Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Europeans See Ukraine and Fear Russia? Time for Them to Take over Europe’s Defense

Had the U.S. been so foolish as to bring Ukraine into NATO, Washington would have a treaty responsibility to start World War III.  Today’s game of geopolitical chicken might have a nuclear end.

Still, the West cannot easily ignore Russia’s Crimean takeover.  It was an act of aggression against Kiev, yet a majority of Crimean residents may welcome the move.  Although secessionist sentiment has been largely dormant of late, the Western-supported putsch/street revolution against President Viktor Yanukovich inflamed pro-Russian passions in eastern Ukraine. 

Of course, Moscow intervened for its own ends.  And Putin is wrong, dangerously wrong, to use force.  But how to punish Moscow?  America’s direct stake in the controversy is essentially nil. 

Finding a Way Back From the Brink in Ukraine

Ukrainians won an important political battle by ousting the corrupt Viktor Yanukovich as president.  But replacing Yanukovich with another dubious politico will change little.

Washington also triumphed.  Without doing much—no troops, no money, few words—Americans watched protestors frustrate Russia’s Vladimir Putin. 

But now Russia is attempting to win as well, intervening in Crimea.  Moscow has created a tinderbox ready to burst into flames.  The only certainty is that the U.S. should avoid being drawn into a war with Russia. 

In 2010 Yanukovich triumphed in a poll considered to be fair if not entirely clean.  His corrupt proclivities surprised no one.  However, while tarred as pro-Russian, in accepting Putin’s largesse last November Yanukovich actually refused to sign the Moscow-led Customs Union.

Still, protestors filled Maidan Square in Kiev over Yanukovich’s rejection of a trade agreement with the European Union.  As I point out in my latest Forbes column:  “The issue, in contrast to Kiev’s later brutal treatment of protestors, had nothing to do with democracy, human rights, or even sovereignty.”  As such, it was not America’s business, but up to the Ukrainian people.

And Ukraine is divided.  Broadly speaking, the nation’s west is nationalist and leans European while the east is Russo-friendly. 

Demonstrations quickly turned into a de facto putsch or street revolution.  Yanukovich’s ouster was a gain for Ukraine, but similar street violence could be deployed against better elected leaders in the future.

Moreover, many of those who look east and voted for Yanukovich feel cheated.  There was no fascist coup, but the government they helped elect was violently overthrown.  Some of them, especially in Crimea, prefer to shift their allegiance to Russia.

Kiev should engage disenfranchised Yanukovich backers.  Kiev also should reassure Moscow that Ukraine will not join any anti-Russian bloc, including NATO.  But if Crimeans, in particular, want to return to Russia, they should be able to do so. 

There is no important let alone vital security issue at stake for the U.S. in the specific choices Ukrainians make.  The violent protests against the Yanukovich government demonstrate that Moscow has no hope of dominating the country.  Kiev will be independent and almost certainly will look west economically. 

Russia could still play the new Great Game.  Unfortunately, rather than play Vladimir Putin upended the board by taking effective control of the Crimea. 

Yet Putin tossed aside his trump card, a planned referendum by Crimea’s residents.  A majority secession vote would have allowed him to claim the moral high ground.  However, an election conducted under foreign occupation lacks credibility.

As it stands Russia has committed acts of aggression and war. 

Even in the worst case the U.S. has no cause for military intervention.  Who controls the Crimea ain’t worth a possible nuclear confrontation.

Putin is a nasty guy, but Great Power wannabe Russia is no ideologically-driven superpower Soviet Union.  Moscow perceives its vital interests as securing regional security, not winning global domination.  Yet bringing Ukraine into NATO would have created a formal legal commitment to start World War III.

The allies should develop an out for Russia.  For instance, Moscow withdraws its forces while Kiev schedules independence referendums in Russian-leaning areas. 

If Putin refuses to draw back, Washington and Brussels have little choice but to retaliate.  The allies could impose a range of sanctions, though most steps, other than excluding Russian banks from international finance, wouldn’t have much impact. 

Tougher would be banning investment and trade, though the Europeans are unlikely to stop purchasing natural gas from Moscow.  The other problem is the tougher the response the more likely Russia would harm American interests elsewhere, including in Afghanistan, Iran, and Korea. 

The Ukrainian people deserve a better future.  But that is not within Washington’s power to bestow.  Today the U.S. should concentrate on pulling Russia back from the brink in Ukraine. 

A new cold war is in no one’s interest.  A hot war would be a global catastrophe.

A Few Steps in the Right Direction on Military Spending

Someone has begun leaking elements of the Pentagon’s FY 2015 budget, and the leakers apparently want reporters to focus on proposed cuts in the U.S. Army. The headline in the New York Times warns readers that the Army will shrink to “a pre-World War II level.”The proposal,” explains the Times, “takes into account the fiscal reality of government austerity and the political reality of a president who pledged to end two costly and exhausting land wars. A result, the officials [who leaked to the Times] argue, will be a military capable of defeating any adversary, but too small for protracted foreign occupations.”

“You have to always keep your institution prepared” for the unknown, a senior Pentagon official told the Times, “but you can’t carry a large land-war Defense Department when there is no large land war.” 

Reaction from other Beltway insiders has been predictably apoplectic, but one doubts that the American public are terribly worried about a military that might be slightly less likely to get involved in unnecessary and counterproductive nation-building missions in distant lands. The war in Afghanistan started with strong public support, as it was clearly connected to the events of 9/11. It no longer is, and Americans want out. The salespeople for the war in Iraq tried to connect that escapade to 9/11, but the Iraq war effort also lost public support when that rationale fell away, and the costs mounted into the trillions. 

In this case, at least, the public is smarter than the politicians who supposedly represent them. Americans were unenthusiastic about the Libya caper of 2011, and they effectively blocked efforts to embroil the United States in the Syrian civil war last fall. The Pentagon’s budget might finally be reflecting the reality that the American people actually want President Obama to do what he said he was going to do: focus on nation building at home.

But the news is not all good. The Pentagon apparently still intends to retain 11 aircraft carriers, possibly cutting into modernization of the Navy’s surface combatant ships. As had been reported earlier, the venerable A-10 attack aircraft is going away, but the Pentagon remains committed to the troubled F-35. The early details don’t address the possible modernization of the nuclear triad, which is sure to compete with other Air Force and Navy priorities. If the Pentagon isn’t serious about confronting those tradeoffs, the resulting infighting could get ugly.

And there is a hint of the perennial Washington Monument strategy in the details that have been leaked so far. By proposing to cut some very popular programs, Pentagon budgeteers might hope that they can scare Congress into busting the very modest budget caps currently in place. The White House presumably would accept higher taxes in exchange for a bit more spending. Republicans in Congress want domestic spending cuts to offset additional military spending. And neither side seems inclined to add to the deficit. So it is hard to see how that impasse gets broken. For now, the Pentagon’s budget apparently fits the spending cap of $496 billion negotiated late last year, but additional cuts will be needed if the sequestration provisions of the 2011 Budget Control Act take effect in 2016 and beyond.

As more details dribble out today and into next week, it is important to keep everything in context. True, the Army will be smaller, declining from a post-Iraq high of 566,000 in 2011, to perhaps as few as 440,000 active-duty troops, about 40,000 fewer than the late 1990s average. But the force retains enormous capabilities across a range of contingencies. In the words of the senior Pentagon official, this “very significant-sized Army” is “going to be agile. It will be capable. It will be modern. It will be trained.”

That sounds like the kind of force that Americans want and expect. Given rapidly rising personnel costs, and the great political difficulty of reining them in, the only way to achieve actual savings may be a smaller active-duty force. That is what Ben Friedman and I suggested over three years ago, and with this latest proposal, we might actually be heading in that direction.

It’s Time to Break up the NSA

says security guru Bruce Schneier on CNN.com.

His brief, readable piece articulates the three distinct – and conflicting – missions the NSA now has, and how they should be handled. It’s no hit piece: Schneier calls NSA’s Tailored Access Operations group “the best of the NSA and … exactly what we want it to do.”

The generals who have built NSA into a fiefdom will fight tooth and nail against true reforms like these, of course, but they’re the kind of reforms we need. The most prominent measures under discussion are mere nibbles around the edges of the problem, or worse.

John Kerry’s Bumbling Performance Regarding East Asia

Secretary of State John Kerry seems to be suffering a case of foot-in-mouth disease before and during his current trip to East Asia. We had already learned to be wary of his judgment on substantive foreign policy issues. He was, for example, an enthusiastic proponent of U.S. military intervention in Syria, a move that would have mired the United States in yet another expensive, futile war in the Muslim world. Fortunately, intense congressional opposition and a timely Russian diplomatic initiative spared the Obama administration from its own folly—at least for the time being.

But whatever challenges might exist when handling difficult foreign policy issues, one should be able to expect a secretary of state not to mangle basic facts about key countries and regions. Alas, that expectation is apparently erroneous when it comes to John Kerry. During a press conference in Washington prior to his departure for East Asia, he emphasized Washington’s support for Japan’s position regarding the bitter dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Unfortunately, Kerry’s credibility became somewhat suspect when he initially placed those islands in the South China Sea (the arena of territorial disputes involving China and other neighbors).

Matters got worse when he traveled to South Korea. During a press conference in Seoul, a reporter asked him about the long-standing territorial dispute between Tokyo and Seoul over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands in the Sea of Japan. The audience was astonished when he appeared to signal a major shift in U.S. policy by stating that the U.S.-South Korean mutual defense treaty covered those islands. Such a position would place the United States on the side of South Korea against Washington’s principal ally in East Asia, Japan.

A State Department spokesman had to scramble later to rectify Kerry’s verbal gaffe, insisting that the Secretary apparently had misunderstood the question, believing it had referred to the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. One problem with the revised version of events is that South Korea is not a party to that controversy; as noted above, it’s a feud between Japan and China.

Unfortunately, Kerry’s blunders are indicative of widespread problems in President Obama’s foreign policy team. The president appointed Caroline Kennedy to the crucial post of ambassador to Japan, although her knowledge of Japan (or foreign policy in general, for that matter) is exceedingly meager. Other ambassadorial appointees have embarrassed themselves in Senate confirmation hearings, displaying little or no knowledge of the country to which they would be assigned. In some cases, their principal qualification for the diplomatic post appeared to be their record in raising funds for President Obama’s election campaigns.

The American people have every right to expect a better performance from individuals who are tasked with running the foreign policy of the United States. And that expectation should start with Secretary Kerry.

What Would It Cost to Eliminate All Risk in the World?

I could not write that headline without chuckling to myself, but this is no laughing matter for some members of Congress. They are asking the Pentagon to describe what it would take to eliminate all risk in the world—or at least all the risks to the United States.

POLITICO’s “Morning Defense” reports that Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) is calling on Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to return to the practice of submitting to Congress the list of “unfunded requirements” (i.e., all those things that the military services would want if they were unconstrained by budgets—and reality). Then-SecDef Bob Gates eliminated the practice in 2009.

“By not providing an unfunded requirements list,” Hunter wrote in a letter to Hagel, “the department and all of the service chiefs would be suggesting that the budget provides zero risk.”

POLITICO continues:

Hunter’s letter reminded Morning D of a memorable exchange Hunter had with Gates in 2011. Basically, Hunter asked Gates how much money he’d need to reduce U.S. national security risk to zero.

“If I had a trillion dollar budget, I’d still have unfunded requirements. The services would still be able to come up with a list of things they really need,” Gates replied.

Avoiding Hysteria about China

There has been a surge of inflammatory comments recently about China’s expansive territorial claims and abrasive behavior toward its neighbors.  Former Defense Department official Joseph Bosco asserts in an article in the National Interest Online that the United States and its allies need to draw a “big red line” in East Asia to warn Beijing against further adventurism. He urges the United States not only to reiterate and strengthen its backing for traditional allies such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, but to forge new security ties with Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries in the region that worry about Chinese expansionism.  Bosco emphasizes that it is crucial to eliminate any doubt whether the United States would move militarily to counter Chinese aggression, lest policy ambiguity lead to the same kind of miscalculation that produced North Korea’s attack on South Korea in 1950.

But Bosco and other anti-China hawks are mild compared to Philippines President Benigno Aquino in invoking nightmarish historical analogies. In an interview in the New York Times,Aquino argues that China’s territorial claims in the East China and South China seas reflect the same strategy as Nazi Germany’s claims in the late 1930s, and he warns world leaders not to coddle the aggressors in Beijing.  The world has to say “enough is enough,” he insists.  “Remember the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”

Bosco, Aquino, and others who adopt such strident views need to take some deep breaths.  They also need to consult a calendar.  It is 2014, not 1950, much less 1938-1939.  Beijing’s leaders are hardly pleasant democrats, but neither are they the equivalent of Kim Il-Sung, Mao Zedong, Josef Stalin, or Adolf Hitler.  Today’s China appears to be a revisionist power—one seeking to alter East Asia’s strategic and economic landscape to Beijing’s advantage whenever possible.  But such behavior is still a far cry from the actions of the murderous revisionist powers that did not care how their actions disrupted the international system and produced horrifically destructive wars.  Treating Beijing as though China is such a malignant power will only foster paranoia among the Chinese leadership elite and create the danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Invoking strained, if not preposterous, historical analogies has repeatedly gotten the United States into unnecessary wars.  Ho Chi Minh, Slobodan Milosevic, and Saddam Hussein were all bad actors, but contrary to the shrill warnings of overwrought pundits and politicians, they did not pose a threat even remotely comparable to Hitler or Stalin.  Neither does the current regime in Beijing.  We need a sober, cautious approach, not hysteria, in dealing with China.