Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Folly of Ex-Im, Export Promotion Agencies, and Export Promotion in General

On May 19, I testified at a hearing titled “Trade Promotion Agencies and U.S. Foreign Policy,” which was held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommitee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade. The subject agencies were the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im), the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA). The focus of my remarks, which follow, was on Ex-Im and the myth that exports are the benefits of trade.

Good morning, Chairman Poe, Ranking Member Keating, and members of the subcommittee. I am Dan Ikenson, director of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. Thank you for the invitation to share my views with you today concerning “Trade Promotion Agencies and U.S. Foreign Policy.” The views I express are my own and should not be construed as representing any official positions of the Cato Institute.

To the extent that today’s hearing will help clarify some of these issues and prompt a serious effort to reform and retire some of the redundant, distortionary, and, frankly, scandal-prone agencies among the panoply of federal offerings, I am pleased to be of assistance.

U.S. trade promotion agencies are in the business of promoting exports, not trade in the more inclusive sense. That is worth noting because despite some of the wrongheaded mercantilist assumptions undergirding U.S. trade policy—that exports are good and imports are bad—the fact is that the real benefits of trade are transmitted through imports, not through exports.

In keeping with the conventional wisdom, in January 2010 President Obama set a national goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years. Prominent in the plan was a larger role for government in promoting exports, including expanded nonmarket lending programs to finance export activity, an increase in the number of the Commerce Department’s foreign outposts to promote U.S. business, and an increase in federal agency-chaperoned marketing trips.

A Word about “Gotcha Questions” and Personal Responsibility

A peculiar tic of contemporary American nationalism is the notion that the American state, particularly if helmed by a Republican president, makes no errors of commission in its conduct of military affairs. No American war was ill-founded, or aimed at a threat that didn’t exist or didn’t warrant the effort. This logic never applies in the domestic sphere for Republicans, where government programs are at best naïve and bound to make problems worse or at worst, venal and Machiavellian.

This tic is the only reason I can think of that we’re actually sustaining a debate in 2015 about whether, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a good idea to invade Iraq. Jim Fallows at the Atlantic argues that nobody should again ask a politician the question, since

the only people who might say Yes on the Iraq question would be those with family ties (poor Jeb Bush); those who are inept or out of practice in handling potentially tricky questions (surprisingly, again poor Bush); or those who are such Cheney-Bolton-Wolfowitz-style bitter enders that they survey the landscape of “what we know now”—the cost and death and damage, the generation’s worth of chaos unleashed in the Middle East, and of course the absence of WMDs—and still say, Heck of a job.

I actually think this makes the case why the question should be—or at least should have been—asked, since at least one fortunate Republican son, Marco Rubio, belongs in Fallows’ bitter-ender camp. To the extent voters—and donors—care about competent foreign policy, they deserve to know that Rubio strongly opposes it, even with the benefit of hindsight.

But beyond the politics, a weird narrative has begun to emerge on the right that asking about the Iraq war is a “gotcha question.” Keep in mind: we are discussing a policy that was dreamed up by the Bush administration, marketed by the Bush administration, and purchased by the vast majority of our legislators, including the likely Democratic nominee in 2016.

America’s NATO Liabilities

Washington’s collection of European security dependents (aka, the NATO allies) seek an even stronger U.S. commitment to their defense.  That desire has clearly been on the rise since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent escalation of the Ukraine crisis.  Not surprisingly, Moscow’s smaller neighbors, especially the three Baltic republics, worry about the Kremlin’s intentions and want to take cover behind the shield of America’s military power.  Their latest ploy is to seek the permanent deployment of a NATO brigade (some 3,000 to 5,000 troops) on their territory.  It is a safe bet that they will want U.S. forces to be part of that unit.  Indeed, the United States already keeps more than 150 troops (along with military aircraft) in those countries as part of a continuing rotation of forces.

It is not hard to understand why small, weak nations would seek maximum protection from a distant power against a large, powerful neighbor that has displayed worrisome intentions.  It is much harder to understand, though, why undertaking such a risk would be in the best interest of the United States.  Allies are only beneficial when they augment a nation’s strength, and the potential benefits of defending them significantly outweigh the potential costs and risks. The Baltic republics (and most NATO members, for that matter) spectacularly fail that basic test.  They do next to nothing to augment America’s already vast military power, while (being on bad terms with their powerful neighbor) they create the risk of a U.S.-Russia confrontation where none would otherwise exist.  In short, they are strategic liabilities, not strategic assets. 

Making matters even worse, the Baltic countries and the other European members of NATO don’t seem terribly serious about their own defense, even as they sound alarm bells about Russia’s behavior.  As I note in a new article in Aspenia Online, their defense spending continues to be woeful.  Despite a commitment following the 2006 NATO summit, only the United States, Britain, Greece, and Estonia currently spend at least two percent of annual GDP on defense.  What is especially frustrating is that several major NATO powers, including Germany, Italy, and Spain, have spending levels far below the two percent target.  By comparison, just the U.S. base military budget is more than four percent of a much larger GDP, and if overseas contingency spending for supposed emergency missions (like the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) is included, Washington’s defense outlays reach nearly five percent. 

Washington Should Give Gulf State “Allies” No Special Favors

Washington’s determination to defend much of the globe has made the U.S. an international sucker, especially vulnerable to manipulation by supposed friends. Today the Gulf States are upset.

The basic “problem” in their view is that Washington is pursuing the interests of America, not Saudi Arabia & Co., which is seeking hegemony over the Gulf. The administration organized a summit yesterday to assuage their concerns, at which he promised to defend them.

They complain that Washington negotiated to prevent Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon rather than demanded Tehran’s surrender when that country said no, as it almost certainly would have. Even though forestalling development of an Iranian nuke would dramatically improve the region’s security environment, the Gulf nations worry that eliminating sanctions would increase Iranian revenues.

They insist on overthrowing Syria’s Bashar Assad, even though he has not threatened the U.S. Finally, they want Washington to issue security guarantees to protect corrupt gerontocracies and monarchies.

However, American foreign policy should be about promoting America’s security. As a global superpower which stands supreme militarily, the U.S. actually does not much need alliances to protect itself, especially in the Middle East.

Washington’s interests in the region are far more limited than commonly assumed. The energy market is global and expanding. The Gulf States would sell their oil even if Washington did not act as monarchical bodyguard on call.

Democratic and humanitarian concerns have been hopelessly compromised by decades of support for dictatorships like in the Gulf. First do no harm would be the best humanitarian prescription.

Israel’s safety is of concern to many Americans. However, it is a regional superpower well able to defend itself.

Instability is endemic to the region and beyond America’s control. Indeed, in recent years Washington has demonstrated that intervention promotes instability.

America’s most important interest is terrorism. Yet U.S. support for authoritarian monarchies angered the likes of Osama bin Laden, making America a target of violence, including 9/11. At the same time the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, were underwriting Islamic fundamentalism and violent extremism. The Riyadh-led attacks on Yemen have empowered al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

A “new equilibrium” is desperately required, as President Barack Obama suggested. But not the one he favors.

Before the summit the Gulf States pushed for a formal defense treaty, but likely congressional opposition killed that option. So, explained Secretary of State John Kerry last week: “we are fleshing out a series of new commitments that will create, between the United States and the GCC, a new security understanding, a new set of security initiatives that will take us beyond anything that we have had before.”

As I write on Forbes online: “It is hard to imagine a worse idea than committing America to directly intervene in conflicts irrelevant to American security on behalf of nations which share none of America’s most cherished values and which are able to defend themselves.” The conference attendees already have an institutional frameworks for common defense, the Gulf Cooperation Council and 22-member League of Arab States. Saudi Arabia ranks fourth in the world in military outlays.

The U.S. probably is best served if no single state dominates the Mideast. Certainly not Riyadh. The Kingdom tolerates no religious or political liberty at home; Riyadh has radicalized Islamic children around the world through construction of fundamentalist madrassahs. Saudi Arabia may have done more than any other country to promote terrorism.

Instead of offering long-term dependents enhanced protection, Washington should indicate that it is turning regional affairs over to those in the region. The Middle East likely would be an unstable, chaotic mess—rather like today. Conflict would continue, and it would be better for Americans to be out, not in, the unending bloodletting.

The administration did not need the summit to better communicate with the Gulf States. Washington should just say no and adopt a new policy.

Budget Caps? What Budget Caps?

This special post was written by Travis Evans, research associate in Cato’s Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Department.

House Republicans have found a way to circumvent those bothersome Budget Control Act (BCA) spending caps. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe this morning, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, brazenly stated that the $611.9 billion defense authorization bill, which was passed by the House today, adheres to the BCA cap on discretionary defense spending. How, you may be asking, is it possible to authorize $89 billion more than the caps and still adhere to them? Simple: funnel the money through a slush fund that is not beholden to the spending caps, in this case the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.

Using the OCO account to supplement discretionary defense spending is so common nowadays that Chairman Thornberry explains the Republicans’ actions as if we should applaud him and his colleagues for saving the defense budget.

The caps are a concern, but we found a way to add to the Overseas Contingency account, so that we in the House budget and the defense bill on the floor right now meet exactly the amount the president has ask for.

You see what he did there? He is able to say that the Republicans are honoring the caps (the ones they agreed to in 2011) while giving the president the defense spending he requested. Clever. But maybe too clever. Congressional Democrats don’t seem to be persuaded. Even the president is opposed to the bill (albeit because of some particulars of the bill, not the topline spending amount).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called the bill “disingenuous” and “dangerous,” stating that the “Republicans are trying to use war funding as a virtual slush fund for one part of the budget while letting the ax fall on everything else.” While I’m not in the habit of agreeing with Rep. Pelosi, she is right in this case.

Marco Rubio’s Breathtaking Myopia

Sen. Marco Rubio might fancy himself as a new type of leader for a new era, but his speech yesterday to the Council on Foreign Relations was trapped in the past. Invoking John F. Kennedy’s final speech as president, more than 50 years ago, was bad enough. But Rubio’s overarching message – the Rubio Doctrine – amounts to warmed over Cold War dogma, sprinkled with the language of benevolent global hegemony favored by so many Washington elites, but disdained by most Americans beyond the Beltway. It is difficult to understand the depths of his political and strategic myopia.

Rubio misperceives the American public’s willingness to sustain the current model indefinitely, and therefore fails to appreciate the need for a genuinely new approach to U.S. global affairs. He minimizes the costs and risks of our current foreign policies, and oversells the benefits. He ignores the way in which U.S. security assurances to a host of some-of-the-time allies have discouraged these countries from taking reasonable steps to defend themselves and their interests. And he fails to see any reasonable alternative to a world in which the United States acts – forever, it seems – as the sole guarantor of global security. Specifically, Rubio pledged: “As president, I will use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space.” (Any? Whew!) 

To be sure, many people around the world may be happy to allow U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to attempt such an ambitious undertaking, and to have American taxpayers pick up the tab. It is reasonable to guess that most foreign leaders are anxious to preserve the current order – so long as the U.S. government provides for their defense, they are free to spend their money on other things. But the fact that foreigners like this arrangment doesn’t explain why most Americans would. When Rubio calls for huge increases in the Pentagon’s budget, he is telling Americans that they should be content to accept higher taxes, more debt, and less money to spend here at home, so that U.S. allies elsewhere can neglect their defenses, and feed their bloated welfare states.

U.S. Should Avoid Ukraine Fight

The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine is under strain as Kiev presses the West for more financial and military aid. Americans’ sympathies should go to both Ukrainians and Russians suffering in Vladimir Putin’s deadly geopolitical games, but Washington should stay out of the battle.

Putin obviously bears immediate responsibility for the conflict. However, Washington and Brussels consistently disregarded Russian security interests.

That still didn’t justify Putin’s actions and the results have been a horror for many Ukrainians, though Kiev’s military and nationalist militias have contributed to the unnecessary carnage. However, Moscow views the war less about expanding Russia’s “empire” than about protecting Russia from America’s expanding “empire.”

The U.S. should not intervene and treat Moscow as an adversary. To the contrary, Washington should stay out of the conflict and maintain a passable relationship with Russia.