Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Trump’s Rise: Who’s to Blame?

The Republican foreign policy establishment is up in arms over Donald Trump’s ascendancy. The prospect that “The Donald” could become The Commander in Chief is simply too much for many of them to stomach.

Take, for example, this “Open Letter on Donald Trump From GOP National Security Leaders” signed by almost 80 members of the Republican foreign policy elite. They warn that a Trump presidency would be dangerous to America’s safety, civil liberties, and international reputation.

I share their concern. But when people ask who is at fault for America’s tragic turn inward, if Trump wins a major party nomination – or, worse, the election – the very GOP foreign policy elite that is now denouncing him should get the lion’s share of the blame for his rise.

We should begin by understanding the people who comprise today’s GOP foreign policy elite, and what motivates them. This is not Dwight Eisenhower’s GOP, or even George H.W. Bush’s. Their bias toward interventionism is not grounded in traditional conservative precepts of order and fiscal discipline. When forced, they will call for higher taxes to fund more military spending. And they are openly disdainful of whatever small government instincts the modern conservative movement draws from libertarianism. 

So no one should be surprised when some neoconservatives speak openly of choosing Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump as many are now doing. If they do ultimately pull the lever for Clinton, they will merely be reaffirming their core beliefs.

After all, some of the older neocons cut their teeth writing policy briefs for the hawkish Democrat Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson. The earlier generation’s intellectual descendants fastened themselves firmly to the GOP, which they saw as the most convenient vehicle for implementing their foreign policy views. But that doesn’t mean that the association was either automatic or permanent.

Closing America’s Security Deficit

The RAND Corporation has published the second report in its “Strategic Rethink” series, this one entitled “America’s Security Deficit: Addressing the Imbalance between Strategy and Resources in a Turbulent World.” It is a noble undertaking, conducted by well-respected scholars and analysts. But I’m not particularly optimistic that conditions are ripe for the strategic rethink that they seek, and that the country desperately needs.

The strategy-resources gap should be corrected by adopting a new strategy, one that pares down the United States’ permanent overseas presence, and compels other countries to take on more responsibilities for their own defense (as Japan shows signs of doing). Instead, U.S. policymakers seem willing to undertake merely incremental changes at the margins, retaining U.S. primacy, and trying to cover the strategy-resources gap with wishful thinking and unrealistic assumptions.

RAND’s summary of the report explains “currently projected levels of defense spending are insufficient to meet the demands of an ambitious national security strategy.” And its Key Finding reads as follows:

Limitations on defense spending in the context of emerging threats are creating a “security deficit.”

  • Fielding military capabilities sufficient, in conjunction with those of our allies and partners, to deal with the disparate challenges faced by the United States will require substantial and sustained investments in a wide range of programs and initiatives well beyond what would be feasible under the terms of the Budget Control Act.

Advocates for higher military spending have been saying this since the BCA was first passed. Those who also claim to care about the nation’s persistent fiscal imbalance typically note that the Pentagon’s budget is not the primary driver of the nation’s debt, and they would focus, first, on so-called mandatory spending (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) which accounts for a far higher share of total federal expenditures, in order to find the additional money needed to close the security gap.

They are correct on the first point, the need to reform entitlements, but not on the need for more military spending.

The Politics of Gitmo

Arguing that “It’s been clear that the detention center at Guantanamo Bay does not advance our national security,” and that “It undermines our standing in the world,” President Obama has at last presented a plan to close Gitmo. The plan Obama outlined today was already well-known in most of its particulars. After transferring the 35 detainees already eligible and quickly reviewing the threat posed by the rest, the United States would then seek to move the remaining detainees to American prisons and military bases. 

The arguments for closing Gitmo are powerful. As Obama himself has long argued, the facility has provided terrorists with a potent recruiting narrative. The tortured policy of labeling the prisoners non-combatants in order to circumvent Geneva Convention prohibitions on torture and the need for due process violated both the Constitution and American ideals of justice. As Obama noted today, “Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values. It undermines our standing in the world. It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law.” Closing the facility will not only deprive terrorist organizations of recruiting material it will also save the United States a good deal of money.

Unfortunately, the reality is that Obama’s plan is unlikely to go anywhere fast. In 2010 Congress passed a ban on bringing detainees to domestic prisons and there is little support among Congressional Republicans for lifting the ban. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan responded by arguing that “It is against the law – and it will stay against the law – to transfer terrorist detainees to American soil.” Obama might seek to close Guantanamo through an executive order, but the legality of that approach is highly dubious, and even the White House acknowledges that it is unclear whether that would be a politically viable route. Representative Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan)  summarized the sentiment among Republicans in Congress: “Submitting a plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay is yet another sign that President Obama is more focused on his legacy than the will of the American people. Republicans and Democrats are united on this issue: bringing the inmates housed at Guantanamo Bay to the United States is a nonstarter.”

The immediate beneficiaries of Obama’s plan won’t be the detainees; it will be the leading Republican candidates, all of whom oppose the plan. Last December Donald Trump criticized Obama’s plan to close Gitmo, saying “I would leave it just the way it is, and I would probably fill it up with more people that are looking to kill us.” At a recent town hall in South Carolina Ted Cruz argued that “The people in Guantanamo at this point, it’s down to the worst of the worst. A really alarming percentage of the people released from Guantanamo return immediately to waging Jihad, return immediately to going back trying to murder Americans.” And during the GOP debate in January that followed word that the administration was preparing a plan for closing Gitmo, Marco Rubio seized the moment to propose how he would deal with Islamic State supporters:  “The most powerful intelligence agency in the world is going to tell us where they are; the most powerful military in the world is going to destroy them; and if we capture any of them alive, they are getting a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we are going to find out everything they know.”

If Britain Leaves, the EU Will Implode

The European Union faces so many different crises that it has been–until now–impossible to predict the precise catalyst for its likely demise. The obvious candidates for destroying the EU include the looming refugee crisis, the tottering banking structure that is resistant to both bail-outs and bail-ins, the public distrust of the political establishment, and the nearly immobilized EU institutions.

But the most immediate crisis that could spell the EU’s doom is Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure to wrest from Brussels concessions that he needs in order to placate the increasingly euro-skeptic British public. Prime Minster Cameron has failed because the EU cannot grant the necessary concessions. There are three special reasons, as well as one underlying reality, that have made Cameron’s task impossible.

First, a profound reform of the EU-British relationship, which Cameron initially promised, was always impossible, because it required a “treaty change” in each of the twenty-eight EU member-states. That could not happen without approval either by parliamentary votes or, as this is especially difficult, a national referendum that Brussels dreads. There is simply no appetite in Europe to run such risks just to appease the UK.

Let South Korean Develop Nuclear Weapons?

Four decades ago South Korea’s President Park Chung-hee, father of the current president, launched a quest for nuclear weapons. Washington, the South’s military protector, applied substantial pressure to kill the program.

Today it looks like Park might have been right.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continues its relentless quest for nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. The South is attempting to find an effective response.

Although the DPRK is unlikely to attack since it would lose a full-scale war, the Republic of Korea remains uncomfortably dependent on America. And Washington’s commitment to the populous and prosperous ROK likely will decline as America’s finances worsen and challenges elsewhere multiply.

In response, there is talk of reviving the South’s nuclear option. Won Yoo-cheol, parliamentary floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, told the National Assembly: “We cannot borrow an umbrella from a neighbor every time it rains. We need to have a raincoat and wear it ourselves.”

Obama’s Trip to Cuba

At the start of the year there was a lot of speculation on whether President Obama would crown his historic rapprochement with Cuba with an equally historic visit to the island. The guesswork is over with today’s announcement of his trip next month.

Many things have changed in the last year in the relationship between the United States and Cuba: diplomatic ties have been restored, the leaders of both countries have met twice, dozens of commercial flights per day have been authorized, hundreds of thousands of Americans are travelling to the once-forbidden island, and many economic sanctions have been lifted.

And yet there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: the repressive nature of Cuba’s Communist dictatorship. If anything, things might be getting worse. The Miami Herald’s columnist Andrés Oppenheimer recently reported that the number of self-employed workers in Cuba has actually dropped in the last six months. Arbitrary detentions of peaceful opposition activists are on the rise. Economic reforms are still too timid. If there is a lot of enthusiasm about Cuba lately, it has to do more with what Washington is doing than what Havana is actually delivering.

This is not to say that Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba has failed: Washington’s previous policy of isolating the island was utterly counterproductive. But we should not kid ourselves about an imminent change of the nature of the Castro regime.

Ted Cruz’s Defense Spending Plan: Lots of Debt, Not Much Strategy

Ted Cruz says the defense plan he unveiled Tuesday in South Carolina would give the U.S. military “more tooth, less tail.” Actually Cruz’s plan would produce more of everything, especially debt.

Cruz says that as President he’ll spend 4.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense for two years, and 4 percent thereafter. As the chart below shows, under standard growth predictions, Cruz’s plan produces a massive increase in military spending: about $1.2 trillion over what would be Cruz’s first term and $2.6 trillion over eight years. Details on the chart are at the end of this post.

The chart also shows how much Cruz’s plan exceeds the Budget Control Act’s caps on defense spending, which remain in force through 2021. Spending bills exceeding those caps trigger sequestration: across-the-board cuts that keep spending at the cap. So Cruz’s plan depends on Congress repealing the law. Experience suggests that Congress will instead trade on dodgy future savings to raise caps by twenty or thirty billion a year—about a tenth of what Cruz needs.

Cruz is relatively clear on the tooth—force structure—he hopes to buy. He’d grow the Army’s end strength to 1.4 million, with at least 525,000 in the active force. Those numbers are scheduled to fall to 980,000 and 450,000 in 2018. Cruz would “reverse the cuts to the manpower of the Marines,” which presumably means going from the current 182,000 active to the 202,000 peak size reached in 2011 for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Navy would grow from 287 to at least 350 ships, and the Air Force would add 1,000 aircraft to reach 6,000. The plan would also modernize each leg of the nuclear triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. It asserts that the triad is “on the verge of slipping away,” ignoring current plans to modernize each leg, needlessly.