Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Washington Backs Egypt’s New Dictator

As expected, the presidential election in Egypt confirmed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the country’s new leader.  It was not exactly the model of a free and fair election.  Not only had el-Sisi, as the leader of the coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi, been Egypt’s de facto ruler for months, but his military colleagues (and their weaponry) were firmly behind his presidential candidacy.  Security forces had killed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members, Morsi’s political base, and jailed thousands of others, including Morsi himself.  Subservient Egyptian judicial tribunals imposed death sentences on more than eight hundred regime opponents, following trials that did not meet even the most meager standards of due process, in just the past two months. 

Western observers, including a Cato colleague, noted the pervasive censorship in the weeks leading up to the election.  Government-run media outlets maintained a steady barrage of images vilifying Morsi and hailing el-Sisi as the savior of the nation.  The images in the so-called private outlets (the ones that the junta had not shut down) provided images and editorial commentary nearly indistinguishable from the official government publications.

Under such circumstances, the outcome was as predictable as the Crimean “referendum” that ratified Russia’s takeover.  El-Sisi won with nearly 93 percent of the vote.  The only flaw in this orchestrated farce was a low voter turnout, the one permissible way to protest Egypt’s slide back into dictatorship.  But while the Obama administration repeatedly and harshly criticized the electoral charade in Crimea, U.S. officials portrayed the Egyptian election as progress toward democracy.  There was a time when U.S. leaders routinely castigated bogus elections in communist countries that produced wildly lopsided majorities for the incumbent regime.  No such criticism was forthcoming in this case, just as Washington didn’t denounce the earlier balloting for the new Egyptian constitution that produced a 98 percent favorable vote. 

Chief Justice Roberts Again Rewrites Law, Avoids Duty to Hold Government’s Feet to the Constitutional Fire

In today’s ruling in Bond v. United States, the Supreme Court was obviously right to reverse as federal overreaching the conviction of a woman who used certain chemicals to attack her husband’s paramour. This was a “purely local crime,” and the decision to prosecute Carol Anne Bond for it under a law that implements the international Chemical Weapons Convention was an abuse of federal power.

But in deciding the case so narrowly, creatively reinterpreting an expansive federal statute instead of reaching the constitutional issue at the heart of this bizarre case, the Court’s majority abdicated its duty to check the other branches of government. Bond was a case about the scope of the treaty power—can Congress do something pursuant to a treaty that it can’t otherwise do?—and yet the majority opinion avoided that discussion altogether in the name of a faux judicial minimalism. That’s not surprising given that its author is Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to avoid hard calls whenever possible. (Sometimes the practical result is still the right one, as here, sometimes it’s disastrously not, as in NFIB v. Sebelius, the Obamacare case, and sometimes even Roberts finds it impossible to avoid the Court’s constitutional duty, as in Citizens United and Shelby County.)

It was thus left to Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito (in part), to do the hard work—to make those balls-and-strikes calls that Roberts promised at his confirmation hearing—and repudiate Missouri v. Holland, the 1920 case that’s been understood to mean that the federal government can indeed expand its own power by agreeing to do so with a foreign treaty partner. (Scalia’s opinion tracks Cato’s amicus brief closely, and cites my colleague Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s groundbreaking work in this area.)

One other takeaway here is that the Obama administration has yet again lost unanimously at the Supreme Court, adding to its record number of goose eggs—particularly in cases involving preposterous assertions of federal power. Here Chief Justice Roberts provides the apt langiappe: “The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or to treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon.”

Veterans Need Choice in Choosing Health Care

Medical care for veterans has become Washington’s latest scandal du jour.  Those injured while serving their country deserve prompt, quality medical attention. 

Everyone agrees that forcing veterans to wait, and possibly die waiting, for medical care is outrageous.  But what to do?

Caring for veterans isn’t cheap.  Promiscuous war-making over the last decade has generated an influx of patients, many with debilitating injuries. This year VA is expected to spend roughly $151 billion. 

The government has a solemn duty to care for those injured in war.  Yet VA estimated that it has a case-processing backlog of 344,000.  On average it takes vets 160 days to become eligible for benefits. 

After being declared eligible vets had to wait an average of 115 days for a primary care appointment at the VA’s Phoenix facility.  As many as 40 vets may have died waiting.

The IG found such practices to be “systemic.”  In numerous communities VA employees apparently manipulated data and falsified reports to hide patient deaths as well as delays. 

However, the more basic problem is rationing care to meet budget targets.  The agency is short hundreds of primary care physicians.  The pharmaceutical formulary has roughly one-third of the drugs available to Medicare patients.  Available psychiatric services have declined in recent years.

Unfortunately, better management alone cannot fix the agency’s problems.  In 1994 former Rep. Robert E. Bauman wrote:  “the VA is the quintessential government bureaucracy—administratively officious, laden with red tape and meddlesome regulatory minutia destructive of both quality care and staff conduct.”  Quality obviously suffered. 

The Clinton administration put Kenneth Kizer in charge of the department and he made dramatic improvements.  But his success didn’t last.  After leaving Kizer complained that “The culture of the VA has become rather toxic, intolerant of dissenting view and contradictory opinions.  They have lost their commitment to transparency.”

Even today the VA doesn’t do everything badly.  But access is fundamental. 

Complained Hal Scherz, a doctor who served in VA hospitals in San Antonio and San Diego:  “patients were seen in clinics that were understaffed and overscheduled.  Appointments for X-rays and other tests had to be scheduled months in advance, and longer for surgery.” 

Veterans’ organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars traditionally backed a specialized system for vets.  However, many veterans’ health problems are not unusual.  Indeed, the longest waits today are for primary care.  Moreover, there is no reason that only VA facilities can serve patients suffering from combat trauma. 

The federal government should separate the functions of guaranteeing from providing vet access to health care.  As I pointed out in my column on Forbes online:  “Uncle Sam has a sacred obligation to ensure that they receive treatment on their return.  That does not, however, mean the VA must build the hospitals, hire the doctors, and provide the services.”

Government should put money into veterans’ hands to purchase insurance tailored to their special needs.  Existing VA facilities could either be privatized or focused on combat-related ailments common to vets. 

This would be no jump into the unknown.  Specific services are outsourced locally when they are unavailable at a VA facility.  Moreover, only 16 percent of vets rely on the system as their principle caregiver. 

Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam vet, argued:  “Let’s let our veterans choose the health care that they need and want the most and not have to be bound to just going to the VA.”  House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller suggested that the VA at least allow vets who have to wait for more than 30 days to go outside for care at government expense.

Business as usual is not an acceptable response to the latest VA scandal.  We should transform how the government cares for those who performed the toughest service of all.

Our Freeloading Allies

One of the overlooked aspects of President Obama’s speech at West Point yesterday was his call for other countries to step forward, and do more to defend themselves and their interests. He also expected them to contribute “their fair share” in places like Syria.

It might have been overlooked because it was neither new, nor unexpected. Polls consistently show that Americans believe we use our military too frequently, and they are tired of bearing the costs of policing the planet. Meanwhile, the minority who believe that we should be spending more on the military  – 28 percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll – might not feel that same way if they knew how much we spend as compared to the rest of the world, especially our wealthy allies.

This new Cato infographic, prepared with the able assistance of my colleague Travis Evans, might help to put it all in perspective. In addition to showing how much American taxpayers spend, it also shows, indirectly at least, how that spending discourages other countries from spending more to defend themselves.

Exploiting China’s Growing Frustration with North Korea

South Korean officials insist that China now agrees that North Korea’s nuclear program poses a serious security threat to the region.  If that interpretation is accurate, it is a strong indicator that Beijing’s patience with its troublesome ally is wearing very thin.  But as I point out in a new article in China-U.S. Focus, the United States and its East Asian allies have a long-standing tendency to overestimate China’s willingness, even its ability, to restrain Pyongyang without incurring excessive risks to its own national interests.

Rumors continue to swirl that North Korea plans to conduct yet another nuclear test.  China is apparently trying to dissuade its volatile ally from taking such a provocative step.  According to Reuters, Beijing has used various “diplomatic channels” to convey its wishes to Kim Jong-un’s regime.  But China adopted a similar stance with regard to Pyongyang’s last nuclear test, as well as the test of a long-range ballistic missile.  Unfortunately, Beijing’s latest expression of opposition is not likely to fare better than previous efforts. Both Kim and his father, Kim Jong-il, defied China’s wishes and conducted such tests.  If that weren’t enough, North Korea also attacked the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and shelled a South Korean island.  Although Beijing was clearly unhappy about such incidents, it did not prevent Pyongyang’s dangerous, destabilizing conduct.

Because China provides North Korea with a majority of its food and energy supplies, Pyongyang would seem to be highly vulnerable to pressure from Beijing.  But a decision by China to employ maximum economic power to impose its will on the North Korean regime would also require a willingness to incur grave risks. Bringing such pressure to bear could cause the North Korean state to unravel. Not only would that development produce a massive refugee crisis (and possibly a civil war) on China’s border, but North Korea’s demise would obliterate a crucial geographic buffer between the Chinese homeland and the U.S. sphere of influence throughout the rest of Northeast Asia.  Few Chinese leaders want to risk that outcome.

At West Point, Obama Seeks to Reassure Foreign Policy Elite

Foreign policy in the United States is an elite sport. Unless there is a big Iraq- or 9/11-style disaster, the public mostly ignores foreign policy, because it can. The United States is extremely safe, but it runs an expansive, ambitious grand strategy that keeps elites busy and the public largely uninvolved. President Obama will give a speech tomorrow at West Point defending his foreign policy and answering elites who have begun to grow bored with it.

The president seems to view foreign policy mostly through a domestic political lens. While he opposed an Afghanistan surge, he ordered one anyway, likely for fear of the domestic political implications of defying the generals’ request for more time and more troops. Ideologically, Obama fancies himself a realist in the mold of Reinhold Niebuhr, although no actually-existing realists think his policies resemble realism. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama found himself particularly captivated by an essay from Robert Kagan—a neoconservative Romney adviser—that urged Americans to wade ever more deeply into world politics. If there were any doubt that the two political parties agree on U.S. foreign policy, Obama’s accord with Kagan should have demolished it.

But the president has begun to irritate both the right and left halves of the foreign policy establishment by declining to intervene more forcefully in Syria and in Eastern Europe. Obama will likely play to nationalist themes in his speech tomorrow, reassuring the foreign policy elite that he endorses their project and explaining to Americans that their special place and special responsibilities in the world necessitate a costly, globe-girdling grand strategy. News reports indicate the administration is contemplating sending anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian opposition, and that the president will criticize Russian behavior in Ukraine during an upcoming trip to Europe. In addition, the foreign policy establishment has breathed a collective sigh of relief with the announcement that the president will keep nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond his previously-announced 2014 withdrawal date.

Regular Americans should view the speech for what it is: a cynical sop to the insular clique of Beltway elites who view themselves as the vicars of liberalism on earth, and the rightful possessors of hundreds of billions of American tax dollars to do with what they will.

Being Realistic about Spheres of Influence

Prominent foreign policy practitioners in both political parties now denounce the notion that we should expect major countries in the international system to establish and defend spheres of influence in their immediate neighborhoods. Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s secretary of state, made that point explicitly in response to Moscow’s 2008 military intervention in Georgia. She scorned the notion of Russian primacy along the perimeter of the Russian Federation as the manifestation of “some archaic sphere of influence.” Secretary of State John Kerry embraces similar views. In November 2013, he even declared that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” thus rhetorically renouncing a U.S. foreign policy staple that is nearly two centuries old. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Kerry asserted that “you don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth century fashion” by invading a neighbor.

As I argue in a recent article in Aspenia Online, that attitude is both unrealistic and hypocritical. While geographic factors are not as important to national security as they once were, they are far from being irrelevant. Barging into the neighborhood of another major power is still going to be viewed as a menacing act, regardless of any reassurances that the intruding country might give.

Moreover, the current U.S. position is more than a little hypocritical. Washington has firmly resisted Russia’s attempt to re-establish even a limited sphere of influence in Eastern Europe or Central Asia. Likewise, the United States has rebuffed China’s bid to establish a dominant role in the South China Sea. Yet Washington has intervened militarily as recently as the 1980s (Grenada and Panama) or even the 1990s (Haiti) within its traditional sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. U.S. leaders also have looked on benignly as a key ally, France, has repeatedly intervened in its former colonial holdings in Africa. Washington’s highly selective opposition to spheres of influence threatens to damage relations with Moscow, Beijing, and other capitals.

The United States and its allies need to adopt a more realistic and accommodating policy. Whether U.S. policymakers wish to acknowledge it or not, spheres of influence still play a important role in international affairs, and will continue to do so in the coming decades.

Instead of attempting to defy that reality, U.S. leaders should focus on getting major powers to exercise more subtlety in managing their spheres of influence. That goal at least has a reasonable prospect of being achieved. Such an approach might not fulfill idealistic aspirations regarding international behavior, but it would be a workable arrangement to minimize great power tensions. The current U.S. stance is doing the opposite.