Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Restoring the Old-Fashioned Budget Virtue of … FDR and Truman?!?

This is a column I never expected to write. That’s because I’m going to applaud Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

This won’t be unconstrained applause, to be sure. Roosevelt, after all, pursued awful policies that lengthened and deepened the economic misery of the 1930s. And, as you can see from this video, the “economic bill of rights” that he wanted after WWII was downright malicious.

Truman, meanwhile, was a less consequential figure, but it’s worth noting that he wanted a restoration of the New Deal after WWII, which almost certainly would have hindered and perhaps even sabotaged the recovery.

But just as very few policymakers are completely good, it’s also true that very few policymakers are totally bad. And a review of fiscal history reveals that FDR and Truman both deserve credit for restraining domestic spending during wartime.

In a new column I wrote for The Hill, I specifically responded to the cranky notion, pursued by Bernie Sanders, the openly socialist U.S. senator from Vermont, that there should be tax hikes on the rich to finance military operations overseas.

The idea has a certain perverse appeal to libertarians. We don’t like nation-building and we don’t like punitive tax policy, so perhaps mixing them together would encourage Republicans to think twice (or thrice) before trying to remake the world.

But “perverse appeal” isn’t the same as “good policy.”

Confused about the Middle East? So Is the United States

Since the Arab Spring, many Middle Eastern countries have fallen into political chaos like dominoes. This week’s explosion of conflict in Yemen is just the most recent example. Though many of these conflicts are based on local grievances, they are being exacerbated by the involvement of the region’s larger states, and by the United States.

America’s leaders denounce intervention by unfriendly states like Iran. Yet the United States ignores or even enables such actions by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. In doing so, America is simply contributing to the mess in the Middle East. Washington should back off and refuse to get more deeply involved in further Middle Eastern conflicts.

Yemen’s conflict is nothing new; the Houthi rebels have been active in Yemen for more than a decade, and captured the capital in January, forcing President Hadi to flee south. This week, as the rebels finally reached the southern city of Aden, Hadi fled, and apparently appealed to Saudi Arabia for help in combatting the Iranian-backed insurgency.

Yesterday evening, that help arrived in the form of a massive Saudi air campaign and a reported 150,000 troops. The Saudi efforts are supported by a number of other GCC and Arab states, as well as U.S. logistical and intelligence support.

But like everything in the Middle East today, this conflict isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The Houthis are indeed aligned with Iran, and probably receive monetary support. But they also represent a sizeable fraction of the Yemeni population, and many of their policies – such as opposition to U.S. drone strikes in Yemen – are widely popular. Even more confusing, the Houthis are also adamantly opposed to Al Qaeda, and have spent substantial time and resources fighting AQAP fighters inside Yemen.

This conflict fits with a broader pattern of post-Arab Spring clashes in the Middle East, conflicts which are complex and local in nature, but which are treated as simply proxy wars or sectarian conflicts. The fear that Iran might make gains in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya and elsewhere drives Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to respond militarily, increasing tensions and conflict.

The U.S. response to this complex reality has been to reflexively back traditional U.S. allies. But in doing so, American policy has become confused, contradictory and overleveraged. We’re working towards similar goals as Iran inside Iraq, opposing them in Syria and Yemen, all while trying to reach a nuclear deal before the March 31st deadline. How this mess of policy contradictions is supposed to produce viable results is anybody’s guess.

Yemen has a long history of instability, and any military solution to the crisis will likely fail to produce a long-term solution; it will just paper over the problem. It’s not even clear whether the reinstallation of the Hadi government would be best for U.S. interests: though a Houthi government is unlikely to allow U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda, they might prove more effective at fighting the group than the government has.

America should stop reflexively backing traditional U.S. allies in the region, and refrain from deeper involvement in these conflicts. Instead, we should think more clearly about when (and whether) the United States should be involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, and about how such actions fit our overall strategic goals. Because one thing is certain: further U.S. intervention in the Middle East would be an exceedingly bad choice.   

Make the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal: Failure Is Not an Option

Iran has been one of Washington’s chief antagonists for nearly four decades. But a deal to keep Tehran from building nuclear weapons is in sight.

Tehran, though an ugly regime, does not threaten America. The United States is the globe’s greatest military power with the most sophisticated nuclear arsenal and finest conventional force.

Tehran’s leaders are malign actors, but nevertheless have reason to feel insecure. In 1953 Washington helped overthrow the democratically elected prime minister. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama regularly declared military action to be “on the table.”

Israel is concerned over a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, but when asked in 2011 whether Iran would drop a nuke on Israel, former Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded “Not on us and not on any other neighbor.” Israeli Defense Force’s Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz observed: “I think the Iranian leadership is comprised of very rational people.” Who recognize Israel’s overwhelming retaliatory capacity.

Washington’s ally the Shah started the Iranian program. Tehran’s motive, noted former Mossad head and national security adviser Efraim Halevy, “is not the confrontation with Israel, but the desire to restore to Iran the greatness of which it was long deprived.”

The GOP and the Great War Spending Scam

I have an op-ed in The National Interest dealing with the GOP’s intramural squabble over defense spending levels in the House and Senate’s budget resolutions for fiscal year 2016, which have now passed their committees.

I explain there how the Republican chairmen of both committees tried to restrain military spending, but lost out to military hawks in their caucus in a newly pernicious way. The resolutions limit appropriations to the legally mandated cap for non-war “defense” spending. But they stuff $38 billion that the White House wanted for the Pentagon above the cap into the uncapped war (“Overseas Contingency Operations” or OCO) account, taking an established scam to evade caps and making it far larger and more blatant. If these spending levels hold, in 2016 the Pentagon would get a total budget roughly equal to its current one, but a much bigger chunk of it would come via OCO.

Thus far, then, the fight between GOP budget and fiscal hawks has produced a compromise that offers a new sort of militarism amid a pretension of fiscal responsibility. That outcome, I argue, may be worse than giving the administration a deal to raise the cap:

The problem … isn’t just that military spending is too high. It is also that this method of paying creates perverse incentives. If OCO becomes an auxiliary Pentagon fund that exists to escape caps, war becomes the Pentagon’s budgetary salvation. Historically, the elements of the defense establishment benefit from a public sense of insecurity, but not necessarily war. This new set-up could change that.

I say “may” be worse because of a couple uncertainties. One is that hawks upset about this arrangement may have a point. They worry that locating this money in a shrinking war account makes it unlikely to last. I hope not.

Second, the reaction of Democrats is uncertain. Some may work with Republican budget hawks to strip the extra OCO money out on the floor, which has happened before, albeit on a smaller scale. Under current Senate rules, that apparently takes only 50 votes. But those Democrats–like President Obama, Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI), and various other heavies–who want to boost military spending may agree to do so through OCO. Where the leadership comes down, I can’t say.

Putin Returns

In a piece published today over at Townhall, I talk about Vladimir Putin’s recent disappearance from the public eye, and why it wasn’t as big a deal as you might think.

The rumors surrounding his ten-day disappearance ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was kept busy, scotching speculation that the Russian leader was ill, quashing reports of a power struggle within the Kremlin, and refuting assertions that Putin had been absent to attend the birth of his new child.

When Putin finally reappeared on Monday, he waved away all questions about his absence, simply noting that “life would be boring without gossip.”  We’ll probably never know where Putin was for those ten days, though his pallor implied a minor illness. Given the consistent unwillingness of the Kremlin to divulge information about Putin’s personal life, the whole thing may have been nothing more than the flu.

But it’s worth asking why Putin’s disappearance caused such a media furor. Putin’s centrality to the Russian political system is so well-accepted that commentators and policymakers routinely treat Putin himself as sole representative of the Russian state, psychoanalyzing the man for insight into Russian foreign policy choices. His disappearance, therefore, implied the possibility of chaos in Russia.

Putin is certainly the key figure in Russian politics today, in terms of both personality and power. His ability to mediate between key factions inside the Russian state has allowed him to solidify power, and to govern far more effectively than his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, ever did. He is still overwhelmingly popular. Yet Putin is not the only player in Russian politics. He has a number of close, senior advisors, many of whom could fill a central role in the system Putin built. His death or incapacitation would be a shock, but it wouldn’t necessarily result in major political changes.

Obviously, we can’t predict the future. After all, who could have predicted when Boris Yeltsin picked a young, unknown former intelligence operative as his presidential successor how successful Putin would be in reining in the corrupt excesses of the Russian state, or how effectively he would undermine Russian democratic reforms?

Yet it is unlikely that Putin’s departure from office, no matter when it occurs, will result in chaos and the collapse of the Russian government. It is even less plausible that his death would result in a pro-democracy or pro-Western protest movement like the one we saw in Ukraine.

Instead, as I argue in the article, it is probable that one of Putin’s close advisors would become his successor, taking over as Russia’s president, probably with a thin veneer of legitimacy in the form of largely uncontested elections. With a similar background and worldview, this successor would simply continue many of Putin’s policies. In short, Putin’s Russia – and its odious foreign policy – probably isn’t going anywhere, even if the man himself does. 

Washington Should Stop Equating Ugly Regimes and Security Threats

President Obama raised eyebrows last week when he issued an executive order declaring Venezuela to be a threat to national security.  It would be pertinent to ask just how that deeply divided, nearly bankrupt country could menace the security of the global superpower.  Venezuela has no long-range ballistic missiles or bombers, much less nuclear weapons.  It does not have a large, well-equipped army.  The Venezuelan navy is both small and antiquated.  Although rumors continue to circulate that the leftist government of President Nicolás Maduro flirts with terrorist organizations in neighboring Colombia and elsewhere, those reports remain little more than rumors.

Most telling, Obama’s executive order did not cite evidence that Venezuela actually posed a threat to the security and well-being of the United States.  Instead, it focused on the Maduro regime’s ill-treatment of the Venezuelan people.  The executive order is a textbook example of an overly broad definition of national security.  The White House emphasized that the order imposed sanctions on officials who undermined democratic processes or institutions, abused human rights, were involved in prohibiting or penalizing freedom of expression, or were guilty of corruption.  White House spokesman Josh Earnest declared that the United States now had the tools to block the financial assets of Venezuelan officials “past and present” who dare “violate the human rights of Venezuelan citizens and engage in acts of public corruption.”

Those are all tragic aspects of that country’s dysfunctional political system.  There is little question that Venezuela’s government is horrifyingly corrupt and autocratic.  Cato’s Juan Carlos Hidalgo has ably described the many abuses committed by both Maduro and his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez..  It may well take Venezuela a generation or more to recover from the socialist idiocies of those two rulers.  But as I point out in the pages of the National Interest Online,  just because a regime is repugnant does not make it a credible security threat to the United States.

Obama’s executive order is ominous because it signals a return to the overuse of national security justifications that was so common in previous administrations.  It should be recalled that U.S. officials asserted, apparently while maintaining straight faces, that such small, weak adversaries as North Vietnam, Serbia, Iraq, and Cuba posed dire national security threats.  The ensuing policies produced frustrating, counterproductive results.  Indeed, in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq, the outcomes of such a promiscuous invocation of U.S. security needs were disastrous wars that squandered hundreds of billions of tax dollars and snuffed out the lives of thousands of American military personnel.  One might hope that policymakers had learned from those bruising experiences and would avoid such folly in the future.

It is imperative to adopt a more rigorous standard about what does and does not constitute a threat to national security.  A foreign regime’s domestic behavior, however reprehensible, does not per se pose a menace to America.  The actions of Maduro and his henchmen fall into that category.  Venezuela’s government is riddled with corruption and behaves in a disturbingly repressive fashion toward political opponents.  But that makes Venezuela an obnoxious neighbor, not a security threat to the United States.  

Administration Should Speed Military Withdrawal From Afghanistan

America has been at war in Afghanistan for more than 13 years. U.S. troop levels peaked at 140,000 in 2010. More than 2200 Americans died in a conflict reflecting little more than purposeless inertia.

The U.S. is leaving, but not entirely and maybe not soon. Warned NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove in January, “we are going to continue to have casualties.” The formal combat mission might be over, but combat is not.

Roughly half of the 10,600 American troops are supposed to depart by the end of the year, with the rest scheduled to go in 2016. But the administration is considering slowing the withdrawal.

Washington intervened in Afghanistan with two overriding objectives:  destroy al-Qaeda and oust its Taliban hosts. The U.S. quickly fulfilled both goals. But then the Bush administration lost interest in the country.

Instead of ending Washington’s half-hearted misadventure at nation-building, the Obama administration twice doubled down. Some progress was made, but when I visited I found only limited confidence in private.

Washington and its allies built a large government bureaucracy and security force in Kabul, but on a potential foundation of sand. The Afghan government is noted for venality, incompetence, and corruption.