted the muddle of U.S. policy here. Among the most vexing questions for me:

- What is the actual end game? Can it be achieved by the means being employed?

The narrow, short-term mission that President Obama laid before the American people on Thursday evening is almost entirely humanitarian: this is about saving the lives of desperate people, including women and children stranded without food and water. But unlike relief operations after hurricanes or earthquakes, where the U.S. military’s efforts face little resistance, the suffering in Iraq today is man-made. ISIS has targeted particular groups for persecution, or worse. The first order of business, therefore, after delivering essential food and water, is to allow these stranded people to escape.

But this will not be an easy task. As Richard Betts explained nearly two decades ago, there is no such thing as an impartial humanitarian intervention. What Obama has actually committed to, then, involves, at a minimum, sufficiently degrading ISIS’s military capabilities, prying open the vice being tightened around these people, and establishing a corridor through which they can flee to an as-yet undetermined safe haven. A long-term solution involves creating an Iraqi state (or more than one?) that can produce and maintain sufficient fighting power of its own.

That final point isn’t new. It has been the object since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, or, arguably, since Hussein’s ouster from Kuwait in 1991, when George H.W. Bush hoped for a new political order in Iraq, but refused to risk large numbers of American lives to achieve it. The end game hasn’t really changed, yet the president failed to explain why our efforts this time will be more successful than at any time in the last quarter century.

- Can the U.S. role remain limited? How?

This is presumably a major concern among the American people, who are staunchly opposed to restarting a war that most think was a mistake. But public opposition to military intervention isn’t limited to Iraq. Recall the outcry when Secretary of State John Kerry proposed an “unbelievably small” military operation in Syria. The public feared then that small wars can easily become big ones. That attitude hasn’t changed in the past year. If anything, the public is even more opposed to missions involving the U.S. military.

Murky Goals in Iraq

The goals that animate the renewed U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq are a muddle. Any rationale for bombing Sunni militants there today suggests a prolonged campaign against them. Any effort we make against Sunni insurgents in Iraq contradicts our pro-insurgency policy in Syria. And while President Obama claims fidelity to the hope of making Iraq a stable multi-ethnic state, by defending Iraq’s Shi’ite regime and Kurdish North against Sunnis, the bombing may hasten Iraq’s dissolution.

The president’s stated goals are clear enough. Last night, he said that the airstrikes have two aims. First, they will protect Americans—several dozen diplomats and military personnel are apparently in Erbil, which is threatened by the recent advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Second, the president said that the strikes will defend civilians from the Yazidi minority. Tens of thousands of them are said to be encircled by ISIS militants. According to the president, U.S. aircraft will both drop supplies to the Yazidi and attack ISIS positions to break the siege.  

The first goal doesn’t require bombing. If we are simply concerned about the well-being of U.S. personnel in Erbil, we would evacuate them. But they are there largely to help Iraqis fight ISIS in the first place. Seemingly, we are after some broader objective. Protecting the Yazidi from starvation and slaughter makes sense. But that objective can easily slide into broader ones.

Russia, Sanctions, and Food

The Russian government announced on August 6 that it will ban imports of most food and agricultural products from Australia, Canada, the European Union, Norway and the United States for one year.  The full extent of the ban, as well as its effects on exporters and Russian consumers, are not yet clear.  It is interesting, though, to contrast this action with an earlier effort to use food sanctions as a diplomatic weapon:  the 1980 embargo of U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union. 

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 with 80,000 troops and 1800 tanks.  President Carter responded by cancelling private contracts to supply 17 million metric tons (MMT) of U.S. wheat and corn to the Soviet Union.  However, he chose to allow shipment of 8 MMT that had been agreed as part of the 1975 U.S.-Soviet Grains Agreement.  Sales in excess of the level assured in the Grains Agreement were embargoed.

Because grains are relatively fungible, and because numerous countries had surpluses available for export, the Soviets were able to replace most of the embargoed grain from willing suppliers.  Argentine agriculture did particularly well during that timeframe.  U.S. agriculture did not do so well.  Market prices had been relatively high, in large part due to strong export demand.  When a considerable portion of that demand evaporated with the stroke of a pen, commodity prices fell precipitously. 

The grain embargo became a potent political issue in the 1980 presidential campaign.  Ronald Reagan’s opposition to the embargo helped to boost his campaign in rural areas.  He took office in January 1981 and revoked the embargo three months later.

In retrospect, the grain embargo generally is seen as supporting the proposition that economic sanctions often inflict greater costs on the country imposing them than on the country at which they are aimed.

The new sanctions are expected to cut off some $15 billion in Russian imports from the EU.  Russia has been Europe’s second largest (behind the United States) export market for foodstuffs, accounting for 10 percent of the EU’s total foreign sales.  The United States has a smaller stake, with only $1.3 billion of food/ag exports to Russia.  That country has been the third largest market for U.S. poultry exports.  About 7 percent of U.S. poultry exports – valued at over $300 million – were shipped to Russia last year, down from 20 percent as recently as 2008.  Russia’s WTO commitments should prevent import restrictions based on political pressures.  Nonetheless, trade in poultry appears to have fluctuated over time in response to the influence of Russia’s domestic poultry producers.  (It’s worth noting that Russia’s import ban does not include either baby food or wine.  It’s not clear how those omissions should be interpreted.)