Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

White House Helicopter Fleet

Did you know that the White House has a fleet of 19 helicopters? The Washington Post today discusses efforts to replace this fleet of aging Sikorsky’s with 21 new vehicles yet to be procured. The fleet is used by the president, vice president, and cabinet secretaries.

The size of the helicopter fleet seems excessive. For one thing, I understand that cabinet secretaries have become mere minions to presidential aides, so I’m surprised that they would generally need access to such high-cost transportation.

The Post story focuses on the $3.2 billion flushed down the drain the last time the White House tried to replace its helicopter fleet:

The last time the Pentagon tried to upgrade the president’s coolest ride — the fleet of helicopters that drop him at his doorstep on the South Lawn of the White House — it didn’t go well. Costs doubled. Delays sparked ridicule, then outrage. And President Obama, then just a few weeks in office, said it was “an example of the procurement process gone amok” before defense officials killed the program outright.

It was an embarrassing debacle that cost $3.2 billion and produced no usable helicopter, turning an iconic symbol of presidential power into an illustration of government waste and incompetence … 

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, replacing the helicopters — which fly under the call sign “Marine One” when the president is aboard — became a priority for the Pentagon. In 2005, a team led by Lockheed Martin won the contract, beating out Sikorsky, which built the helicopters currently used in the Marine One program.

But soon it became a case study in how not to build a helicopter, analysts say. The design became so overloaded with new requirements — to be able to hover longer and at high altitudes, travel great distances without refueling, and defend against missile attacks — it essentially became an impossible task. “Too many people had a seat at the table,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Fairfax-based Teal Group …

Central Africa’s Spreading Religious War

Although the Middle East is most known for religious conflict, sectarian violence is spreading ominously across Africa.  The only good news is that so far the conflicts appear to be national rather than regional. 

Sudan long has suffered from a complicated religious-ethnic conflict.  In Mali France was drawn into a religious-infused civil war.  Nigeria is a divided nation where long-standing sectarian antagonisms increasingly have been amplified by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. 

Thankfully, fighting in the first two has ebbed.  Nigeria’s battle remains intense, but contained within its national boundaries.

As I warn in the New York Times:  “However, rising violence within the Central African Republic (CAR) threatens to swamp the other conflicts in regional impact.  Attacks on Christians following a takeover by the rebel Islamic Seleka coalition triggered retaliation by Christian militias.  Not only is the violence creating a host of angry victims, but the outward flow of refugees is planting seeds of conflict in surrounding nations.”

Of course, addressing even largely distinct national conflicts is not easy, as we have seen in Sudan and Nigeria.  Unfortunately, religion is one force capable of transcending normal political and ethnic differences.  The exodus from CAR creates an increased possibility of cooperation among various militants acting as friends if not quite allies. 

All of CAR’s neighbors share an interest in ending the sectarian killing.  Not just for humanitarian reasons, but also as a matter of basic self-interest.

Washington Should Focus on Protecting Americans, Not Reassuring Allies

The United States is busy in the world, but no function seems more important than acting as the world’s universal comforter, constantly “reassuring” friends and allies no matter the location.

For instance, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the administration undertook what Secretary of State John Kerry termed “concrete steps to reassure our NATO allies.”  The Military Times reported that Washington dispatched aircraft “to reassure NATO partners that border Russia.”

The process continues.  The Wall Street Journal entitled an article “U.S. Tries to Help Ukraine, Reassure Allies Without Riling Russia.”  Gen. Philip Breedlove said the transatlantic alliance would maintain new security measures throughout the year “to assure our allies of our complete commitment.” 

Beijing’s assertiveness has resulted in another gaggle of friendly states clamoring for reassurance.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Asia in early April; the Washington Post reported that he sought “to reassure allies in Asia amid questions about U.S. commitment.”  The president headed to Asia in mid-April, explained Voice of America, “in a bid to reassure allies in the region.” 

As I point out in my new Forbes online column:  “Washington’s obligation always is to give.  The U.S. not only is supposed to guarantee the security of assorted friends and allies.  It also must constantly reassure them.  Americans must not only be prepared to die for anyone and everyone who wants protection, but Americans must always and in every way demonstrate that willingness.”

It’s a bizarre policy.  First, the overriding responsibility of Washington officials is to safeguard America—its people, territory, constitutional liberties, and prosperity.  The Department of Defense is not a charity created to protect the world, subsidize the improvident, calm the nervous, or save the indifferent.

Second, America’s broader foreign policies should be directed at advancing the interests of Americans.  The national government is the agent of those who fund, staff, and support it, the American people.  Their welfare is primary.  Washington should look after their interests, not those of some imaginary “international community” that exists only in the minds of social engineers who desire to escape even minimal national restraints.

Moreover, the tendency of political organizations to live out Lord Acton’s famous warning that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” requires the U.S. government to build limits into its own institutions and especially those beyond its borders.

The notion that America has an obligation to constantly “reassure” others is particularly pernicious when applied to the military.  Washington’s principal obligation is to protect the American people, not those who desire to be defended by the world’s greatest military power.

There are occasions when it is in America’s interest to aid other states, but only rarely.  Today Washington collects allies like most people accumulate Facebook friends.

Unfortunately, almost all U.S. allies expect to be defended by America rather than to help defend America.  Some contribute small troop contingents to Washington’s unnecessary wars elsewhere, such as in Iraq, but that is not worth promising to face down nuclear-armed Russia on their behalf.

One of the worst consequences of America’s defense guarantees is discouraging prosperous and populous states from defending themselves.  Europe has eight times Russia’s GDP—why is it relying on America at all? 

Similarly, why is Japan, a wealthy state which until recently had the world’s second largest economy, expecting Washington’s help to assert control over contested islands?  Why does South Korea, with 40 times the GDP of North Korea, presume the U.S. will forever maintain military forces in the peninsula?

Now Washington is sending Cabinet secretaries and military forces hither and yon to “reassure” these same nations that it will continue to subsidize their defense.  Why should governments in Asia and Europe inconvenience their peoples when Washington is willing to burden Americans to pay for everyone’s defense?

It is time for Washington to start reassuring Americans.

Making an International Deal: Iran Should Stop Persecuting Religious Minorities

Nuclear negotiations with Iran continue in Vienna.  Skeptics remain many:  everything depends on whether the ruling elite, and not just President Hassan Rouhani, is serious about reform.  Iran should demonstrate its commitment by respecting religious liberty.

The most celebrated case of persecution today is Saeed Abedini, an American citizen born in Iran and sentenced to eight years in prison last year for “undermining national security” by the Iranian government.

A Muslim convert to Christianity, his “crime” in Tehran’s view apparently was aiding house churches.  He went to Iran in 2012 to set up an orphanage, with the government’s approval.  Since then he was abused and tortured while held at two of Iran’s worst prisons. 

Unfortunately, Abedini represents far broader religious repression.  The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has routinely labeled Tehran as a Country as Particular Concern.  The Commission’s 2013 report concluded:  “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.” 

Tehran’s brutal persecution has been getting worse.  The State Department reported that violations of religious liberty increased again 2012, as Tehran increasingly was “charging religious and ethnic minorities with moharebeh (enmity against God), ‘anti-Islamic propaganda,’ or vague national security crimes for their religious activities.” 

Currently the regime appears to be most concerned about conversions.  Christians traditionally were minorities, especially Armenians and Assyrians, who speak a different language.  However, HRWF reported that charges against those arrested last year included “conversion from Islam to Christianity, encouraging the conversion to Christianity of other Muslims, and propaganda against the regime by promoting Christianity as missionaries.” 

Iran is a theocratic state whose laws are to be based on “Islamic criteria.”  The constitution formally accords “full respect” to Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, who are allowed to worship “within the limits of the law.”  Proselytizing and converting are barred, however.  Moreover, according to the State Department, Jews are “regularly vilified” and the government “regularly arrests members of the Zoroastrian and Christian communities for practicing their religion.” 

Worse is the treatment of other groups, such as Baha’is and other Muslims, including Sufis, Sunnis, and non-conformist Shia.  All are considered to some degree to be apostates.  Explained State, “The government prohibits Baha’is from teaching and practicing their faith and subjects them to many forms of discrimination not faced by members of other religions groups.”  Sunnis face double jeopardy since many are ethnic minorities, such as Arabs and Kurds. 

Government hostility encourages private discrimination as well.  Said State:  “The government’s campaign against non-Shias created an atmosphere of impunity allowing other elements of society to harass religious minorities.” 

The U.S. government has little direct leverage, having already targeted Tehran with economic sanctions over its presumed nuclear ambitions.  However, Washington (and the Europeans) could indicate to Iran that a deal is more likely if it quiets Western skeptics.

In fact, public pressure works.  The UN’s Ahmed Shaheed reported last year that “At least a dozen lives were saved because of the intervention of international opinion.”  Encouraging Tehran to respect the freedom of conscience of its citizens might even more effectively come from the most fervent advocates of engagement, who are resisting proposals for new Western sanctions. 

As I conclude my latest article in American Spectator online:  “Tehran should release Rev. Abedini, pardon imprisoned Baha’is, allow Sufis and Sunnis to worship, and more.  ‘The international community is watching,’ observed Dwight Bashir, deputy director of USCIRF.  Iran should act accordingly.”

Washington’s Inconsistent Stance on Territorial Integrity

U.S. officials scarcely miss any opportunity to denounce Russia for severing Crimea from Ukraine and then annexing the peninsula. Yet Washington’s own track record regarding respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries is inconsistent, to say the least. Critics have noted that the position the United States and its NATO allies adopted toward the issue of Kosovo is at sharp variance with the current denunciation of Moscow’s conduct in Crimea. Not only did NATO launch an air war against Serbia to detach one of its provinces in 1999, but it proceeded to encourage and defend Kosovo’s subsequent unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 from what had become a fully democratic Serbia. 

The insistence of U.S. officials that the Kosovo situation was unique and, therefore, did not set any precedent, barely passed the laugh test. Russia explicitly cited Western policy in Kosovo for its own actions in Georgia, detaching two of that country’s secessionist-minded territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, later in 2008. More recent efforts by staunch critics of Russia’s amputation of Crimea to argue that Western actions in Kosovo were entirely different are scarcely more credible than Washington’s original justifications. The reality is that the Kosovo, Georgia, and Crimea episodes were all acts of aggression.

Cyprus is another case that undermines Washington’s professed reverence for the territorial integrity of nations. NATO ally Turkey invaded the island in 1974 and proceeded to occupy the northern 37 percent of Cypriot territory. At the very least, the U.S. government looked the other way while its ally committed a blatant act of territorial theft. And a provocative new book, Kissinger and Cyprus: A Study in Lawlessness, by former Nixon Administration official Eugene Rossides, makes a solid case that the administration aided and abetted Ankara’s aggression. 

Ideas Have Consequences: The Neoconservatives

The New York Times has produced a useful video about the “super-predator” scare from the 1990s.  At that time, we were already waging a drug war, so we were advised to build more prisons–and so we did.  Then regrets.

You can watch the video here.

As it happens, we are also finding more scrutiny of neoconservative ideas at the movies. A new documentary film directed by Errol Morris looks at former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq war.  Here is the film trailer:

For related Cato work, go here, here, and here.

Don’t Push China and Russia Together

One of the more notable results of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea is how unenthusiastic the Chinese government has been about that development. In a piece at China-U.S. Focus, I describe Beijing’s reaction as one of “nervous ambivalence.”

Moscow’s policy regarding Crimea sets extremely dangerous precedents from China’s standpoint. Amputating the province of a neighboring state through military occupation and a subsequent referendum to give the “secession” a façade of legitimacy, triggered multiple alarm bells in Beijing. Russia’s Crimea annexation violated China’s repeatedly stated position emphasizing respect for the territorial integrity of all states as a key principle of international behavior. Beijing’s emphasis on that principle is hardly surprising, given its own territorial issues involving Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. The last thing Chinese leaders want to encourage is a precedent whereby one or more of those entities might seek secession with the assistance of a hostile foreign power or combination of powers.

Unfortunately, U.S. officials are apparently oblivious to opportunities to exploit China’s nervousness. Instead, Washington seems determined to adopt measures that are likely to push Beijing and Moscow together. Obama administration officials have thrown diplomatic temper tantrums because Beijing has joined Moscow in resisting U.S.-led efforts to unseat Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and impose increasingly harsh economic sanctions on Iran. On one occasion, Susan Rice denounced Chinese and Russian vetoes of a UN resolution on Syria, proclaiming that her country was “disgusted.” She added that those actions were “shameful” and “unforgivable.”