Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Congress Should Stand Firm on Spending Caps

Rumors abound that budget negotiators are nearing a possible deal to reverse spending cuts required under the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is hoping his colleagues will stand firm and reject any deal. He told reporters last week that it would be “a bad idea to revisit a law that’s actually working and reducing spending.” But he is competing with military spending advocates such as Reps. Buck McKeon and Mac Thornberry. They claim that the dangers confronting the United States today are graver than ever, that the costs to address these threats are rising and cannot be contained, and removing the defense spending caps is necessary to ensure the United States remains safe and secure.

They are wrong on all counts.

First, some context on spending: The Pentagon’s base budget, excluding the costs of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, remains 26 percent higher than in 2000, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Under the spending caps established by BCA, Pentagon spending would average around $528 billion per year from 2013 to 2021, over 18 percent higher than during a typical year in the Cold War.

This is curious considering the threats facing the United States were far greater then. The threats today are declining, not rising. In fact, all forms of violence, from cataclysmic great power wars, to civil wars and ethnic conflicts, have declined to historic lows.

To be sure, some insurance against potential threats is wise, in the unlikely event that current favorable trends are reversed, but we can maintain our safety while spending less because technological advances allow today’s military to address possible threats with fewer people and fewer platforms. U.S. naval vessels have far more striking power than the early 20th century dreadnaughts, just as precision-guided munitions have rendered today’s aircraft at least 10 times more capable of striking targets as their dumb-bomb-dropping precursors. To be sure, these new platforms are much more expensive, but the military services and their suppliers are more cost-conscious today than a decade ago, as when the Air Force recently killed a plan to outfit the next-generation bomber with a $300,000 kitchenette. Such excesses might be resurrected if BCA opponents succeed in changing the law.

The reforms extend well beyond procurement. In 2011, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen admitted that the military hadn’t been forced “to make the hard choices” because they had all the money they requested, plus a little more. Today, the spending caps are forcing the services to prioritize.

For example, austerity has focused attention on the military’s antiquated compensation system. Today’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are better compensated than those who served during World War II or the Cold War. And they should be. A modern military must compete to attract and retain the best and the brightest, and that costs money.

The current trajectory of personnel costs is unsustainable, however. Pay and benefits are already eating into other Pentagon spending accounts, including procurement, operations and maintenance, and training. The net effect may impair military readiness. Now, even outspoken military spending advocates, such as Reps. Duncan Hunter and Adam Kinzinger, both veterans of the post-9/11 military, have endorsed changes, including expecting working-age retirees to pick up more of their health care costs.

There is, in fact, broad, bipartisan support for proposals that touch what were once thought of as the third-rails of Pentagon politics. In addition to compensation reform for active-duty military personnel, a letter signed by scholars from the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for American Progress, and the Brookings Institution, among others, also calls for shrinking the Pentagon’s sprawling civilian workforce and reducing overhead, including eliminating excess base capacity.

The most important piece of the military spending puzzle remains the United States’ hyperactive foreign policy. Even if we were to implement the sensible reforms made politically realistic by spending caps, we would still spend more than we need to keep Americans safe. That is because today’s military is mainly geared toward defending others. By discouraging our allies from doing more to defend themselves and their interests, U.S. policymakers have ensured that U.S. troops bear disproportionate burdens, and U.S. taxpayers pay disproportionate costs. If we are going to spend less on the military in the next ten years than we have over the last ten, we must ask our smaller, cheaper military to do less. And we must expect others to do more.

The Budget Control Act, for all its flaws, has managed to deliver something once thought impossible: actual spending cuts. Our military remains second to none, despite those cuts, and might be stronger in the future because of them. A deal to cancel or reverse those cuts threatens to derail sensible reform proposals that could deliver far larger savings to taxpayers in the future.

Sen. McConnell is right: Congress should stand firm.

A Security Agreement with Afghanistan?

A loya jirga, an assembly of 3,000 or so Afghan leaders, is currently reviewing a draft bilateral security agreement that would allow U.S. and other foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan until 2024. Even if it passes with few substantive changes, the agreement is unlikely to please anyone.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he will not sign it, and the few remaining hawks in the United States will point to some military leaders’ call for a much larger force to remain for a generation or more, and accuse President Obama of fecklessness. 

Most Americans, however, are likely to have the opposite reaction: a force of 8,000 is too large, and ten years is too long. A senior administration official’s assertion to the New York Times that “there is no scenario in which those forces would stay in Afghanistan until anywhere near 2024,” isn’t likely to be very reassuring. We’ve heard before that open-ended missions wouldn’t be, or that U.S. troops would eventually come home.  

The president’s supporters, including Secretary of State John Kerry, characterize the agreement as an acceptable compromise that ensures legal protections for Americans stationed in Afghanistan, while also granting the United States access for continued counterterrorism operations, including raids in Afghan homes, said to be one of the last sticking points of the negotiations.

The details must still be worked out, and it is possible that the loya jirga will alter the agreement, or vote it down. If the legal protections for American citizens are stripped out, or if there is no agreement, then the U.S. military mission should be withdrawn entirely from Afghanistan. As in the case in Iraq, when a democratically elected government refused the Obama administration’s reasonable request to shield U.S. troops from the vagaries of Iraqi justice, no deal should mean no troops. This story is far from over, and I will be watching as more details emerge. 

This much is clear, however: The enthusiasm for quixotic nation-building crusades that swept through Washington a few years ago has been replaced by a welcome skepticism. Senior military officers dressed it up with a fancy name–COIN–but the public never bought what they were selling. Now even some scholars within the military establishment are pushing back. A force of 100,000 wasn’t nearly large enough to accomplish a nation-building mission, and, the Obama administration no longer even pretends that that is the true object. A mere 8,000 foreign troops will have trouble enough training an Afghan army beset by illiteracy, absenteeism, and corruption. Any pretense that the few U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan after 2014 can write Afghan legal codes, build a functioning political system, put the country on the road to economic self-sufficiency, and protect the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities is out the window. 

But the critical constraint on any lingering nation-building fantasies is the American people who want this nation’s longest war to be over. They should be forgiven for believing that it would be by now, given that President Obama intoned repeatedly during last year’s campaign that he was committed to ending it.

He hasn’t yet.  

TSA, Terrorism, and Civil Liberties

My new study on the Transportation Security Administration mainly focuses on the agency’s poor management and performance. The TSA has a near monopoly on security screening at U.S. airports, and monopoly organizations usually end up being bloated, inefficient, and providing low-quality services. 

The study proposes contracting out or “privatizing” airport screening, which is the structure of aviation security used successfully in Canada and many European countries.

I briefly discuss some of the civil liberties problems surrounding TSA. Note that Cato’s Jim Harper also addresses those issues in his work, as does Robert Poole of Reason Foundation. I noticed this recent blog post by Poole that nicely summarizes some of the realities of TSA, terrorism, and civil liberties:

A couple of years ago Jonathan Corbett, a tech entrepreneur from Miami, posted videos online showing him successfully passing through TSA airport body scanners with a metal box concealed under his clothing, seeking to demonstrate that the scanners are an ineffective replacement for walk-through metal detectors for primary screening. In 2010 he filed a lawsuit contending that body-scanning and pat-downs are both unreasonable searches that violate the Fourth Amendment.

As part of the discovery process, TSA provided Corbett with 4,000 pages of documents, many of them classified. He was allowed to produce two versions of his brief, one containing extracts of classified material, and available only to the court, and a heavily redacted version which could be made public. But as several news sites reported last month, a clerk in the US Court of Appeals (11th District) mistakenly posted the classified version online, and it was quickly noticed and reproduced on various websites. Although the court issued a gag order prohibiting Corbett from talking about the classified material, there was no way to stop others from doing so.

NATO’s $1 Billion Monument to Irrelevance

A November 13 article in Reuters discusses the growing controversy over NATO’s new headquarters being built outside of Brussels. The price tag—some $1 billion—has raised more than a few eyebrows. “When defense budgets are being cut and in general when governments are under so much pressure from taxpayers to save money, it looks terribly extravagant,” opines Daniel Keohane, head of a leading think tank in Belgium. Several members of the British parliament also have questioned the cost.

NATO officials, though, defend the project, asserting that the existing headquarters, built in 1967, has outlived its usefulness. Of course, the same point could be made with far greater validity about the NATO alliance itself. After all, it was created during the depths of the Cold War in 1949 to, as Lord Harold Ismay, NATO’s secretary general at the time, pithily observed, “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Given the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s manifold demographic, economic, and military limitations as a successor state, that mission now seems to be more than a little obsolete. The past two decades, the alliance has been conducting a frantic search for relevant new missions, resulting in a dubious decision to add members in Eastern Europe and wage even more dubious wars in places like Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Not only is NATO an alliance in search of purpose, but the willingness of the European members to free-ride on the military commitment of the United States to Europe’s defense is now even worse than it was during the Cold War. The already anemic military budgets of NATO’s European members have sagged further, and in some cases they are in virtual free fall. To build a billion-dollar, palatial headquarters under such circumstances exhibits contempt for taxpayers—especially U.S. taxpayers.

There seems to be a tendency of U.S. officials to endorse the building of expensive monuments to institutional egos at precisely the time that the institution in question has lost relevance. We saw that process take place in Iraq. Just as the nation-building mission was quickly heading south, the Bush administration built an embassy in Baghdad that was nearly as large as Vatican City. Today, it stands as a symbol of how badly Washington exaggerated the extent of America’s interests in Iraq and misconstrued the extent of U.S. influence there. With the construction of NATO’s new headquarters, we have yet another monument to hubris.

Venezuela’s House of Cards

The story of the Venezuelan economy and its troubled currency, the bolivar, can be summed up with the following phrase: “From bad to worse”—over and over again. Yes, the ever deteriorating situation in Venezuela has taken yet another turn for the worse.

In a panicked, misguided response to the country’s economic woes, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has requested emergency powers over the economy. And the Maduro government recently announced plans to institute a new exchange rate for tourists in an attempt to quash arbitrage-driven currency smuggling.

These measures will likely prove too little, too late for the Venezuelan economy and its troubled currency, the bolivar. Indeed, the country’s economy has been in decline since Hugo Chavez imposed his unique brand of socialism on Venezuela.

For years, Venezuela has sustained a massive social spending program, combined with costly price and labor controls, as well as an aggressive annual foreign aid strategy. This fiscal house of cards has been kept afloat—barely—by oil revenues.

But as the price tag of the Chavez/Maduro regime has grown, the country has dipped more and more into the coffers of its state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and (increasingly) the country’s central bank.

Since Chavez’s death, this house of cards has begun to collapse, and the black market exchange rate between the bolivar (VEF) and the U.S. dollar (USD) tells the tale. Since Chavez’s death on March 5, 2013, the bolivar has lost 62.36% of its value on the black market, as shown in the chart below the jump.

War Is Stupid: Remembering Armistice Day Before Veterans Day

Another year, another Veterans Day. But November 11 began as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I.  The day remains a stark reminder of the stupidity of war.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 World War I came to an end.  In succeeding years allied states commemorated the conflict’s end on November 11.

Some 20 million people died in World War I.  The horrific conflict brought down the continent’s established order, loosed the pestilence of totalitarianism, and led to even deadlier World War II.  The Great War, as it was originally called, was stupid beyond measure.

As the 20th century dawned, Europe enjoyed both peace and prosperity.  However, Europe’s environment was combustible.  One match strike set the continent ablaze.

On June 28, 1914 the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, in Sarajevo, capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia.

Vienna decided to use this act of state terrorism to break its Serbian antagonist.  Germany stood by its ally.  However, Serbia was backed by Russia, which in turn was allied with France.  As conflict erupted other combatants jumped or were drawn in.  The contending blocs, the Central Powers versus the Entente, acted as transmission belts of war.

There really was little to choose from between the two militaristic blocs.  The sins of the Central Powers are well-known, but the Entente’s members were no angels.

Serbia’s military intelligence was implicated in the Archduke’s murder.  Tsarist Russia was an anti-Semitic despotism.  Historically France was dangerous and militaristic, and its revanchist desire for war with Germany was strong.  Britain opposed Germany more for commercial and imperial than humanitarian reasons.  Belgium was perhaps the worst colonial power, responsible for the deaths of millions in the Belgian Congo.

The early Americans were determined to avoid getting entangled in imperial European affairs.  However, as I point out in my latest Forbes online column, by World War I the U.S. had changed:

The so-called Progressives, led by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, had taken charge.  They were statists, imperialists, and militarists—inveterate social engineers on a global scale.  After President Wilson was reelected in 1916, he hoped to remake the international order.  That required America to be a belligerent, even though it had no significant interest in the conflict.

The trigger for U.S. involvement was both foolish and fraudulent.  London broke international law by imposing a starvation blockade on Germany, ultimately killing hundreds of thousands of German civilians.  Berlin responded with a new weapon, the submarine. 

Some Americans died after traveling on British vessels, which carried bullets as well as babies.  The famous Lusitania was an armed reserve cruiser carrying munitions through a war zone—making it a legitimate military target.  

However, under pressure from the allied-sympathetic Wilson, Germany suspended U-boat attacks until February 1917.  After Berlin resumed unrestricted submarine warfare President Wilson chose war.  Some 200,000 Americans died, the victims of a president suffering from a toxic mix of egotism and myopia. 

Alas, contra people’s hopes, the conflict did not turn out to be the War to End War.  Washington’s entry allowed imposition of the Versailles Treaty, a “Diktat” highlighted by the allies’ greedy grab for plunder amid sanctimonious claims of justice.  Adolf Hitler and World War II were the conflict’s most disastrous consequences.

Sometimes wars must be fought, and sometimes even the stupidest wars cannot be avoided.  But often they could and should be.  Like World War I.

To criticize America’s wars is not to doubt the patriotism and bravery of those who fought.  Rather, to criticize the conflicts is to highlight the foolishness, arrogance, and ignorance of those who launched new wars or intervened in old ones. 

After this Veterans Day Americans should contemplate how they have allowed politicians to drag the U.S. into unnecessary and costly wars, filling Arlington Cemetery and so many other final resting places with America’s finest.  After this Veterans Day Americans should rededicate themselves to peace.

TSA Wastes $1 Billion on SPOT

A new GAO report recommends that Congress end the SPOT program, which attempts to catch terrorists by suspicious behaviors they may exhibit at airport checkpoints. The Transportation Security Administration currently spends more than $200 million a year on the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, even though there has been criticism from the start that there is no solid science behind it.

Here are observations about SPOT from my new Cato study on the TSA to be released next Tuesday:

The SPOT program illustrates the problems with top-down federal control over aviation security. The TSA ‘deployed SPOT nationwide before first determining whether there was a scientifically valid basis’ for it, notes the GAO. Nor did the TSA perform a cost-benefit analysis of SPOT before it was deployed. That is the way that the federal government often works—it rolls out an expensive ‘solution’ for the entire nation without adequate research, and it resists efforts to cut programs even if the benefits do not materialize.

The new Cato study focuses on a decade of TSA shortcomings and the advantages of privatizing airport security screening. In sharp contrast to the American approach of a federal monopoly over aviation security, the great majority of European countries and Canada use competitive contracting for airport screening.

If you are in D.C. today, please drop by our Capitol Hill noon forum on the TSA.