Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Afghanistan: Obama’s War

Last week, when President Obama made his trip to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, he claimed that “America’s war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.” This turned out to be the greatest applause line of his speech. With his assertion, Obama, in effect, declared himself the hero of the Afghan war – the one who put an end to that nightmare. But what Obama failed to mention was that it was his war, and that nothing but unattractive scenarios lie ahead for that war-torn state. Indeed, Afghanistan might just continue to hold down its ranking as the most violent country in the Global Peace Index.

This gloomy prognosis would not have surprised Thomas Jefferson. Yes, Jefferson’s words point to a fundamental truth, “Governments constantly choose between telling lies and fighting wars, with the end result always being the same. One will always lead to the other.”

Graciana del Castillo, one of the world’s leading experts on failed states, has just written a most edifying book on the Afghan war (Guilty Party: The International Community in Afghanistan. Xlibris, 2014). Del Castillo’s book allows us to finally understand just what a fiasco the Afghan war has been.

Why is Afghanistan, as Bob Woodward correctly termed it, Obama’s war? Del Castillo’s sharp pencil work shows that during the period 2002-2013, $650 billion have been appropriated for the Afghan war effort, and a whopping $487.5 billion of that (or 75%) took place after President Obama took office (see accompanying chart).

If one pulls apart that $650 billion price tag, a variety of interesting sleights-of-hand emerge. For example, about $70 billion was disbursed to what is euphemistically termed reconstruction. But, in reality, 60% of this $70 billion (or $42 billion) was actually spent on beefing up the Afghan National Security Forces. And not surprisingly, 75% of the $42 billion spent on national security forces was spent under President Obama’s watchful eye.

To put these outsized numbers into perspective, just consider that the total cost of the Afghan war from 2002-2013 amounts to $7089 per American taxpayer (based on the number of income tax returns). More revealing is the fact that the annual expenditure rate under the Bush administration was already $222 per taxpayer. Then, it exploded to an annual expenditure rate of $1329 per taxpayer under President Obama.

In addition to laying out the phenomenal spending magnitudes on President Obama’s watch, del Castillo demonstrates just how unsustainable all this Afghan spending is. For example, in 2013, the United States financed over $5 billion of the $6.5 billion needed to field the Afghan National Security Forces. This $5 billion of U.S. financing was roughly 10 times more than the Afghan government actually spent from its own revenue sources. In fact, the U.S. funding of Afghan forces was almost three times the total revenue collected by the Afghan government.

To put Afghanistan’s financing gap into perspective, the Afghan government estimates the total fiscal deficiency that they will face over the next decade would amount to a whopping $120 billion. Considering that a July 2013 Washington Post/ABC poll showed that only 28% of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has been worth the cost, it is unlikely that the U.S. would even contemplate continuing to finance the house of cards it has built at anything close to these estimates.

And if this isn’t bad enough, consider that the countryside has been forgotten and neglected during the war years. It is here where 75-80% of the population resides, and produces its livelihood. The rural population has done what is only natural – farm a cash crop. And, the most attractive cash crop in Afghanistan is poppies. Not surprisingly, the poppy plantations have greatly expanded, from 75 thousand hectares in 2002 (near the start of the war), to over 210 thousand in 2013, surpassing the previous peak of 190 thousand hectares in 2007. Just another small example of the collateral damage associated with war and misguided economic policies in Afghanistan.

Obama’s Reassurances to Europeans Should Dishearten Americans

President Obama is in Poland today, a visit that coincides with the 25th anniversary of that country’s liberation from communism. His four-day European tour will include a D-Day remembrance, meetings with G-7 leaders, and a possible encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin in France, all while the crisis in Ukraine rages on.

Moments after stepping off Air Force One in Warsaw, with F-16s as a backdrop, the president sought to reassure our European allies, stating that America’s commitment to their security was “a cornerstone of our own security and it is sacrosanct.” He detailed the increased support America has provided, including a larger presence in the region, and later announced that he would ask Congress to fund a “European reassurance initiative” to the tune of $1 billion.

This is exactly the wrong approach. American taxpayers have been subsidizing the defense of European allies for too long. And they have reacted as one would expect—by spending less.

In fact, only three NATO countries – Estonia, Greece, and the United Kingdom – spent the NATO-mandated 2 percent of GDP on their defense in 2013, and even those three barely met the threshold. That is compared to the United States, which spent 3.7 percent of its GDP on defense, a figure that excludes national security spending in the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.

As this chart prepared by my colleague Travis Evans shows, U.S. spending has risen and fallen over the past 13 years, but spending by NATO countries has consistently declined. And Americans still spend more than in 2002, both as a share of GDP, and in real, inflation-adjusted dollars.

US and NATO

In his speech last week at West Point, President Obama correctly called on U.S. allies to spend more on their own defense. He had done the same thing in March. Bob Gates made headlines in one of his last speeches as Secretary of Defense when he scolded NATO allies for their inadequate defense spending. Such exhortations have consistently failed, and I predicted last week that the president’s latest approach to getting the allies to share more of the burdens would also fail.

I elaborated on why yesterday at War on the Rocks:

Our allies are unlikely to pick up the slack unless the United States pulls back on its promises to defend others from harm, and reshapes its military accordingly.

This has been clear since at least the mid-1960s, when Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser first articulated an economic theory of alliances. Because there is a general tendency for smaller nations to free ride on the security assurances of larger ones, Olson and Zeckhauser predicted that “American attempts to persuade her allies to bear larger shares of the common burden are apt to do nothing more than breed division and resentment.”

MIT’s Barry Posen states the bottom line succinctly in his new book, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy. America’s allies, Posen writes:

Make their defense decisions in the face of extravagant United States promises to defend them. They will not do more unless the United States credibly commits to doing less.

Conversely, Obama’s pledges of more U.S. troops and more U.S. money will discourage the Europeans from doing more. Indeed, the president’s actions in Poland belie his burden-sharing rhetoric at home, and should be deeply disheartening to the people who elected him. Americans want genuine burden sharing, but they are likely to get only the phony kind favored in Washington.

Washington Should Stop Reassuring the Dependent Europeans

The president flew to Europe.  He planned to “soothe European friends,” declared the New York Times.  He aimed “to stress U.S. commitment” to the continent, said the Washington Post.

That’s certainly what the Europeans want to hear.  But they want “something concrete” rather than just “empty words,” explained Bohdan Szklarski of the University of Warsaw.  For most Europeans, especially in the east, that means the U.S. putting more boots on the ground.  Opined Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reinforcement of the eastern border is required, “and potentially we’ll have to reinforce it for a very long time.”

Why?

The Baltic States are screaming for enhanced military protection.  Yet Estonia devotes just two percent of its GDP to defense.  Latvia spends .9 percent of its GDP on the military.  Lithuania commits .8 percent of its GDP on defense.

Poland may be the country most insistent about the necessity of American troops on along its border with Russia.  To its credit, Poland has been increasing military outlays, but it still falls short of NATO’s two percent objective.  Warsaw spent 1.8 percent last year. 

Washington Backs Egypt’s New Dictator

As expected, the presidential election in Egypt confirmed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the country’s new leader.  It was not exactly the model of a free and fair election.  Not only had el-Sisi, as the leader of the coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi, been Egypt’s de facto ruler for months, but his military colleagues (and their weaponry) were firmly behind his presidential candidacy.  Security forces had killed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members, Morsi’s political base, and jailed thousands of others, including Morsi himself.  Subservient Egyptian judicial tribunals imposed death sentences on more than eight hundred regime opponents, following trials that did not meet even the most meager standards of due process, in just the past two months. 

Western observers, including a Cato colleague, noted the pervasive censorship in the weeks leading up to the election.  Government-run media outlets maintained a steady barrage of images vilifying Morsi and hailing el-Sisi as the savior of the nation.  The images in the so-called private outlets (the ones that the junta had not shut down) provided images and editorial commentary nearly indistinguishable from the official government publications.

Under such circumstances, the outcome was as predictable as the Crimean “referendum” that ratified Russia’s takeover.  El-Sisi won with nearly 93 percent of the vote.  The only flaw in this orchestrated farce was a low voter turnout, the one permissible way to protest Egypt’s slide back into dictatorship.  But while the Obama administration repeatedly and harshly criticized the electoral charade in Crimea, U.S. officials portrayed the Egyptian election as progress toward democracy.  There was a time when U.S. leaders routinely castigated bogus elections in communist countries that produced wildly lopsided majorities for the incumbent regime.  No such criticism was forthcoming in this case, just as Washington didn’t denounce the earlier balloting for the new Egyptian constitution that produced a 98 percent favorable vote. 

Chief Justice Roberts Again Rewrites Law, Avoids Duty to Hold Government’s Feet to the Constitutional Fire

In today’s ruling in Bond v. United States, the Supreme Court was obviously right to reverse as federal overreaching the conviction of a woman who used certain chemicals to attack her husband’s paramour. This was a “purely local crime,” and the decision to prosecute Carol Anne Bond for it under a law that implements the international Chemical Weapons Convention was an abuse of federal power.

But in deciding the case so narrowly, creatively reinterpreting an expansive federal statute instead of reaching the constitutional issue at the heart of this bizarre case, the Court’s majority abdicated its duty to check the other branches of government. Bond was a case about the scope of the treaty power—can Congress do something pursuant to a treaty that it can’t otherwise do?—and yet the majority opinion avoided that discussion altogether in the name of a faux judicial minimalism. That’s not surprising given that its author is Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to avoid hard calls whenever possible. (Sometimes the practical result is still the right one, as here, sometimes it’s disastrously not, as in NFIB v. Sebelius, the Obamacare case, and sometimes even Roberts finds it impossible to avoid the Court’s constitutional duty, as in Citizens United and Shelby County.)

It was thus left to Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito (in part), to do the hard work—to make those balls-and-strikes calls that Roberts promised at his confirmation hearing—and repudiate Missouri v. Holland, the 1920 case that’s been understood to mean that the federal government can indeed expand its own power by agreeing to do so with a foreign treaty partner. (Scalia’s opinion tracks Cato’s amicus brief closely, and cites my colleague Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s groundbreaking work in this area.)

One other takeaway here is that the Obama administration has yet again lost unanimously at the Supreme Court, adding to its record number of goose eggs—particularly in cases involving preposterous assertions of federal power. Here Chief Justice Roberts provides the apt langiappe: “The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or to treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon.”

Veterans Need Choice in Choosing Health Care

Medical care for veterans has become Washington’s latest scandal du jour.  Those injured while serving their country deserve prompt, quality medical attention. 

Everyone agrees that forcing veterans to wait, and possibly die waiting, for medical care is outrageous.  But what to do?

Caring for veterans isn’t cheap.  Promiscuous war-making over the last decade has generated an influx of patients, many with debilitating injuries. This year VA is expected to spend roughly $151 billion. 

The government has a solemn duty to care for those injured in war.  Yet VA estimated that it has a case-processing backlog of 344,000.  On average it takes vets 160 days to become eligible for benefits. 

After being declared eligible vets had to wait an average of 115 days for a primary care appointment at the VA’s Phoenix facility.  As many as 40 vets may have died waiting.

The IG found such practices to be “systemic.”  In numerous communities VA employees apparently manipulated data and falsified reports to hide patient deaths as well as delays. 

However, the more basic problem is rationing care to meet budget targets.  The agency is short hundreds of primary care physicians.  The pharmaceutical formulary has roughly one-third of the drugs available to Medicare patients.  Available psychiatric services have declined in recent years.

Unfortunately, better management alone cannot fix the agency’s problems.  In 1994 former Rep. Robert E. Bauman wrote:  “the VA is the quintessential government bureaucracy—administratively officious, laden with red tape and meddlesome regulatory minutia destructive of both quality care and staff conduct.”  Quality obviously suffered. 

The Clinton administration put Kenneth Kizer in charge of the department and he made dramatic improvements.  But his success didn’t last.  After leaving Kizer complained that “The culture of the VA has become rather toxic, intolerant of dissenting view and contradictory opinions.  They have lost their commitment to transparency.”

Even today the VA doesn’t do everything badly.  But access is fundamental. 

Complained Hal Scherz, a doctor who served in VA hospitals in San Antonio and San Diego:  “patients were seen in clinics that were understaffed and overscheduled.  Appointments for X-rays and other tests had to be scheduled months in advance, and longer for surgery.” 

Veterans’ organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars traditionally backed a specialized system for vets.  However, many veterans’ health problems are not unusual.  Indeed, the longest waits today are for primary care.  Moreover, there is no reason that only VA facilities can serve patients suffering from combat trauma. 

The federal government should separate the functions of guaranteeing from providing vet access to health care.  As I pointed out in my column on Forbes online:  “Uncle Sam has a sacred obligation to ensure that they receive treatment on their return.  That does not, however, mean the VA must build the hospitals, hire the doctors, and provide the services.”

Government should put money into veterans’ hands to purchase insurance tailored to their special needs.  Existing VA facilities could either be privatized or focused on combat-related ailments common to vets. 

This would be no jump into the unknown.  Specific services are outsourced locally when they are unavailable at a VA facility.  Moreover, only 16 percent of vets rely on the system as their principle caregiver. 

Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam vet, argued:  “Let’s let our veterans choose the health care that they need and want the most and not have to be bound to just going to the VA.”  House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller suggested that the VA at least allow vets who have to wait for more than 30 days to go outside for care at government expense.

Business as usual is not an acceptable response to the latest VA scandal.  We should transform how the government cares for those who performed the toughest service of all.

Our Freeloading Allies

One of the overlooked aspects of President Obama’s speech at West Point yesterday was his call for other countries to step forward, and do more to defend themselves and their interests. He also expected them to contribute “their fair share” in places like Syria.

It might have been overlooked because it was neither new, nor unexpected. Polls consistently show that Americans believe we use our military too frequently, and they are tired of bearing the costs of policing the planet. Meanwhile, the minority who believe that we should be spending more on the military  – 28 percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll – might not feel that same way if they knew how much we spend as compared to the rest of the world, especially our wealthy allies.

This new Cato infographic, prepared with the able assistance of my colleague Travis Evans, might help to put it all in perspective. In addition to showing how much American taxpayers spend, it also shows, indirectly at least, how that spending discourages other countries from spending more to defend themselves.