Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

(Not News) Obama Opposed to Sending U.S. Troops Back into Iraq

It is good to know that President Obama is opposed to sending U.S. troops into Iraq, though hardly surprising. (I was shocked to hear a reporter ask the president after his remarks if he was reluctant to do so. How could he not be?)

As Chuck Todd noted today on MSNBC, and here, 59 percent of Americans believe that the war in Iraq was not worth it. Does anyone seriously believe that a well-crafted Obama sales pitch could convince a majority of Americans to change their minds? I don’t.

Among the many maddening aspects of this story—and there are many—I’m most frustrated by the claim that the United States should have left a residual force in Iraq after 2011. There are actually three problems with this claim. First, it is NOT a partisan issue. Bush attempted to negotiate a deal that would have left forces in Iraq, and failed. Obama tried, and failed. The claim that one or the other failed because he didn’t try hard enough is just foolish. A sufficient number of Iraqis didn’t want U.S. troops to stay there (albeit for different reasons) that the failure to achieve a status of forces agreement (SOFA) can hardly be blamed on either Bush or Obama for a lack of effort.

So what these people are really saying is that we should have left U.S. troops in Iraq without a SOFA, in the face of Iraqi opposition. We are told that the troops left behind wouldn’t be engaged in combat, so they really wouldn’t have been in danger. That is what Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said on MSNBC just after the president’s statement. I think this ignores that the U.S. presence was a source of violent resistance in the first place, so it is hard to see how U.S. troops wouldn’t have been subject to at least the risk of regular attacks.

Besides, SOFAs do not protect U.S. troops  from security threats, but rather from the vagaries of foreign justice systems. So it is easy to see how a peaceful, non-threatening, U.S. military operation–e.g., a roadblock searching for bad guys–can turn south in a hurry. Maybe a husband and wife fail to stop at the roadblock, and they are shot. Maybe they are killed. Without a SOFA that extends standard legal protections to U.S. servicemen, the troops manning that roadblock would be subject to Iraqi justice, forced to stand accused of murder before Iraqi judges. Is that really what Senator McCain and others want? We don’t leave U.S. forces in foreign countries without a SOFA for a reason.

Lastly, the claim that a residual force would have convinced Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to govern better/more inclusively, and that a residual force today might do the same (although McCain allowed today that Maliki might simply need to be replaced; by whom he did not say) ignores that a far larger force, including some of the largest concentrations of U.S. troops in 2008 and 2009, did NOT convince Maliki to cut deals with his political opponents and stab his political supporters in the back. So why would anyone think that a smaller force would have succeeded, or would succeed now?

The breakup of Iraq that many predicted before the war may now be happening. Maybe the country will be partitioned—an idea that previously was ridiculed. Maybe the Iraqi military will turn things around and crush the insurgency. I don’t know whether any of these things will happen. But I will go out on a limb and predict that the U.S. military won’t be sorting out these things. And for that, we should all be grateful. 

Department of Homeland Bureaucracy

The programs, regulations, and laws that define most federal activities are so numerous and complex that it strangles effective governance. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is no exception. During the Hurricane Katrina disaster, DHS officials were in a fog of confusion, overwhelmed by events and all the complicated emergency rules and procedures.

A key marker of excess bureaucracy is the generous use of acronyms. In government, acronyms are used to identify the building blocks of bureaucracies, such as agencies, committees, programs, job titles, procedures, rules, and systems.

Recently, I’ve looked at aid-to-state programs run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is part of DHS. Acronyms abound at FEMA. To get a sense of the bureaucracy, I looked for acronyms in this 84-page Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for one of FEMA’s many aid programs.

Below is a list of all the bureaucratic structures that were capitalized and had acronyms in this document for one program. Actually, I left out some common acronyms that many people already know, including OMB, FBI, CDC, CBP, EIN, DOT, EMS, IED, FTE, MSA, DOL, GIS, FCC, TDD, and NIST. So the list below mainly includes specialized acronyms that workers in this policy area would need to know. Many of the acronyms refer to government structures that have their own lengthy documents full of acronyms.

H.L. Mencken said “The true bureaucrat is a man of really remarkable talents. He writes a kind of English that is unknown elsewhere in the world, and he has an almost infinite capacity for forming complicated and unworkable rules.”

DHS must be full of “true bureaucrats” because by the time I read to the end of this document, I had counted 113 acronyms. That is an impressive achievement in True Bureaucratic Excellence (TBE).

Deterring China Isn’t Hard

My op-ed today in China US Focus gives five reasons why the United States and its Asian allies will deter Chinese military aggression for the foreseeable future. The argument responds to commentators who worry that U.S. military spending cuts or passivity elsewhere have damaged our credibility to defend Asian allies and thus encouraged China to use its growing military for conquest.

The bulk of the article concerns the particulars of U.S. military superiority in Asia, and why recent Pentagon cuts don’t much lessen it. One conclusion is that deterring war is easier than you generally hear.

Washington’s foreign policy elites have a narcissistic take on deterrence; they see it teetering with every foreign policy decision that troubles them. But East Asia’s stability remains robust—insensitive to the annual fights in Congress—because war remains a losing prospect for all major powers.

This is a good place to put that conclusion in historical context. Technology and economics have shifted the cost-benefit calculus of conquest, making it generally counterproductive. That is an explanation for the steep decline in interstate warfare. Cold War nuclear history, as I discussed in a recent co-authored report, supports that point. The balance of terror—mutual deterrence—between the United States and the Soviet Union was not delicate. Arms control agreements and shifting nuclear weapons plans barely affected stability. As John Mueller argues, conventional deterrence, reinforced by the memory of the world wars, was instrumental in keeping the peace. Nuclear weapons were largely overkill.

So the pundits now bellowing about the credibility lost because of crossed red lines or Crimea are using a theory of deterrence that lacks historical basis. Deterrence is especially robust in Asia, where water or mountains separate most major rivals, aiding defense of the status quo. Even a total withdrawal of U.S. forces and defense commitments from East Asia wouldn’t create a dangerous imbalance of power there.

Sadly, withdrawal faces high political hurtles today. For now, probably the best we can hope for is that all the beltway consternation about eroding credibility will accidently reduce free-riding. As I put it in the op-ed:

If allies take U.S. commentary about insufficient pivots and failed red lines too seriously, they may worry enough to pay more for their own defense and give U.S. taxpayers a break. Letting them sweat a bit is in the U.S. interest.

For more on these themes, come see Barry Posen discuss his book on U.S. military strategy next week at Cato.

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.