Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Reviving Interservice Competition

I recently complained that the US defense budget fails to adhere to a strategy; that it avoids choice between means. This lack of choice is manifest in the preservation of service shares. Each military service has gotten about the same relative share of the defense budget each year under Bush, despite the war on terror. In fact, the shares have basically held since the Kennedy administration.

In recent decades, the Navy got about 26 percent of the defense budget; 31 percent including the Marines. The Air Force also got around 31 percent, and the Army 25 percent. The rest went to defense-wide programs like missile defense. Annual deviations are rarely ever above two percent. This year brings a slight uptick in the Army share; the numbers are 29 percent Navy and Marines, 28 percent Air Force, and 27 percent Army. Current budget shares deviate more from the historical norm if you include the supplemental war appropriations, which favor the ground forces. But the point of a supplemental is that it does not affect the future baseline.

In today’s Christian Science Monitor, Gordon Lubold writes that a Congressional “Roles and Missions” panel, formed under the auspices of the House Armed Services Committee, is set to release a report that questions this arrangement. That’s good news.

Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee), who chaired the panel, calls the continuity of service shares “a statistical indictment” of the Pentagon planning process. The current US national security strategy – as seen in official documents, rhetoric, and our two wars – is counter-terrorism via counter-insurgency. That is, counter-terrorism is our primary security task, and to accomplish it we aim to deny terrorists haven with wars of occupation meant to resurrect government in anarchic states like Iraq and Afghanistan. We have other objectives – contain rising powers, stem weapons proliferation, etc, but these are secondary.

This strategy favors the Army. Ground forces take center-stage in counter-insurgency and state-building, with contributing performances from aircraft and other government agencies. It follows that our defense budget would flood money into the Army and Marines and cut the Air Force and Navy’s budget to pay for it. Instead, we have given each service the same bump in funds – roughly 35% percent under Bush.

Personally, I think this strategy is foolish. I’d prefer to stay out of other people’s civil wars and hunt terrorists via intelligence agencies and police. Ideally, Congress would push a more workable and cheaper strategy. But helping align forces with the politics that theoretically govern them is still worthwhile. Insofar as we have this flawed strategy, military posture ought to reflect it.

The Monitor quotes the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, responding to Cooper’s critique by worrying that ending fixed service shares will unleash interservice competition. I say let them fight. Everyone assumes that because jointness is helpful on the battlefield, it must be great in defense planning. But service cooperation in the Pentagon has become collusion that prevents civilian control and therefore the implementation of national policy. And competition for resources between government entities can spark smarter public policy, including military innovation, as political scientists I know argue.

During the Eisenhower administration, the Air Force, which wielded the big stick – strategic airpower – in Ike’s massive retaliation strategy, got about half the defense budget. The Army and Navy fought over the remainder. Their scramble for relevance made them advocates of alternative strategies that relied less on nuclear weapons, or at least less on nuclear weapons delivered by bombers (the Navy responded by inventing submarine launched ballistic missiles). The strategic debate gave policy-makers both well-crafted alternatives and ready bureaucratic allies for their implementation.

Were the ground forces given half of the defense budget – or if that merely seemed politically possible – the other services’ self-interest might propel them to articulate opposing strategies. Even the Army’s slight gains have recently pushed the Navy and Air Force to rearticulate their relevance. The results so far are disappointing, but more open competition could be useful. The Navy might champion an off-shore balancing strategy and attack the current small war strategy. Civilians might develop a sharper sense of their alternatives.

The beneficiaries of fixed budget shares are the military services, who get budgetary security independent of their contribution to national security. The losers are the civilians trying to run the Pentagon and taxpayers. Cooper’s report won’t change anything alone, but it may help.

The Four Percent Folly

James Jay Carafano’s op-ed in Thursday’s Washington Times, “In Defense of Defense Spending,” exemplifies the illogic of those who want to devote a fixed portion of our national wealth to defense.

Carafano is part of group of think-tankers and Bush administration officials trying to lock in a military budget fattened by two wars. By arguing that we should spend at least four percent of GDP on defense no matter what, they effectively say that whenever we draw down from Iraq, we should take all the war funds and put them into the non-war defense budget — creating a huge increase in base defense spending.

The op-ed is wrong-headed in three ways. It ignores the meaning of the statistic — percentage of GDP — that it hangs its hat on; it implies that changes in threat levels should not affect defense budgets, and it pretends that most U.S. defense spending is related to terrorism.

Carafano’s conclusion:

Defense spending as a percentage of GDP is the appropriate way to measure our national commitment to keeping America safe, free and prosperous. That’s the number policymakers should keep in mind as they look at the president’s budget.

Maybe I have undue faith in government, but I think policymakers can keep in mind more than one number. As my professor at MIT, Cindy Williams, points out, what number you should consider in thinking about the defense budget depends on what you want to know.

Percentage of GDP is useful for historical comparisons of defense’s economic burden. Carafano substitutes the question of what we can afford for what we ought to spend. The United States can afford to spend four percent of its GDP on defense; indeed we can afford to spend far more. That doesn’t mean we should. Whatever your politics, money spent on defense means money not spent on something else: private investment, deficit reduction, infrastructure, a car, etc. The problem is opportunity cost, not economic malaise.

Percentage of GDP is not useful in demonstrating how much we spend on defense compared to the past, however, because GDP grows. Ours is more than six times bigger than it was in 1950, as I wrote here two weeks ago. True, defense’s share of the economic pie has fallen over the last several decades. But that’s because the size of the pie has grown, hiding the absolute increase in spending. The best way to compare defense budgets over time is to look at absolute spending levels adjusted for inflation. That’s what people mean when they say defense spending is the highest that it has been since World War II.

Like most of those who make this argument, Carafano ignores the fact that wealth creation means that he is supporting ever-increasing defense budgets. Why should our grandchildren spend five times more than us on defense just because they are five times richer? Carafano doesn’t say. Nor does he explain why we should spend less on defense next year if there is a recession.

Defense spending should be guided by threats and our plans to deal with them. That this banal idea needs recitation speaks to the poverty of the arguments made by advocates of the drunken-sailor approach to security budgeting. Four percent of GDP forever, capabilities-based planning — these are the desperate justifications of hawks short of threats to inflate. Carafano does not bother to relate the expensive capabilities he promotes with the enemies that they theoretically protect against. Presumably that is because the Cold War is over; China isn’t much of an enemy, plus its growth is likely to taper off far before it can devote close to what we can to its military, and North Korea, Iran and Syria, according to The Military Balance, together spend just above $10 billion on defense, which doesn’t even get you a year’s worth of spending on a faulty missile defense system around here.

What about the “long war”? That’s where Carafano says all this money goes. But the defense budget is buying and operating mostly carrier battle groups, army divisions and fighter aircraft — tools rarely useful in fighting terrorists, and even then, far more abundant than we need. As for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffice it to say that there is reason to doubt that perennial wars of occupation in Muslim countries serve counter-terrorism. But even counting the wars as counter-terrorism spending, the vast majority of the defense budget is still going toward conventional conflicts, not Al Qaeda.

For a sensible take on these matters and the source of this post’s title, see Bernard Finel’s recent op-ed in Defense News.

Air Force vs. Taxpayers

This week’s Air Force Times reports that the Air Force wants an extra $59 million of your tax dollars next year to pay for a campaign to win tens of billions more of your tax dollars.

You see, the Air Force’s research shows that the American public does not appreciate the Air Force as much as the Air Force thinks it should. Air Force generals worry that Americans may conclude that our current wars, which are relatively low-tech, ground power-centric affairs, are a reasonable basis for making procurement decisions. That conclusion may produce budgets that favor the ground forces, thwarting the Air Force’s plan to become the service that runs future wars. And the administration has already refused the Air Force an extra $20 billion for its annual budget.

So the defense budget submitted recently to Congress would more than double the Air Force’s advertising spending to insure that the public doesn’t figure out that platforms like the F-22 are white elephants.

The Air Force defends the funds in this, surprisingly forthright, way (from page 652 of their budget estimate for FY 2009):

Without the funding the ability to educate the American public about Air Force roles and mission will be limited and [sic] ultimately creating a gap between the public and the Air Force that will influence public opinion and the Air Force’s ability to maintain its stature amongst the other Services. Other recruiting programs aided in meeting accession goals but did little to illustrate the Air Force story. This funding purchases capabilities to illustrate the Air Force’s vital role in national defense today and in the future, hi-light the unique capabilities delivered by no other service, depict the most complex and challenging assignments, and show case the USAF.

According to the Air Force Times:

Air Force officials believe Congress and the public are focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Army and Marine Corps do most of the fighting. Therefore, efforts to expand the Air Force’s high-tech fleet of aircraft and the service’s cyber mission are taking a backseat to the immediate needs of the wars.

If that is what the public thinks, I commend our common sense. Silly op-eds and press releases asserting how essential airpower is to counter-insurgency apparently failed to do the trick.

All the services spend big bucks on recruiting. That’s the point of the $53 million the Air Force spent on advertising last year. And that’s low, relatively speaking. In 2005 (the latest set of complete figures I could find), the Army spent $290 million on recruiting-related advertising, the Marine Corps $67, the Navy $100 million, and the Air Force $57 million. The ground services, which need more manpower and take far more casualties, naturally spend more to woo recruits (not to mention a whole lot more on bonuses).

But the extra money the Air Force wants is not going to recruit new airmen; it is for TV, web, and print advertising meant to win public support and funds. It is, in other words, for propaganda.

True, $60 million isn’t much in a defense budget that will cost nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars. But spending our money to convince us to spend more of our money just grates.

The Air Force already has the Thunderbirds, a traveling air-show, to promote itself. (The similar Blue Angels promote the Navy. The Army employs a Parachute Team, the Golden Knights for PR). It was a $50 million promotional contract for the Thunderbirds that recently landed the top brass of the Air Force in the middle of an FBI investigation – one that, as far as I can determine, is ongoing.

Beyond public funds, the Air Force Association, a non-profit organization, exists to sing airpower’s praises (the Navy and Marines have the Navy League). And of course there are the contractors who lobby on behalf of the Air Force contracts that pay their way.

The Air Force has enough ways to sell itself, and then some, without this new request. Congress should say no.

Lilla on Heilbrunn on the Neocons

Mark Lilla has a hot-and-cold review of Jacob Heilbrunn’s book They Knew They Were Right in the New Republic. Lilla, a former editor of The Public Interest, hilariously describes his view that Commentary was “the great simplifier–everything always came down to holding the line and proving your manliness. The articles made sense only if you imagined the authors screaming at the top of their lungs.” But he has some scathing remarks for the unrepentant neocons of today:

Poor Iraq! And poor America! The dénouement we all know, but Heilbrunn’s book, for all its superficiality, still shows how depressingly predictable it all was. By leaving the reality-based community and creating their own Team-B approach to every issue–and stocking that team with reliable soldiers who happened not to know what the hell they were talking about (trivia question: who was Laurie Mylroie?)–the neoconservatives had become the very last people you’d want leading you to war. They knew how everything connected but not how anything worked–the Army, the United Nations, the Sunni-Shiite quarrel, the balance of power, human culture in the face of occupation and humiliation. And what they used to know about the unintended consequences of political action they seem to have willfully forgotten. Reactionaries are like that–because in the end, contrary to Heilbrunn’s title, they really don’t care whether they are right. What they care most about is reconfirming their picture of the world.

Whole thing’s worth a read.

Right-Wing Glasnost on Foreign Policy?

Ryan Lizza, in a profile of John McCain in the New Yorker, describes the dispute between factions on the Right, with Newt Gingrich and Co. arguing that in order to win, conservatives must jettison conservative economic principles, and Grover Norquist’s faction arguing that conservative economic principles are the core of conservatism. Here’s Lizza describing Norquist’s view:

In a forthcoming book, “Leave Us Alone,” he describes the Republican Party as little more than a collection of interest groups—such as anti-tax activists, gun-rights advocates, and homeschoolers—that, if they are carefully tended, will grow into a “supermajority.” The merits of his argument aside, Norquist’s description of the conservative coalition is notable for what it leaves out—voters whose overriding concern is national security. That exclusion seems to be a trend on the small-government right. Not long ago, I spoke with Mallory Factor, a Republican fund-raiser and the co-organizer of a monthly meeting for conservative thinkers and activists in New York. When I mentioned that McCain’s aides plan to use the Iraq war to unite the right, he said, “That’s not the glue that keeps conservatives together. There is an enormous amount of frustration over the war on a number of grounds, from the cost, to the way the war has been fought, to what the outcome is. One of the things that I’ve talked about in our group is that we’re using the finest military in the world as an N.G.O. I mean, we’re talking about nation-building, not fighting a war. Is that the proper use of our military?”

Factor has reason to be concerned. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, McCain called for the kind of costly nation-building capacity that makes libertarians shudder, arguing that the United States should “energize and expand our postconflict reconstruction capabilities” and create a “deployable police force” that would prop up collapsing states. Echoing Norquist’s book, Factor insisted that the war in Iraq is not a unifying issue for the right. He told me, “The bottom line is that to the base of the Party the war isn’t Communism—to the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan, Communism was a rallying point. This is not like that.

Lizza goes on to describe how all of the non-Norquist factions of conservatism have essentially made their peace with the welfare-warfare state:

Gingrich, Gerson, and Frum all reject the anti-government ethos that has come to define conservatism. Gingrich calls for managerial competence in government. Gerson asks for expanded programs to fight poverty at home and to combat AIDS abroad. Frum recommends making peace with the realities of the welfare state.

For whatever it’s worth, down here in the policy trenches, it doesn’t feel too much like Mallory Factor’s description of a conservative reunion with reality on foreign policy is accurate. But here’s hoping it is.

Towards a Cuba Libre

Today an important step has been taken towards a democratic transition in Cuba. The decision of the dictator Fidel Castro to retreat from aspiring to a new presidential period in the island indicates that his poor health has worsen to a point where probably Castro won’t make it to end of this year.

Soon he will become another page in history; a very sad one, characterized by repression, tortures, political prisoners, massive impoverishment, hunger, scarcity, and murders.

His statement of giving an opportunity to the new generations is nothing less than a bad joke, after almost 50 years in power. Even worse, he delegates power to his brother Raul, who at 76 years old can hardly be considered fresh blood.

Nevertheless, as long as Castro remains alive, we can’t expect dramatic changes in Cuba. His presence behind the scenes will be intimidating for any successor, who will think twice before proposing reforms that could anger the declining tyrant. Even so, in the last months, some timid but positive signs of political openness, or at least certain degree of tolerance towards the opposition, have been perceived.

We libertarians in Latin America must be prepared for what is about to come. Probably the transition will last for years, but it is important that the people who will lead a democratic Cuba are firm believers of classical liberal ideals. Because that is exactly what Cuba needs, not only democracy, but also liberty.

2008 Looking to Be a Bountiful Harvest of Dumb Foreign Policy Ideas

It’s only the day after Valentine’s Day, but we’re already looking at a pretty solid year in terms of dumb foreign policy ideas emanating from the renowned Foreign Policy Community. The newest entry, coming on the heels of the announcement of our ginormous, wasteful defense budget is the new push to expand the nation-building office in the State Department. Robin Wright gives us a peek through the keyhole in the WaPo, opening the article with her tongue appropriately in cheek:

Are you a road engineer who speaks Urdu? A city planner fluent in Arabic? Maybe a former judge who happens to know Pashto and seeks foreign adventure?

Right. It’s really a shame, because all of the former judges I know familiar with Islamic jurisprudence are actually speakers of Turkic languages. (Kidding.) The point here is that for a federal government that can only scrape together 50 Arabic speakers to work as FBI agents, it’s a little nutty to think we have the requisite skill-sets to staff a nation-building office. (Maybe we should just take people off translating suspected terrorist documents to do some work on irrigation and urban planning? Please.)

Wright then turns to the unfortunate substance of the (non-)debate over the new policy:

The 2009 budget calls for $248 million for the program, up from $7.2 million in the 2007, he said.

The idea of an emergency civilian corps has had mixed congressional reception since State’s Office of the Coordinator of Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS) was created in 2004. Herbst so far has fewer than 90 people who have been deployed in small teams to Afghanistan, Chad, Haiti, Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Sudan.

Under the new budget proposal, the CRS nucleus would grow to a 250-person Active Response Corps pulled from U.S. agencies, including Agriculture, Commerce, Justice and Treasury. It would include city planners, economists, port operators and correction officials, Herbst said. They would undergo months of training. Their mission would be to deploy within the first 72 hours of a U.S. military landing. As much as 80 percent of the team would be dispatched for as much as one year.

“We are proposing shifts across our civilian agencies that will bring all elements of national power to bear in the defense of America’s vital interests,” Herbst told Congress.

The second group would be a roughly 2,000-strong Standby Response Corps, again pulled from all branches of government and having the same diverse skills. They would train for two or three weeks a year and would be the second group to deploy in a crisis. Between 200 and 500 would deploy within 45 to 60 days of a crisis onset, Herbst said in an interview.

The third group is the Civilian Reserve Corps of about 2,000 that would be pulled from the private sector and state or local governments, much like the military reserve. Its members would sign up for a four-year commitment, which would include training for several weeks a year and an obligation to deploy for as much as one of the four years, Herbst said.

This is a recipe for disaster. As Chris Preble and I pointed out more than two years ago, “the overwhelming majority of failed states have posed no security threat to the United States.” Further, we argued, “attacking a threat rarely involves paving roads or establishing new judicial standards.” Accordingly, as Ben Friedman, Harvey Sapolsky, and Chris (the guy’s a busy man!) pointed out in a paper released Wednesday, the best policy response to this reality is “a wise and masterly inactivity in the face of most foreign disorder.”

As usual, the U.S. government finds itself running, not walking, in the opposite direction from reality.