Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Defense Spending Correction

In the podcast posted today on Cato’s main site, I say that it appears likely that Obama will accept a massive increase in defense spending foisted on him by the Pentagon for its FY 2010 budget. It did appear that way a week ago when I recorded the podcast. Bill Lynn, the Raytheon lobbyist Obama nominated to be Bob Gates’ number two at the Pentagon, had said as much, and I figured he knew what the administration was planning.

Turns out, he didn’t. Over the weekend, various news outlets reported that the Office of Management and Budget told the Pentagon to forget the $70 billion bump they hoped for, which would have brought non-war defense spending from about $513 billion to $584 billion, and accept a far smaller increase - about $14 billion, which is about what Pentagon plans called for before this gambit.

As I wrote here a couple months ago, the Pentagon, and the services within it, presumably hoped that they could present Obama with a fait accompli. If he ordered the Pentagon to roughly hold spending level, neoconservatives on the Hill and the Washington Post’s oped page could spin it as a cut and scream “surrender!” Bob Kagan, Max Boot, and others fell right into line.

Boot defends himself here by saying A. he doesn’t know enough about defense spending to know when FoxNews is misleading him, so it’s not his fault, and B. $584 is what the Joint Chiefs say they need to defend the nation, so it really is a cut. He asks, “Are Obama and his budget director prepared to say they understand the military’s needs better than the senior military leadership?” One would certainly hope so, given the concept of civilian control of the military. Boot is apparently unaware that the military organizations usually ask for what they think they can get and call it what they need.

Missing from all this discussion is a fact I only see hidden behind a subscription wall at Inside the Pentagon – the Obama team is going to increase the planned amount of spending over five years. Rather than the leveling off in defense spending that Bush administration had planned, the Obama administration plans to keep it growing mildly.

Hopefully that report is premature or the decision will be reconsidered – and historically these plans rarely hold up. The Pentagon’s budget should be drastically reduced. See the defense budget chapter of the Cato Policy Handbook for details. The bottom line is that it starts with restraint. Do less to spend less. That would avoid needless wars, which is the category of most of those we might fight these days, and the cost incurred by preparing for so many.

*I also say in the podcast that: “We spend more on research and development on new weapons systems than any other country other than China.”

I meant to say “We spend more on researching and developing new weapons than any other country spends on its entire military, other than China.”

Big difference.

Cato Unbound: An Appreciation of Partisanship

This month’s Cato Unbound is up, featuring a lead essay by Harvard Professor Nancy Rosenblum. She discusses themes developed more fully in her book On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship. Rosenblum makes the case that political parties have gotten an undeserved bad reputation, and that they do useful, unappreciated coordinating work in democratic politics.

In the first response essay, Brink Lindsey replies in essence that political parties are much better than they used to be, but there’s still plenty to complain about. Response essays by Henry Farrell of George Washington University and James Fishkin of Stanford University will appear on Friday and Monday, respectively, followed by a blog chat among the authors.

My own biggest questions on the topic are as follows.

First, is it even meaningful to say that we are “for” or “against” partisanship? Or, when we say this, are we really just saying that we’re for or against certain aspects of partisanship? Political parties seem to appear wherever we find the concepts of representative democracy and loyal opposition. Complaining about political parties is a bit like being against the weather.

We may hate many of the things that political parties do, but their main alternatives seem to be dictatorships and death squads. Even the most committed anti-partisans wouldn’t go that route. And even those who cheer for partisan politics may seem to be making a virtue of necessity.

Second, what about the legal regime that sustains the two-party system? The rules that support partisan politics were written by partisans, after all. Certainly we can’t just take them as a given. Ballot access regulations, campaign finance rules, and the incumbent advantage help to give us the specific type of partisan politics we have. Who else gets to write their own ticket like that, and should we let them?

A New Tone toward the Muslim World

After his first major interview with an Arab TV network, it is clear President Obama is striking a decidedly different tone in talking about terrorism. In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, legal policy analyst David H. Rittgers discusses the new direction Obama will take in the fight against terrorism.

“This is a serious departure from some of the message that the Bush Administration put forth,” says Rittgers, who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan as an officer in the Army. “Using ‘you are with us or against us’ is appropriate in certain circumstances, but as a blanket approach that is not the message we need to be sending.”

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Pat Lang on Israel/Palestine

National Journal’s Sydney Freedberg asks a group of distinguished foreign policy types, “Is the two-state solution dead?” Pat Lang offers some sensible remarks:

It is expected ritual to say that the Palestinians and Israelis want peace. What is never specified as part of that incantation is the description of just what sort of peace each group wants. Here it is… What they still want (on both sides) is to win in the contest for that sad, beautiful, stony little strip of land and for their own group to live in peace and possession of the country.

There is no external power preventing the sides from making peace. If the Israelis and Palestinians wanted peace more than they want to win, they would make peace. They do not make peace because there is not enough good will toward the “other” among them to allow peace to exist. No. I no longer really believe that the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine want peace for other than their own side in the bloody mess that has persisted there throughout their lives.

Someone has said on this blog that the United States lacks the ability to “make peace” between these two peoples. That is profoundly true. It is part of our national illusion that we Americans think of the rest of the world as though we are the guardians of distant, unruly and childish folk who act in strange, inexplicable and unreasonable ways. We tend to believe that their quarrels are errors in information or simply bad behavior of the kind seen in school yards.  This mistake on our part is persistent….

Then, however, I’d humbly submit that Lang goes astray in arguing that while neither side appears ready to make the sacrifices required for a workable peace deal, the problem will ultimately “require an external formulation of a peace settlement when they ARE ready.”

Why am I skeptical? Because, as Lang admits, what would be required for this to work is “a consensus of the interested parties across the Middle Eastern, Islamic and Western regions, a consensus that does not shrink from domestic political pressure, that does not fear to apply the inherent leverage provided by huge annual budgetary contributions to both sides and that values human life and happiness more than it does momentary advantage.” If both sides were ready for peace, why would pulling budgetary levers be required? Alternatively, it seems terribly unlikely that pulling budgetary levers could make either side amenable enough to genuine concessions to make peace work. And aside from the extreme unlikelihood of the blessed convergence described above happening in our lifetimes, I’m reminded of George Kennan’s concern in the 1970s about the responsibilities that come with imposing a settlement:

[W]e should not try to tell [the Israelis], or the Arabs, what the terms of a settlement should be. It is they, after all, not we, who would have to live with any settlement that might be achieved. Many of us can think, I am sure, of concessions which, in our personal opinion, it would be wise for the Israelis to make; but for the United States government to take the responsibility of urging them to make such concessions is quite another matter. There are many who would think, for example, that it would be wise for them to give up the Golan Heights. They may of course be right. But how can we be sure? What would our responsibility be if we urged this upon them and it turned out to be disastrous?

It seems like the problem for the United States is less that the Israelis and Palestinians seem unwilling to make the sacrifices required for peace, and more that we find ourselves in a position such that, as Kennan wrote, with respect to both sides of the dispute, “each has the impression that it is primarily through us that its desiderata can be achieved, with the result that we are always first to be blamed, no matter whose ox is gored; and all this in a situation where we actually have very little influence with either party. Seldom, surely, can a great power have gotten itself into a more unsound and unnecessary position.”

Week in Review

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Cato Leads Opposition to Fiscal Stimulus

In reaction to statements from Obama administration officials who say “all economists agree” that the only way to fight the economic recession is to go on a massive government spending spree, the Cato Institute took out a full page ad in the nation’s largest newspapers that showed that those words were not true. Signed by more than 200 economists, including Nobel laureates and other highly respected scholars, the statement was published this week in The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other publications.

On the day the ad ran in The New York Times, Cato executive vice president David Boaz added more names to the list of economists who are skeptical of the spending bill.

Commenting on the principles behind the stimulus, Cato adjunct scholar Lawrence H. White and fellow economist David C. Rose discuss why we can’t spend our way out of this mess:

You can’t solve an excessive spending problem by spending more. We are making the crisis worse.

In The Wall Street Journal, Cato senior fellow Alan Reynolds examines the numbers and discovers that each government job created  will cost taxpayers a staggering $646,214 per hire.

The stimulus package now moving through Congress will spend nearly $1 trillion that the government does not have. With the nation already $1.2 trillion in the hole, Cato director of Tax Policy Studies Chris Edwards discusses the sheer illogic behind pushing for stimulus at a time like this:

If I get up in the morning and drink five cups of coffee and that doesn’t stimulate me, I don’t go and drink another five. I’d recognize my addiction problem and start reforming my bad habits. Federal policymakers should do the same.

For more on the stimulus plan, read Edwards’s Tax and Budget Bulletin, “The Troubling Return of Keynes,” (PDF) co-authored by Ike Brannon, former senior adviser to the U.S. Treasury.

During the House vote on the stimulus bill, just 11 Democrats voted against it, leaving Boaz to ask, “What Happened to the Blue Dog Democrats?

“Blue Dogs supported fiscal responsibility at some vague point in the misty past, and they will strongly support fiscal responsibility at some vague point in the future,” writes Boaz. “But right now they’re going to vote to put their constituents another $825 billion in debt.”

Obama Promises to Close Guantanamo Bay Detention Center

Cato legal policy analyst David H. Rittgers explains why he approves of Obama’s choice to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay and offers advice on how to proceed with the plan:

The Founders wrote the Bill of Rights after a violent insurgency brought on by government oppression, and the principles contained therein are no weaker while countering today’s terrorists. Using national security courts to try the detainees in Guantanamo opens the door to closed and classified trials of domestic terror suspects. This degradation of essential liberties is unwise and avoids the social function of trials.

Listen to a Cato Daily Podcast interview with Rittgers to learn more about the future of the Gitmo detainees.

In the forthcoming Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Timothy Lynch, director of Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice, lays out a plan for the future of our government’s strategy for dealing with terrorism. (PDF)

Gore Global Warming Hearing Goes on Despite Snowstorm

Undeterred by a snowstorm that shut down schools and gave federal workers “liberal leave,” the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on global warming this week with star witness Al Gore. Gore promoted ways to end climate change through cap-and-trade legislation and investment in renewable energy, reported U.S. News and World Report.

In a Cato Policy Analysis, author Indur Goklany offers his commentary on how government should handle climate change.

Cato senior fellow in environmental studies Patrick J. Michaels offers his analysis on climate change, and how the international community should react.

Appearing on Fox News, Michaels, who is a former Virginia state climatologist, asserts that when it comes to climate change, there is no immediate emergency. For more, don’t miss Michaels’s new book, Climate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know, co-authored with Robert C. Balling Jr.

Al-Marri Is (Probably) a Terrorist — We Should Have Tried Him

The Justice Department received an extension from the Supreme Court in the pending appeal of Ali Saleh Mohamed Kahlah al-Marri, an exchange student who allegedly arrived in the United States on September 10th, 2001, as an Al Qaeda sleeper agent. He is the only person presently domestically detained as an enemy combatant, a practice I oppose. The Obama administration is taking the extra time to reconsider the government’s position.

The Fourth Circuit previously held that al-Marri can continue to be detained as an enemy combatant. The unclassified version of the evidence against him is available in the Rapp Declaration. I highly recommend you read the whole thing. Al-Marri is (probably) a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda. We should have tried him.

The fight against Al Qaeda is part military, part law enforcement. Whichever approach we use, this is a struggle where the population is not incidental to the battlefield, the population is the battlefield. Insurgencies and terrorism are 10% tactical, 90% propaganda. By making a legal martyr out of al-Marri, we give him a propaganda victory he has not earned.

The FBI did exactly what we want domestic terrorism investigators to do: it gathered evidence to produce an indictment. The government should have followed through with prosecution instead of moving him to a military brig. We prosecute domestic terrorists for criminal actions, and al-Marri should be treated no differently. 

Former FBI special agent and terrorism expert Mike German infiltrated two domestic terror organizations and brought charges against their members. As German says in his excellent book, Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent, prosecuting terrorists for fraud charges should not give us pause. 

As an FBI agent my counterterrorism investigations never resulted in anyone being charged with terrorism. The terrorists I arrested were charged with specific criminal offenses; possessing and transferring illegal firearms and explosive devices, illegally using firearms and destructive devices, conspiring to use illegal firearms and destructive devices, and conspiring to violate civil rights. Terrorists use these crimes to accomplish their political goals. Once I had evidence of their illegal activities, I could bring charges against them. Certainly the motive behind their conduct came into play to prove they had the requisite criminal intent, but the laws I enforced had absolutely nothing to do with the terrorists’ ideology.

German also points out that terrorists rely on their claim to be something more akin to soldiers than criminals to maintain political legitimacy. IRA terrorists held by British authorities staged a hunger strike to retain treatment as “prisoners of war” rather than “criminals.” Ten of them willingly starved to death rather than be lumped in with murderers and rapists, the goal of the British “criminalization” strategy. As German writes:

The reasons for the hunger strike reveal much about the IRA and about terrorists in general. They didn’t strike over the anti-Catholic discrimination that led to the civil rights movement. They didn’t strike over the RUC’s police abuse or the stationing of British troops in Northern Ireland. They didn’t strike over being arrested without charges, interned, and tortured. They didn’t strike over indefinite detentions or even over Bloody Sunday. They knew all those things helped their cause. They went on hunger strike because the British government was going to make them look like criminals.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, architect of the 9/11 attacks, sees the writing on the wall — the Obama administration intends to close down the Military Commissions and try him and his co-conspirators in a traditional court of law. This is why he tried to plead guilty and become a martyr for his cause. If we convict al-Marri and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court and not a Military Commission or one of the proposed national security courts, the Al Qaeda boogey-man is revealed as a thug, not a noble Muslim soldier. 

Mike German’s recent Cato podcast with Caleb Brown is here. German also spoke on a panel at Cato’s recent conference, Shaping the Obama Administration’s Counterterrorism Strategy. The video file is available here and the podcast can be downloaded here. Cato filed an amicus brief in the al-Marri case with the Constitution Project and the Rutherford Institute.