Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Dick Cheney, Dove?

Rumors continue to swirl that North Korea is about to conduct a test of its long-range Taepodong 2 missile, which would be capable of reaching targets in the United States. The prospect of Pyongyang having not only a small nuclear arsenal but the means eventually to deliver such weapons at great distances has understandably generated agitated commentary in the United States and East Asia.

The latest entry is a Washington Post op-ed by former Clinton administration defense department officials Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry. Carter and Perry suggest that if the North Koreans do not heed U.S. warnings to refrain from conducting the missile test, the Bush administration should launch preemptive air strikes to take out the missile while it is still on the launch pad. Surprisingly, Vice President Dick Cheney rejected their idea.

It is clear that extremist and reckless proposals have come to dominate a policy debate when Dick Cheney is the resident dove. The Carter-Perry article provides more evidence (as if we needed it) that foreign policy irresponsibility is not confined to neoconservatives in the Republican Party.

Those who propose attacking North Korea need to sit down and take a deep breath. First of all, the rumors about a missile test may or may not be true. On at least two occasions since Pyongyang announced a moratorium on testing in 1999, there have been reports that the test of a long-range missile was imminent. Those reports proved unfounded. This one may as well.

Even if North Korea does conduct a test of the Taepodong 2, it is not the end of the world. Granted, every sensible person would wish that the weird hermit kingdom did not have either nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. But the United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them with pinpoint accuracy. We’ve deterred other weird regimes in the past, most notably Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. We should be able to deter the likes of Kim Jong-il. The North Korean regime, while bizarre and brutally repressive, has never shown signs of suicidal behavior. And attacking a nation that possesses thousands of nukes would definitely be suicidal.

The decision to launch preemptive air strikes would certainly be more dangerous than relying on deterrence. If the Bush administration follows the advice of Carter and Perry and attacks North Korea, it could easily trigger a general war on the Korean Peninsula. The last Korean war cost the lives of millions of Koreans and more than 50,000 Americans. We should spurn any proposal that risks a repetition. 

Dick Cheney is right to be a dove on this issue. One only wishes that the viewpoint becomes habit forming. 

I Voted for What?

Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) is an important man in Congress. He serves on the House Armed Services Committee and chairs its Military Personnel Subcommittee which spends $85 billion annually.

Whether he knows how that money is spent is an open question. The Hill reported today that McHugh voted for a defense authorization bill that included a provision “he said he philosophically opposed.” (The provision overrode a federal court’s decision in a dispute between National Guard members and the government about who should pay for correspondence courses).

McHugh apparently had not read the defense authorization bill. Never mind, everyone does it, as The Hill reports, “It is no secret that some — if not most — lawmakers vote on bills that they do not read in their entirety.” McHugh notes that “hundreds and hundreds” of provisions come through, and he relies on his staff “for judgment on more routine matters.”

Members of Congress are elected to work on behalf of their constituents. How can they do that if they don’t read the bills they pass? It is true that the government is so large that supervising how well past laws are being implemented, much less reading bills, takes a lot of time and effort. Maybe more time and effort than even a hard-working member has.

Here’s a thought for members of Congress: maybe the fact that you don’t read the bills you vote for means the government has grown well beyond anyone’s control. Maybe — and this will be shocking to you — the government is too big.

Still Fighting the Last War

The right half of the blogosphere is abuzz with Senator Santorum’s revelation that since 2003 Coalition forces have recovered some 500 pre-1991 artillery shells and other munitions that contain “degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent.” (Not much of a revelation, given that in 2004 the Coalition’s Iraq Survey Group acknowledged the existence [.pdf, p. 18] of pre-Gulf-War shells).

It’s all a bit sad and embarrassing. Do the folks trumpeting this story really expect Americans to hear it and gasp: “My God: Saddam might have put some of those degraded mustard gas shells on his unmanned aerial vehicles, and dusted an American city. I’ve had my doubts about this war, but in the end, it was worth it after all!”

The WMD-based justification for the war never made much sense. As Gregg Easterbrook (among others) has pointed out, “WMD” is a misnomer, particularly when applied to chemical weapons: “Chemical weapons are dangerous, to be sure, but not ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in any meaningful sense. In actual use, chemical arms have proven less deadly than regular bombs, bullets, and artillery shells.” Sure, all of that stuff will kill you, if used properly. But none of it is worthy of the scare term “WMD”–certainly not the sort of decrepit ordnance Santorum’s talking about. Still less can it serve as post hoc justification for the war.

Grand Bargain Bandwagon Gaining Steam

During Condoleezza Rice’s May 31 press conference announcing that the US would look favorably on joining the EU3 talks with Iran, Secretary Rice was at pains to point out that

This is not a grand bargain. I want to make very clear we are not talking here about what some have characterized as a grand bargain. 

Listening to Rice deliver that line, I was struck by the fact that John Bolton’s remarks not 10 days before sounded an awful lot like a grand bargain:

[I]f [the Iranians] do what Libya did, the same thing will happen.  The “regime stay” strategy is following the Libyan example…I’ve probably said a thousand times that the Libya example is there for both North Korea and Iran to see, and that’s all I’ve ever said and this wasn’t any different.

Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program and paid up for the Lockerbie bombing.  We then removed them from the state sponsors of terror list and normalized diplomatic relations with the Khaddafi government.  If that’s not a grand bargain, what is it?

Now, former NSC senior director Flynt Leverett is on the NYT op-ed page blasting his former employer.  Why?

[B]y refusing to consider a “grand bargain” with Iran — that is, resolution of Washington’s concerns about Tehran’s weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism in return for American security guarantees, an end to sanctions and normalization of diplomatic relations — the Bush administration is courting failure in its nuclear diplomacy and paving the way for Russia and China to win the larger strategic contest.

[…]

By continuing to reject a grand bargain with Tehran, the Bush administration has done nothing to increase the chances that Iran will accept meaningful long-term restraints on its nuclear activities. It has also done nothing to ensure that the United States wins the longer-term struggle for Iran. Such a grand bargain is precisely what is required, not only to forestall Iran’s effective nuclearization in the next three to five years, but also to position the United States for continued leadership in the Middle East for the next decade and beyond.

The calls for talks with Iran got so loud that the Bush administration could no longer ignore them.  One can only hope that the same thing will happen for those of us who have been calling for a grand bargain.  Otherwise, Iran may be able to use the rope-a-dope diplomacy that North Korea has used so effectively, buying the Iranians enough time to present us with a nuclear fait accompli before we can get to the bottom diplomatic line.

There’s a time to cut to the chase, and that time is now.  As Ted Carpenter and I wrote in April, a grand bargain

would test the Iranian side’s faith immediately, without endless haranguing over peripheral or esoteric issues. We would determine rather quickly whether negotiations would be worth the breath.

More importantly, with a full-scale deal on the table, the Iranians would have no excuses to back away. If they refused the deal, there would be only one conclusion to draw: Tehran is irreversibly determined to develop nuclear weapons.

We don’t need to panic, but time isn’t on our side here.  The worst-case estimate (.pdf) is that Iran could be three years away from a bomb, and the US intelligence consensus says 5-10 years.  Still, there’s no need to drag this out indefinitely.  We need to put all of our cards on the table and ask Iran what it’s holding.

Slovak Election Update

Much of the world’s media portrayed the victory of the populist socialist party in the Slovak elections as the voters’ rejection of the free market reforms pursued by the center-right government of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda. Not exactly.

First, the election turnout was only 55 percent (down from 70 percent in 2002). It is true that the socialists increased their support from 13.46 percent in 2002 to 29.14 percent in 2006. But the low election turnout means that the socialists had their program endorsed by only about 14 percent of eligible voters – hardly a ringing endorsement of a return to socialism.

Second, Dzurinda’s party did better than last time. It received 15.09 percent in 2002 and 18.35 percent this year. So did its coalition partners. Christian Democrats were up from 8.25 percent to 8.31 percent and the Hungarian minority party was up from 11.16 percent to 11.68 percent.

The real shockers were the reduction in the support for the Movement for Democratic Slovakia of the former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, which was down from 19.5 percent to 8.79 percent, and the rise of the Slovak National Party, which was not represented in the last parliament, but managed to get 11.73 percent in this year’s election.

The communists, who got 6.32 percent in 2002, did not make it to parliament. Unfortunately, the liberals who got 8.01 percent in 2002, did not make it to parliament either.

So, what does all of this mean?

As has been predicted, the three parties of the center right can count on 65 seats in the Slovak parliament of 150. They will thus be 11 seats short of a majority. The socialists will have 50 seats, but need 76 to form a government. With their racist, homophobic and socialist policies to the left of the communist party, the Slovak National Party will have 20 seats. That leaves Meciar and his 15 seats in the role of the kingmaker.

Ironically, Meciar’s worst electoral performance coincides with a huge increase of his party’s relevance for the future of Slovakia. If he throws his weight behind the socialist leader Robert Fico, he will, once again, take the country down the wrong path. If he goes into coalition with the center-right, the continuity of the liberal reforms will be assured. (Note: The Christian Democrats stated that they will not be in government with Meciar, because of his past authoritarianism. But, they might agree to give him in a largely symbolic role of the chairman of the Slovak parliament.)

The upshot is that under the Slovak electoral system, elections don’t conclude the process of political horse-trading. They begin that process. True, Fico, the socialist leader, will get the first crack at forming a government, but that does not mean much. Both in 1998 and in 2002, it was the second largest party in parliament that formed the government. In both cases, that party was Dzurinda’s party.

One can only hope that history repeats itself.

Stay the (Undefined) Course

The New Republic’s Spencer Ackerman snarks President Bush’s Iraq press conference this morning:

We now have a clear distillation of his Iraq strategy: reducing violence in Iraq to the miraculously calibrated amount that will “enable us to achieve our objectives,” a figure larger than zero violence, since that’s “not going to happen.” It’s a brilliant, sublime concoction of a foreign-policy emulsion, a strategy that requires the sort of precision of measurement befitting the world’s greatest pastry chefs. Add a little too much violence and we “make the world a more dangerous place.” A touch less violence—well, that’s unfair to expect us to accomplish, but “obviously, we would like violence to go down.” Clearly, the only responsible policy in Iraq is to discern, and then achieve, the Magic Number.

Gene Healy and I complained about the empty rhetoric of “stay the course” back in November. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Why Do We Spend So Much on Defense?

Reuters alerts us to the new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which includes a workup on global military expenditures. A few key findings:

World military expenditure in 2005 presents a real terms increase of 3.4 per cent since 2004, and of 34 per cent over the 10-year period 1996–2005. The USA, responsible for about 80 per cent of the increase in 2005, is the principal determinant of the current world trend, and its military expenditure now accounts for almost half of the world total.

[…]

The USA is responsible for 48 per cent of the world total, distantly followed by the UK, France, Japan and China with 4–5 per cent each.(emphasis mine)

The USA is today unchallenged in our hemisphere, and we enjoy friendly relations with almost all great powers in the world, depending on one’s perspective on where the US-China situation is headed. Fighting terrorism the right way–with bolstered intelligence cooperation, small-scale special forces activities and cooperation with our allies–is actually quite cheap.

But we still spend nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. Why? If the threat of terrorism doesn’t justify such massive expenditures, what on Earth are we so afraid of?

There isn’t a good answer. Moreover, even this enormous level of expenditure doesn’t seem to be turning the Bush administration’s ambitious foreign policy aspirations into reality, and the unfortunate mismatch between means and ends is on display daily in Iraq. The thing to do, of course, would be to acknowledge the limits of military power, quickly pull our foreign policy goals into line with our national interests, and stop trying to reshape the culture and politics of faraway peoples that we don’t understand, and who don’t threaten us. Unfortunately, such a correction doesn’t seem to be in the offing.

For a useful and thoughtful critique of US defense spending, see this PA by my former colleague Chuck Pena.