Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Truth about Military Spending

In April, the CBO projected – based on current law – that the Pentagon would spend roughly $606 billion dollars in 2015. The just-passed House defense budget spends $570.4 billion. Both figures assumed, among other things, that we we would spend about $79 billion for overseas contingency operations (OCO), which is mainly for the war in Afghanistan. We have since learned that the Obama administration’s actual OCO request is likely to be “substantially smaller” than $79 billion, so perhaps $560 or $565 billion in total Pentagon spending when combined with their earlier base budget request.

One glance at Cato’s latest infographic* will tell you that even the lowest of these figures is too high.

For a little perspective, CBO’s original estimate of $606 billion dollars is roughly $10 billion more – in inflation-adjusted dollars – than the Pentagon spent in 2005, when the United States was engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is close to the United States’ Cold War peak of $611 billion in 1985, when the Soviet Union was spending an estimated $590 billion. Today, however, the United States is out of Iraq and is winding down its war in Afghanistan, and its nearest competitors – Russia and China – combined spend less than half as much as the United States on their militaries. Yet, some on the right continue to believe that Pentagon cuts should be off limits, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), who argues that the United States should be spending much more on its military.

Rep. Ryan’s budget proposal would have busted the current spending caps to a tune of nearly $50 billion a year for the next decade. This would have amounted to $500 billion more than is currently projected, and around $1.7 trillion more than was spent in the decade following the Cold War. Incredibly, Ryan called for more spending while admitting that “the Department of Defense has repeatedly revised downward its estimates of the budgetary resources necessary to meet the nation’s security objectives.” Think about that: The military says that it does not need additional funding to meet its objectives, yet Ryan insisted that it should receive more money anyway. Luckily, if the budget that recently passed the House is any indication, few of Ryan’s colleagues seem to agree. Indeed, it now seems almost certain that we will spend less than CBO projected, and far less than Ryan called for. 

Poland’s Alliance with America: Worthless to Whom?

The outspoken Polish Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, apparently believes his nation’s alliance with America is “worthless.”  Washington should not race to reassure him.  Instead, Warsaw should demonstrate why it is worthy of Washington’s support.

A weekly Polish publication received a recording of Sikorski’s conversation in which he declared:  “This Polish-American union is worthless.  It is even harmful because it gives Poland a false sense of security.  Complete [B.S.].  We get into conflicts with the Germans, with Russia, and we think everything’s great because the Americans like us.  Suckers.  Complete suckers.” 

There are suckers in the existing relationship, but they are American rather than Polish.

The United States spends more than four percent of its GDP on the military and accounts for three-fourths of total defense outlays by NATO members.  Poland has been patting itself on the back for recently hiking defense expenditures—to 1.8 percent of GDP.  Overall, America’s contribution to direct NATO expenditures is nearly ten times that of Poland.

The collapse of the Soviet Union exacerbated the discrepancy among alliance members.  While Washington preserved its globe-spanning military, the Europeans cut their armed forces significantly.

Worse, the alliance expanded willy-nilly to the Russian border, bringing in nations combining minimal military capabilities and serious potential disputes with Moscow.  None had ever mattered to American security, but Washington handed out security guarantees like hotels place chocolates on pillows:  everyone got one, including Poland.

American and European officials simply assumed that they would never have to make good on their promises.  Then came the crisis in Ukraine. 

When Does Defense Aid Work?

The debate over an appropriate American response to Iraq’s resurgent violence and the threat of radical rebels has highlighted the challenges and risks of even limited U.S. assistance.

As I argue in a post at The National Interest, Iraq is emblematic of a larger challenge in U.S. foreign policy. President Obama’s West Point address last month emphasized the role of “partner nations” who may leverage US assistance to counter security threats within their own borders and regions. But the president’s speech and subsequent debate about it have largely failed to provide criteria for selecting these partners.

Both the threats (insurgency, instability, radical rebels) and the possible solutions (military advisers and training, direct intervention, pushing for better governance) have cropped up in discussion of numerous other events: Boko Haram’s kidnappings in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab’s siege of Westgate Mall in Kenya, unrest in northern Mali, continuing instability in Libya, and so on.

All of these policy suggestions constitute calls for foreign internal defense (FID) assistance. FID, or “Helping others defend themselves,” sounds like an attractive option while facing a fiscal and domestic political reality that limits prospects for direct intervention. However, the Iraq debate highlights a crucial question: how do we tell the difference between states we can “partner” into effective and self-sufficient stability, versus those that risk pulling the US into local quagmires or exacerbating security problems?

Policymakers, media, and the American public are asking these questions about Iraq, in part because we have a lot of information about Iraq’s internal dynamics. But we should ask these questions about other potential partners too.

Join us to discuss the challenges and opportunities of Foreign Internal Defense aid next month at our Cato Policy Forum on the topic. Register here.

Obama Administration Should Keep U.S. Out Of Iraq’s Revived Killfest

The uber-hawks and neocons who led America into the disastrous invasion of Iraq are campaigning for a repeat.  If only the U.S. will go to war along the Euphrates a second time, they promise, everything will turn out well.

As I point out on Forbes online:  “Americans should ignore these Sirens of Death.  Attempting to forcibly transform Iraq never was Washington’s responsibility.  Having botched the job once, U.S. policymakers should not try again.” 

Refusal to Set Military Priorities Creates Strategic Bankruptcy

The U.S. government is financially bankrupt and can ill afford to police the world.  Unfortunately, U.S. policymakers refuse to reconsider even the most antiquated security promise.  The result is strategic bankruptcy as well.

In the aftermath of World War II the U.S. effectively took over the defense of much of Asia and Europe, fought or supported combatants in several Third World proxy wars, engaged in nation-building, and otherwise routinely intervened around the globe.

Despite a changed world, the U.S. continues to defend now wealthy Asian and European client states.  American military personnel continue to die fighting in Third World conflicts, only in different nations.  Washington continues to attempt to micromanage the globe.

How Political Repression Breeds Islamic Radicalism

Following the decision upholding numerous death penalties for Muslim Brotherhood members accused of a 2013 attack on a police station, Egypt has recently seen the conclusion of another sham trial, resulting in harsh sentences for three al-Jazeera journalists, accused of aiding terrorists.

While it is obvious that trials like these move Egypt further away from freedom, could they also be inadvertently helping Islamic radicals? My new development bulletin argues that political repression of the kind we are seeing in Egypt creates incentives for Islamists to use violence in order to attain their goals.

Iraq, where ISIS is making continual progress fighting the government of Nouri al-Maliki, is an extreme example of where things can end when political elites exclude a significant part of the population from democratic politics. Al-Maliki’s premiership has been marked by a strengthening of his own hold to power, progressively alienating the country’s Sunni population.

My paper argues that the electoral successes of Islamists in Arab Spring countries have relatively little to do with religion but rather with the organizational characteristics of Islamic political groups, which were typically active in the provision of local public goods and social services. Instead of seeing the rise of Islamic political organizations as a pathology that needs to be countered – possibly through repressive means – we should note that,

[I]n transitional environments, the electoral success of Islamists is a natural result of the political environment, which can be mitigated only by an increase in the credibility of alternative political groups. The electoral advantage enjoyed by Islamic parties can be expected to dissipate over time as competing political groups establish channels of communication, promise verification for their voters, and build reputation over time.

Furthermore,

There is no denying that religion and politics do not always mix well. However, the appropriate answer to the ugly side of religious politics is not political repression of the kind we are seeing in Egypt but rather open, competitive democratic politics.

NATO - What Is It Good For?

With continuing instability in Ukraine, and Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorski allegedly using vulgar and racist language to disparage the US-Poland alliance, now’s as good a time as any to evaluate what NATO does for Americans.

Not much, I argue in Foreign Policy (online). As I conclude:

NATO has produced some benefits, but the costs to the United States – tens of billions per year, validating Russian nationalist narratives about the West, and infantilizing its European partners – are often ignored. Washington should cut the Europeans loose, and encourage them to cooperate with each other on European security matters. With a combined GDP larger than the United States and a benign threat environment, Europeans are capable of defending themselves, but won’t until Washington makes them.

Please give it a read.