Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

U.S. Actions Alienate China and Foster Chinese-Russian Cooperation

Two countries that have the capacity to cause serious headaches for the United States are Russia and China.  Yet Washington is committing a cardinal sin in foreign policy: getting on bad terms simultaneously with those two major powers.  As I discuss in a recent article at China-U.S. Focus, that approach is especially unfortunate because Beijing has boundary disputes and an array of historical grievances against Russia.  In addition, China is now uneasy about the precedents being set by the Kremlin’s support of secessionists in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.  Those concerns and would normally cause Chinese officials to be wary about close cooperation with Russia.  But because Washington’s own relations with China have become frosty, the Obama administration may be forfeiting an opportunity to keep Moscow and Beijing from developing a common policy directed against the United States.

Two high-priority Chinese foreign policy objectives are now in conflict.  Beijing does not want to encourage the increasing popularity of secession in the international system.  The breakup of the Soviet Union, the violent fragmentation of Yugoslavia, the emergence of South Sudan, and the increasing likelihood of an independent Kurdistan arising from the wreckage of Iraq and Syria, all confirm a powerful trend.  Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008 (supporting the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and now in Ukraine have given that trend a major boost, much to Beijing’s dismay.  Chinese leaders fret about separatist sentiments in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as Taiwan’s continuing de facto independence.  From Beijing’s perspective, Moscow’s embrace of secessionist movements in neighboring states is most unhelpfu

However, the Chinese government is reluctant to join the West’s campaign of coercion against Moscow.  Not only is Russia an important partner of China’s in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the two countries have significant mutual economic and security interests throughout Central Asia and the Middle East.  The multi-billion dollar energy deal that the two governments recently signed underscores yet another aspect of the growing bilateral ties.

When Liberty Knocked Down the Berlin Wall

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the future of liberty.  Yet sometimes freedom advances with extraordinary speed.  Like 25 years ago in Europe.

As 1989 dawned communism had ruled what was the Russian Empire reborn for seven decades.  The system failed to fulfill its promise of human liberation, but survived with the backing of secret police, gulags, and the Red Army.

Then in an instant it all was swept away.  On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was open.  One of the most dramatic symbols of human tyranny was gone. 

Tens of thousands of East Germans were imprisoned for “Republikflucht,” or attempting to flee the East German paradise.  Some 1000 people died trying to escape East Germany, about 200 from Berlin.

As 1989 dawned there was obvious unrest in what Ronald Reagan had called the Evil Empire.  Hope was rising, but no one could forget that previous popular demands for freedom always had been crushed by Soviet tanks. 

In 1989 Hungary led the way.  Plans were made for multiparty elections.  The Communist Party dissolved.  When the new leadership tore down Hungary’s wall with the West the Iron Curtain had a huge hole.

Poland’s communist regime made a deal with a revived Solidarity Union and held free elections.  The liberal tide rose in Czechoslovakia, sweeping away the hardline leadership installed to squelch the Prague Spring of 1968.

The East German regime remained tough.  Frustrated East Germans began escaping through Hungary, with its open border. 

Protests spread, causing the communist leadership to temporize.  On November 4 a million people gathered in East Berlin. 

On November 9 visibly struggling Politburo member Guenter Schabowski declared that East Germans would be free to travel to the West “immediately.”  Border guards desperately sought guidance as tens of thousands of people gathered demanding to be let through. Just before midnight the security forces stood aside. 

The GOP vs. The BCA

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the costs of the Pentagon’s current plans will total nearly $3.8 trillion over the next seven years, $308 billion more than is permitted by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).

That $3.8 trillion represents the Pentagon’s base budget, not the entirety of federal spending on national security. It does not include, for example, nuclear weapons spending in the Department of Energy; nor the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs; nor overseas operations in Afghanistan, and the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But I digress.

If spending exceeds the BCA caps, CBO observes, the Pentagon will be forced to “make sharp additional cuts to the size of its forces, curtail the development and purchase of weapons, reduce the extent of its operations and training, or implement some combination of those three actions.”

A more likely scenario, however, is that the new Republican-controlled Congress will adjust or eliminate the BCA spending caps. According to The Daily Beast, Sen. John McCain’s “first order of business as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee will be to end the budget rule known as sequestration, which requires the U.S. military to cut its budget across the board.”

If McCain succeeds, military spending advocates can be expected to push through dramatic increases in the Pentagon’s budget. Indeed, if House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan’s FY15 budget is any indication, the Pentagon would receive over the next seven years nearly $100 billion more than it has requested.

How would Republicans pay for such increases? Many would prefer to find the money by cutting non-defense discretionary spending, or by reforming entitlement programs. But it’s difficult to envision Democrats agreeing to such proposals, especially if the Pentagon is the primary beneficiary. Others, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, are open to the idea of raising tax revenue by closing loopholes and eliminating deductions. But most Republicans remain allergic to tax increases, and they are likely to confront a bipartisan coalition of outside groups that has adamantly opposed past efforts to circumvent the BCA in order to fund higher Pentagon budgets. The easiest path is, as usual, debt. Thus, expect another Ryan-Murray style “cave-in” that puts additional Pentagon spending on the country’s credit card.

Despite all that talk during the mid-term election campaigns of President Obama’s reckless deficits, Washington’s willingness to spend the people’s money – including money the people don’t yet have – is a bipartisan affliction.

The only hope, it seems, is to stick to the current spending caps, imperfect though they may be. The BCA caps are not the wisest way to curb military spending, but they are all we have.  

Congress Should Tell President Barack Obama No to War against the Islamic State

President Barack Obama finally is obeying the law. He wants Congress to authorize military action against the Islamic State. 

Congress should respond as it was prepared to do when the president requested permission last year to bomb Syria: Capitol Hill should say no.

Candidate Barack Obama stated: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”  But three years ago, President Obama took America into war against Libya.  Three months ago, he initiated hostilities in Iraq against the Islamic State. Both without a congressional vote.

Most recently, administration officials claimed authority under the Authorization for Use of Military Force against al-Qaeda adopted in the aftermath of September 11.  But the Islamic State is not al-Qaeda and ISIL’s leaders did not help organize the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon. 

The president obviously changed his mind after his party was defeated in the off-year elections.  At least he now is following the Constitution. 

The Founders gave most military powers to Congress: raising and funding the military, writing the rules of war, issuing letters of marquee, and ratifying treaties. Moreover, Article I, Section 8 (11) states: “Congress shall have the power … to declare war.” 

The early Americans feared a president and war like today.  The Founders particularly opposed a system which subjected the nation’s peace to the whims of one man, accountable to no one.

Every Middle East Mistake Causes the United States to Intervene Again

Washington again is at war in the Middle East. Unfortunately, pressure for military intervention will grow with Republican control of the Senate.

The likely result of any new conflicts will be similar to America’s past interventions. The United States will be intervening again in a few years to try to clean up the mess it is creating today.

The United States is not bombing the Islamic State out of necessity. Rather, Washington is acting in response to past mistakes. ISIL exists only because the Bush administration invaded Iraq.

The Obama administration’s decision to attack the Islamic State makes no policy sense. So far, ISIL has focused on creating a quasi-government in the Middle East and has not targeted America.

Of course, the Islamic State killed two U.S. citizens who fell into its hands in truly monstrous behavior. But these murders are no different than similar barbarities committed by others around the globe. Such personal tragedies are no reason to go to war.

If successful in creating a viable “caliphate,” ISIL’s leaders might turn towards terrorism, but doing so would risk their quasi-state by bringing America’s wrath down upon it. Moreover, Iraq demonstrated the foolishness of launching preventive wars based on fantasies disguised as forecasts. The United States is more likely to turn the Islamic State to terrorism now by making war on it, encouraging it to retaliate.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Washington’s policy is absolving nearby states of their responsibility to destroy ISIL. These countries will not act if the United States bails them out.

Afghanistan as Narco-State: End The International Drug War

The U.S. government has failed to stop the drug trade at home. Washington also has not created a competent, effective, and honest central government in Afghanistan. How effective will Kabul be in limiting opium production when American troops go home?

Not much.

A new report from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports that opium production last year was the highest ever, 209,000 hectares, up 36 percent from 2012.

Alas, the sky is the limit. SIGAR warned:  “With deteriorating security in many parts of rural Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivation are likely in 2014.”

Last year the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that opium exports accounted for 14 percent of the country’s GDP. Unfortunately, explained SIGAR:  “the narcotics trade poisons the Afghan financial sector and undermines the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption, sustaining criminal networks, and providing significant financial support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups.”

The Afghan public is understandably cynical. When I visited the country Afghans called large homes behind high walls lining Kabul streets “poppy palaces.” 

Drug production exploded despite $7.6 billion spent by Washington alone to stop cultivation and distribution. Noted SIGAR, “the recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts.”

The State Department’s response to SIGAR was a marvel of delusion. Production “is only one indicator of counternarcotics progress.”  And “we are making good progress in building the capability of our Afghan partners,” even as cultivation surges.

This is the best case for years of expensive efforts? Even UNODC admitted that the Afghan State is beset by “fragmentation, conflict, patronage, corruption and impunity.” The Pentagon stated that “the failure to reduce poppy cultivation and increase eradication is due to the lack of Afghan government support for the effort.” 

Nevertheless, State said it looked “forward to the new Afghan government assuming a leadership role in this regard.”

Eradication was difficult enough when backed by a strong allied military presence. Wrote Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, early programs were “manipulated by local Afghan strongmen to eliminate drug competition and ethnic/tribal rivals.”

Moreover, the eradication campaign, turned poppy farmers into Taliban supporters.  Eradication efforts also inflated Taliban revenues. As economist Jeffrey Clemens pointed out, the counter-narcotics campaign both redirected opium production to Taliban-controlled areas and raised poppy prices.

Operating on their own, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police will be hard-pressed to fulfill their most important responsibility to sustain the Kabul government against the Taliban. Drug interdiction inevitably will be a secondary objective for security forces which already suffer from corruption.

But no strategy likely would succeed even in the best circumstances. As noted earlier, attempting to suppress drugs could lose the geopolitical war without winning the fight against poppies. Even with greater development few legal opportunities would be better than poppy production.

Another approach is to reduce demand for drugs in Western societies to discourage production in Afghanistan. However, only the most draconian enforcement has much effect on drug use.

The West must set priorities in Afghanistan. Attempting to eradicate poppy production is almost guaranteed to lose the battle for hearts and minds.

Instead, allied policymakers should consider strategies to drain money and profit from the drug trade. Western governments should scale back the drug war.

Afghanistan could be allowed to produce opium for the legal morphine market. Ultimately the entire market should be legalized or at least decriminalized for adults.

Indeed, frustration with years of militarized eradication efforts, some in the midst of insurgencies akin to that in Afghanistan, has caused several Latin American governments to deemphasize enforcement.

As I noted in Forbes online:  “Afghanistan is merely one front in a global drug war. There are no good solutions. But Afghanistan and its Western-backers should recognize reality and abandon the futile and counterproductive campaign against the opium trade.”

The Neocon Moment: Showing Why Foreign Intervention Fails

With President Barack Obama further tarnishing his Nobel Peace Prize by starting yet another Middle Eastern war, exuberant Neoconservatives claim their moment has arrived. And it has: Neocon claims that war-mongering and nation-building serve America’s interests have become obviously ever more absurd.

In 2001 President George W. Bush initiated what was supposed to be The Neocon Moment, projecting a swaggering global presence in which the U.S. would bomb, invade, occupy, and otherwise intervene whenever and for whatever reason it chose. As I wrote for Forbes online:  “Autocrats would flee, candies would be tossed, enemies would be defeated, flowers would bloom, allies would comply, cakewalks would be held, democrats would flourish, and the lion would lie down with the lamb.”

Alas, administration policy wrecked Iraq. Although President Bush never repudiated what he’d done, he appeared to lose his taste for war.

Candidate Obama ran against the Bush presidency, but little changed U.S. foreign policy. No one could mistake the latter as a peacenik libertarian.

Except, apparently, for the Neocons. They now proclaim The Neocon Moment. Explained Matthew Continetti, “monsters [have been] brought forth by American retreat,” and “the threat of those monsters requires unilateral deadly force wherever necessary to kill our enemies and deter our foes.”

Retreat?

In fact, “The Neocon Moment” is distinguished by its failure. As evidence of the need for a return to swaggering interventionism Continetti offers a parade of horrors either created by Washington or well beyond its control.

There’s the Islamic State, which exists only because of the misguided Bush invasion of Iraq. There’s Ukraine, a testament to what happens when one encourages one’s allies to be helpless dependents while facing an adversary with a far greater interest in the outcome of any confrontation.

There are al-Qaeda affiliates in several countries, which arose in response to promiscuous U.S. meddling abroad and persisted in the midst of multiple wars. There’s Iran, in which Islamists overthrew a U.S.-supported dictator who took power in a U.S.-supported coup. There’s the Taliban, which survived more than a dozen years of Washington’s efforts at nation-building.

Neocons have no answer to any of these. They imagine a world of immaculate intervention, in which foreigners welcome being killed and never strike back. Alas, the more Washington attempts to micro-manage the globe, the more likely it is to be attacked.

Neocons also imagine a world in which America automatically deters and only America deters. No one would dare challenge Washington if the president exercised “leadership.”

In fact, countries with the most at stake will risk and spend more than their adversaries, as the U.S. demonstrated during the Cold War in Latin America. Does the U.S. have anything at stake in Ukraine and the Senkakus which warrants the risk of war? The answer is no.

One doesn’t have to look far to see the wreckage left by today’s interventionist consensus. Washington has attempted to fix the Middle East and Central Asia for decades. The result? War, instability, autocracy, brutality, collapse. U.S. officials consistently have demonstrated the reverse Midas touch.

The Balkans has turned out little better, with nationalist divisions still evident two decades after Washington imposed an artificial political settlement. Europe represents the globe’s greatest aggregation of economic power, but is not inclined to defend itself, preferring instead to rely on the U.S.

Only now is Japan finally emerging from hiding behind the “peace constitution” to consider a more active military role. South Korea continues to subsidize the North even as U.S. troops guarantee the former’s security.

It’s true: Americans are not living in the Libertarian Moment. Rather, we are living in The Neocon Moment, a testament to the foolishness and arrogance of those who believe themselves to be engineers of peoples, societies, and nations. Only when the American people insist that politicians make peace, not war, will The Libertarian Moment finally arrive.