Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Engage North Korea as Pyongyang Advances Along the Nuclear Path

North Korea continues along the nuclear path. A new report warns that Pyongyang could amass a nuclear arsenal as large as 100 weapons by 2020. That would make the North a significant regional power.

Washington has no realistic strategy to deal with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Some policymakers have advocated offensive military action, but that likely would trigger a war which would devastate South Korea.

The Obama administration’s chief policy has been to reaffirm Washington’s defensive alliance with the South. Some 28,500 U.S. troops are on station, backed by conventional and nuclear forces elsewhere.

However, this only encourages the North’s nuclear development. The DPRK sees nukes as protection against the allies’ overwhelming military strength, prestige for an otherwise geopolitical nullity, potent tool of extortion, and domestic reward for the military.

Some analysts look to more economic sanctions to stop a North Korea bomb. But neither China nor Russia is likely to approve new UN penalties. Additional U.S. sanctions alone aren’t likely to cause the North to surrender a program deemed essential to the regime’s international standing and domestic stability.

There also is the increasingly forlorn hope for negotiation. However, voluntary disarmament seems especially unlikely given the critical political role played by the military in Pyongyang.

Some policymakers look to Chinese pressure on the North as a panacea. But the People’s Republic of China is not inclined to take steps which might violently collapse the North Korean state.

Nigerians Elect Former Dictator to Save Democracy

Nigerians have elected a new president, the first time an opposition candidate defeated an incumbent since the restoration of democracy in 1999. Muhammad Buhari, a 72-year-old former dictator and perennial presidential candidate, will take over on May 29.

Nigeria enjoys the continent’s largest GDP but trails several African nations in per capita GDP. Although possessing extensive energy resources, the nation suffers from regular power outages.

Nigerians are entrepreneurial but nearly a quarter of them are unemployed. An intrusive, exploitative state blocks economic development and steals wealth. According to the latest Economic Freedom of the World Nigeria has one of the world’s least open economies, coming in at 125 of the 152 countries rated. This discourages foreign investment in what should be the continent’s best market.

Corruption raises the cost of business and rewards economic manipulation. Last year an expatriate worker told me:  “Nigeria is not a country. It is an opportunity.”

Nigerian politics is anything but clean. Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party ruled for 16 years, using patronage and other tools of incumbency to maintain power.

Nigeria better protects political rights and civil liberties than many African states. However, the State Department pointed to a number of human rights challenges, including “vigilante killings; prolonged pretrial detention; denial of fair public trail; executive influence on the judiciary; infringements on citizens’ privacy rights; restrictions on the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, and movement.”

Insecurity is pervasive. When I visited last year my group sported a well-armed escort. The oil-rich Niger Delta is especially dangerous; executives admit to paying bribes to discourage attacks.

Worse, sectarianism divides the nation. At times violence flares.

In recent years the murderous Boko Haram extended its reach across Nigeria. The group received a blaze of publicity last year after kidnapping hundreds of school girls. Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 Nigerians and displaced 1.5 million people in Nigeria and neighboring countries.

The Nigerian military is underfunded and ill-trained, distrusted by civilian politicians. Worse, government abuses generate support for Boko Haram.

Understandably, Nigerians desperately wanted change. But in what direction?

As dictator, Buhari lasted only 20 months before being unseated by another general. The Economist observed: “He detained thousands of opponents, silenced the press, banned political meetings and had people executed for crimes that were not capital offenses when they were committed.”

Buhari says he now recognizes democracy to be the better option. He has a reputation for probity and being a Muslim may better position him to combat Boko Haram.

However, energizing the economy may prove more difficult. Candidate Buhari promised much. While there are some free market advocates in Buhari’s coalition, more around him are not and he is thought to be an “unreconstructed statist,” according to the Financial Times. This is a prescription for economic failure.

His previous record is cause for pessimism. Noted the Economist: “He expelled 700,000 immigrants under the illusion that this would create jobs for Nigerians. His economic policies, which included the fixing of prices and bans on ‘unnecessary’ imports, were both crass and ineffective.” Nigeria cannot afford a repeat performance.

Still, in at least one important respect the election was good news. Despite some technical problems, the election went surprisingly well. Jenai Cox of Freedom House called the vote “one of the smoothest and least violent in Nigeria’s history.”

Equally important was President Jonathan’s unconditional acceptance of the results. He declared:  “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word.” And he did.

As I point out in Forbes online, “Nigeria’s success suggests that the country has developed a lusher civil society and stronger commitment to the rule of law than often thought. Moreover, this experience offers hope for other African nations struggling with democracy.”

Nigeria is a tragedy. Not so much because of the bad events which have occurred, which are many, but for its many lost opportunities and great unused potential. The future of Nigeria now rests in Muhammad Buhari’s hands.

Ukraine: The World’s Second-Highest Inflation

Venezuela has the dubious honor of registering the world’s highest inflation rate. According to my estimate, the annual implied inflation rate in Venezuela is 252%.

The only other country in which this rate is in triple digits is Ukraine, where the inflation rate is 111%. The only encouraging thing to say about Ukraine’s shocking figure is that it’s an improvement over my February 24th estimate of 272%—an estimate that attracted considerable attention because Matt O’Brien of the Washington Post understood my calculations and reported on them in the Post’s “Wonk blog.”

As a bailout has started to take shape in Ukraine, the dreadful inflation picture has “improved.” Since February 24th, the hryvnia has strengthened on the black market from 33.78 per U.S. dollar to 26.1 per U.S. dollar. That’s almost a 30% appreciation (see the accompanying chart). 

Restoring the Old-Fashioned Budget Virtue of … FDR and Truman?!?

This is a column I never expected to write. That’s because I’m going to applaud Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

This won’t be unconstrained applause, to be sure. Roosevelt, after all, pursued awful policies that lengthened and deepened the economic misery of the 1930s. And, as you can see from this video, the “economic bill of rights” that he wanted after WWII was downright malicious.

Truman, meanwhile, was a less consequential figure, but it’s worth noting that he wanted a restoration of the New Deal after WWII, which almost certainly would have hindered and perhaps even sabotaged the recovery.

But just as very few policymakers are completely good, it’s also true that very few policymakers are totally bad. And a review of fiscal history reveals that FDR and Truman both deserve credit for restraining domestic spending during wartime.

In a new column I wrote for The Hill, I specifically responded to the cranky notion, pursued by Bernie Sanders, the openly socialist U.S. senator from Vermont, that there should be tax hikes on the rich to finance military operations overseas.

The idea has a certain perverse appeal to libertarians. We don’t like nation-building and we don’t like punitive tax policy, so perhaps mixing them together would encourage Republicans to think twice (or thrice) before trying to remake the world.

But “perverse appeal” isn’t the same as “good policy.”

Confused about the Middle East? So Is the United States

Since the Arab Spring, many Middle Eastern countries have fallen into political chaos like dominoes. This week’s explosion of conflict in Yemen is just the most recent example. Though many of these conflicts are based on local grievances, they are being exacerbated by the involvement of the region’s larger states, and by the United States.

America’s leaders denounce intervention by unfriendly states like Iran. Yet the United States ignores or even enables such actions by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. In doing so, America is simply contributing to the mess in the Middle East. Washington should back off and refuse to get more deeply involved in further Middle Eastern conflicts.

Yemen’s conflict is nothing new; the Houthi rebels have been active in Yemen for more than a decade, and captured the capital in January, forcing President Hadi to flee south. This week, as the rebels finally reached the southern city of Aden, Hadi fled, and apparently appealed to Saudi Arabia for help in combatting the Iranian-backed insurgency.

Yesterday evening, that help arrived in the form of a massive Saudi air campaign and a reported 150,000 troops. The Saudi efforts are supported by a number of other GCC and Arab states, as well as U.S. logistical and intelligence support.

But like everything in the Middle East today, this conflict isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The Houthis are indeed aligned with Iran, and probably receive monetary support. But they also represent a sizeable fraction of the Yemeni population, and many of their policies – such as opposition to U.S. drone strikes in Yemen – are widely popular. Even more confusing, the Houthis are also adamantly opposed to Al Qaeda, and have spent substantial time and resources fighting AQAP fighters inside Yemen.

This conflict fits with a broader pattern of post-Arab Spring clashes in the Middle East, conflicts which are complex and local in nature, but which are treated as simply proxy wars or sectarian conflicts. The fear that Iran might make gains in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya and elsewhere drives Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to respond militarily, increasing tensions and conflict.

The U.S. response to this complex reality has been to reflexively back traditional U.S. allies. But in doing so, American policy has become confused, contradictory and overleveraged. We’re working towards similar goals as Iran inside Iraq, opposing them in Syria and Yemen, all while trying to reach a nuclear deal before the March 31st deadline. How this mess of policy contradictions is supposed to produce viable results is anybody’s guess.

Yemen has a long history of instability, and any military solution to the crisis will likely fail to produce a long-term solution; it will just paper over the problem. It’s not even clear whether the reinstallation of the Hadi government would be best for U.S. interests: though a Houthi government is unlikely to allow U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda, they might prove more effective at fighting the group than the government has.

America should stop reflexively backing traditional U.S. allies in the region, and refrain from deeper involvement in these conflicts. Instead, we should think more clearly about when (and whether) the United States should be involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, and about how such actions fit our overall strategic goals. Because one thing is certain: further U.S. intervention in the Middle East would be an exceedingly bad choice.   

Make the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal: Failure Is Not an Option

Iran has been one of Washington’s chief antagonists for nearly four decades. But a deal to keep Tehran from building nuclear weapons is in sight.

Tehran, though an ugly regime, does not threaten America. The United States is the globe’s greatest military power with the most sophisticated nuclear arsenal and finest conventional force.

Tehran’s leaders are malign actors, but nevertheless have reason to feel insecure. In 1953 Washington helped overthrow the democratically elected prime minister. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama regularly declared military action to be “on the table.”

Israel is concerned over a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, but when asked in 2011 whether Iran would drop a nuke on Israel, former Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded “Not on us and not on any other neighbor.” Israeli Defense Force’s Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz observed: “I think the Iranian leadership is comprised of very rational people.” Who recognize Israel’s overwhelming retaliatory capacity.

Washington’s ally the Shah started the Iranian program. Tehran’s motive, noted former Mossad head and national security adviser Efraim Halevy, “is not the confrontation with Israel, but the desire to restore to Iran the greatness of which it was long deprived.”

The GOP and the Great War Spending Scam

I have an op-ed in The National Interest dealing with the GOP’s intramural squabble over defense spending levels in the House and Senate’s budget resolutions for fiscal year 2016, which have now passed their committees.

I explain there how the Republican chairmen of both committees tried to restrain military spending, but lost out to military hawks in their caucus in a newly pernicious way. The resolutions limit appropriations to the legally mandated cap for non-war “defense” spending. But they stuff $38 billion that the White House wanted for the Pentagon above the cap into the uncapped war (“Overseas Contingency Operations” or OCO) account, taking an established scam to evade caps and making it far larger and more blatant. If these spending levels hold, in 2016 the Pentagon would get a total budget roughly equal to its current one, but a much bigger chunk of it would come via OCO.

Thus far, then, the fight between GOP budget and fiscal hawks has produced a compromise that offers a new sort of militarism amid a pretension of fiscal responsibility. That outcome, I argue, may be worse than giving the administration a deal to raise the cap:

The problem … isn’t just that military spending is too high. It is also that this method of paying creates perverse incentives. If OCO becomes an auxiliary Pentagon fund that exists to escape caps, war becomes the Pentagon’s budgetary salvation. Historically, the elements of the defense establishment benefit from a public sense of insecurity, but not necessarily war. This new set-up could change that.

I say “may” be worse because of a couple uncertainties. One is that hawks upset about this arrangement may have a point. They worry that locating this money in a shrinking war account makes it unlikely to last. I hope not.

Second, the reaction of Democrats is uncertain. Some may work with Republican budget hawks to strip the extra OCO money out on the floor, which has happened before, albeit on a smaller scale. Under current Senate rules, that apparently takes only 50 votes. But those Democrats–like President Obama, Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI), and various other heavies–who want to boost military spending may agree to do so through OCO. Where the leadership comes down, I can’t say.